I didn’t appreciate the importance of voice in business writing until I discovered content strategy, a discipline that has emerged and evolved in recent decades to help organizations sort out their big, hairy content messes and manage their content as a business asset.
When I was invited last month to contribute a video to the GatherContent Content Strategy Advent Calendar video series, the topic of voice, well, called to me. Since many of you write for companies, I’m sharing the video, with permission, here. The transcript includes some links that I didn’t spell out in the video.
If you find this video helpful, let me know in a comment, would you? I’d love to know what strikes a chord.
Greetings, content friends. I’m Marcia Riefer Johnston.
S’up, big dog?
Which one of those voices sounds like your company? Does your company even have a voice? The trouble with companies is that they tend to be full of people, and people insist on having separate personalities and distinct voices.(video) Employees have distinct voices. How can your organization have just one voice? Click To Tweet
Thinking about voice is part of any company’s content strategy. And this voice that you define affects every person in your company who’s involved in creating content.
What Is Voice?
What is this thing called voice, anyway? What does it mean to say “your voice” or “your organization’s voice”? It’s a simple concept: it’s the way people talk. That includes the words that you choose when you’re writing or speaking. It includes the syntax—the order of the words. It includes the length of your sentences, it includes the sentence structures, it includes your punctuation, even. It includes the metaphors that you choose.
[Not included in the video: You might have heard voice referred to as tone of voice, voice and tone, or just tone. These terms are often used interchangeably. Some close observers of language usage consider tone a subset of voice. If you’re curious about this distinction, you won’t be able to stop yourself from jumping over to my full definition of voice—specifically, definitions 2 and 3.]
Why Should We Care about Voice?
You might wonder: why do you care? Why does it matter that everyone speak with one voice or at least some consistency throughout the organization? I think about this the way I might think about a friend. How do you know that you want to be friends with someone, that you trust that person, that you want to spend time with that person? Because you get to know who that person is, what that person’s like, what that person is likely to do. Is that somebody that you want to be around? If you can’t get a sense of a person, you can’t decide to be a loyal friend to that person.
The same is true for companies. Companies are looking for loyal customers. Loyal customers are loyal because they get to know a company and trust it and like it and want to spend time and money on that company’s products and services.
How Do You Get an Organization to Speak with One Voice?
How do you make this happen—how do you manage to get everyone in your organization somehow speaking in a consistent way, speaking with one voice? (Speak with One Voice, by the way, is the title of a wonderful e-book on this topic put out by Acrolinx. I have no connection to the company, and I was not involved in creating that e-book.) How in the world do you get a large number of people to do this?
One of the tools—and the reason that I am making this video is to share this tool with you—comes down to adjectives. Specifically, adjective pairs. I learned about this from content strategists who have been doing this for years, including, for example, Margot Bloomstein, who teaches a workshop on this. You can, in fact, buy a card deck from her that has hundreds of [correction: about a hundred] adjectives in it for an exercise that you might want to do with your groups. [Margo expects her card deck to become available sometime in March 2016. If you go to buy a card deck before then, you’ll be treated to one of the most creative 404 pages you’ve ever seen. Talk about an example of voice.]
I’ve also learned from Kristina Halvorson and Meghan Casey of Brain Traffic. They both talk about this approach. Ann Handley, one of my favorite marketing writers, has recently written a wonderful blog post called “Five Keys to Developing a Strong Tone of Voice in Your Content Marketing.” It’s an entertaining and informative post that is full of examples of voice and examples of companies who are using voice in unique ways.
Let’s Play “This, Not That”
The exercise I would like to walk you through now is like a game. We’ll call it “This, Not That.” The way you play is that you gather your stakeholders. Now, people use that term all the time. I would like to clarify what I mean by stakeholder. From experience, I’ve learned that if you don’t have those people in the room with you, helping to make those decisions at the beginning, you may pay for it later. When somebody that cares about those decisions—the words that people use, the voice of the company—was not included, they may later undermine your effort or at least fail to support you. But if they’re part of it from the beginning, not only are they going to contribute and help you make good decisions, but they’ll also be there for you, helping to get the word out, helping to promote the value of what you’re doing—and you want everyone helping you to make this work.
Every game needs a goal. The goal of this game is to come up with four or five adjectives that describe your company’s voice. And they can’t be adjectives like cutting-edge because those are meaningless. They’re not helpful to anyone.
We want to come up with not only the adjectives—the four or five adjectives that describe your organization’s voice—but also, more helpfully, we’ll couple those with adjectives that draw a line and say, well, don’t go that far.(video) How can your organization find its voice? Try the 'This, Not That' game. Click To Tweet
Example: CMI’s Adjective Set
I’m going to choose the adjectives used by CMI, that is, the Content Marketing Institute. I work with that team—I have a great time working with their editorial team—and find these adjectives helpful to me as I’m writing and working with writers. [As I write, CMI is reevaluating its voice description, so by the time you read this, the adjectives listed on its web page may no longer match the ones cited below.]
For starters, we’re looking to be relatable, but not corny. But we need more than one adjective to describe a voice. Like people, organizations are complex.
For CMI, entertaining is part of the voice, but not inappropriate. I guess you would have to define that for yourself.
It won’t help you, by the way, to borrow anyone else’s voice. The value comes in having those conversations with your stakeholders and discovering what’s important within your organization.
Our third adjective for CMI: we want our voice, or the way we talk, to be informative but not academic. Our fourth adjective: authoritative but not pompous. And finally, approachable but not wandering.
If you were closing a video and wanted to give people a final statement, you might consider calling them “colleagues.” You might consider saying, “Hey homies.” Which would fit your voice?
So dudes, get down with your homies. Get your adjectives on. Peace out.
What spoke to you from this discussion of voice? Please let me know in a comment.
- “Empower Your Team to Write with One Voice While Still Sounding Like Themselves” [a Content Wrangler webinar] by Marcia Riefer Johnston
- “A Simple Tool to Guide Tone of Voice” by Kevan Gilbert
- “Circling Ourselves: The Story Behind Asana’s Rebrand” by Micah Daigle
- “Five Keys to Developing a Strong Tone of Voice in Your Content Marketing” by Ann Handley
- “Focus Your Marketing: Define Your 3(ish) Critical Words” by Michele Linn
- “Podcast: Karen McGrane on Content Strategy“—
“Too often, people think that voice only comes through in the actual substance, or maybe, perhaps in the design … One of the strongest ways that that comes through is in the information architecture. It’s in the taxonomy. It’s in the metadata. When I say that, it sounds so wonky that people don’t believe me. The Toast [website] is a great calling card for being able to show how the connective tissue that holds the site together, if done really well, can be one of the strongest ways that you communicate the brand and the voice and the personality of the site.”