Wordy Birdy with red megaphone and words ‘Tone of Voice’

Who’s talking to your website visitors?

When visitors arrive on your website, who’s doing the meet-and-greet?

  • Are they welcoming and friendly?
  • Do they understand what your customer needs?
  • Do they seem likeable and trustworthy?
  • Does it sound like one person or several different people?

All of these factors are determined by your website’s tone of voice — and getting that right is vital.

What is tone of voice?

In copywriting, tone of voice refers to the way your writing ‘speaks’ to your audience.

It’s about the language you use, the rhythm of your words and the personality you want to convey.

Using the right tone of voice will give your words a personality that resonates with your audience. It will make you likeable to them and will build their confidence and trust.

The tone of voice you choose should be appropriate for your business and feel authentic to you.

And it should be used consistently across your website and marketing materials.

How do you define a tone of voice?

Tone of voice is described using adjectives. In my copywriting brief, I usually ask for 3-5 adjectives and give the following list of examples:

Assertive, Assured, Authoritative, Caring, Casual, Chatty, Cheerful, Conservative, Edgy, Enthusiastic, Formal, Fun, Irreverent, Humorous, Nostalgic, Official, Passionate, Playful, Progressive, Provocative, Quirky, Reassuring, Romantic, Serious, Smart, Sympathetic, Traditional, Trustworthy, Upbeat, Understanding, Witty.

There are many variations on these and plenty of other words you could use.

Here are some examples of how different businesses might describe their tone of voice.

Design agency: Fresh, Cool, Creative, Colourful, Enthusiastic

Home security company: Assertive, Authoritative, Trustworthy

Fine dining restaurant: Elegant, Sophisticated, Discerning, Passionate

Day nursery: Friendly, Caring, Responsible, Reassuring, Fun.

When we write copy, we always put the customer first. So these descriptions should be what the customers of these businesses would want or expect to see.

Getting the tone of voice wrong

Sometimes a brand’s tone of voice misses the mark. This might be confusing to potential customers — and it could put them off altogether.

A legal firm that sounds Casual, Edgy and Fun wouldn’t inspire much confidence. And a party planner that sounds Serious, Formal and Authoritative wouldn’t be one you’d choose to throw you a wild celebration.

These are extreme examples. But, on my travels around the web, I see plenty of cases where the tone of voice isn’t working for the brand or its audience.

10 Examples of how NOT to use tone of voice on your website

Here are 10 characters you definitely don’t want speaking to the visitors on your website.

Salesy Simon

The only thing Simon cares about is nailing the sale.

He typically:

  • Uses salesy CTAs too early and too often
  • Talks about we, us and our rather than you and your
  • Uses words like superior and competitive without any context or proof
  • Talks about price or cost rather than value
  • Tells you, rather than shows you, why you need what he’s selling.

But most website visitors don’t like to feel they’re being sold to. Because overt selling like this can seem disingenuous and puts visitors on the defensive.

How to avoid sounding salesy

One of the advantages of shopping online is being able to browse freely, weigh up the facts and come to an informed decision.

Allow visitors to do that by:

  • Being clear on your value proposition
  • Thinking less about selling and more about helping your customer
  • Showing them the benefits and the value of what you’re offering
  • Building a strong case for why they should buy and showing proof.

Grace the Geek

Grace is a master of geek-speak.

She uses terms like data mining, data visualisation and data architecture and assumes website visitors will know what she’s talking about.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if the company’s target customers were geeks, too.

But they’re not. And when they visit the website they feel blindsided with data science.

How to make your copy more accessible

To make your copy accessible to your target audience, you need to pitch it at the right level.

To do this:

  • Understand who your customers are and the language they’re using
  • Tailor your SEO keywords to ones your customers will use to find you
  • Explain your terminology simply to visitors during their visit.

Professional Preston

Preston is all about sounding professional, which, to him, means Formal, Serious and Authoritative.

But his website visitors find him cold, stiff and boring. He makes the website heavy going and it’s making them switch off and take their business elsewhere.

Even if you’re in a serious industry, your copy can still have warmth, personality and be interesting to read.

How to make your copy more conversational

You can give your copy a lighter and more conversational tone by imagining you’re speaking to your audience rather than writing for them.

To achieve this:

  • Avoid writing anything you wouldn’t say in person
  • Use shorter sentences and short paragraphs
  • Use as few words as possible and make each one count.

Velma the Vague

Velma lacks clarity.

She uses vague words like innovative, solutions and excel and doesn’t provide any context.

The website doesn’t make it obvious what the company does or how it can help them, so visitors leave without buying.

How to make your copy more specific

To resonate with your audience you need to use specific terms, explicit descriptions and measurable proof wherever possible.

Replace vague copy, like innovative, solutions and excel, with:

  • Specific terms that people understand
    If it’s software, say software — not solutions
    If it’s an app, say it’s an app — not a solution
  • Explicit descriptions that explain your offering properly
    Rather than saying it’s innovative, say it’s automation software designed to make you more productive
  • Measurable achievements with proof and numbers
    Rather than saying it helps you excel, say in testing it’s been proven to increase efficiency by 35%.

Presumptuous Peter

Peter presumes too much.

He likes to think he’s intuitive and knows his customers inside out.

So he begins with a serious of you, your and you’re statements, telling you who you are, what your problem is and how you feel about it.

But while he might have a couple of things right, the rest is wrong and entirely his presumption. And the copy that was supposed to be relatable and convincing is vastly missing the mark.

How to avoid presuming too much

Website visitors can find it insulting when brands presume to know everything about them — especially when they get it wrong.

If you want to make your copy relatable, don’t presume your customers are all the same.

Take the time to research how your ideal customers really feel and base your copy on real-life examples.

To do this:

  • Read what real people are saying on forums and in reviews
  • Mirror the points they make and the language they’re using
  • Talk about different scenarios that will be more relatable to more people
  • Introduce each scenario with a maybe or perhaps for cases where it doesn’t apply.

Passive aggressive Pattie

Pattie can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to sign up for her emails and freebies.

So when she launches an intrusive pop-up, she makes the opt-out sound snide and snarky.

Want to sign up for my emails?
No thanks, I already know all there is to know about health and fitness

Want to download my free weight-loss guide?
No thanks, I’m happy with my beer gut

If you’re using a pop-up, you’re probably interrupting someone’s user experience, so they might already be irritated — especially if they were reading your content.

Giving your pop-up an insulting passive-aggressive opt-out may just add to that irritation.

How to avoid annoying your website visitors

Bear in mind that your visitors are probably still reading at this point. And they probably haven’t made their minds up if they like you or trust you enough to hand over their email address.

To avoid annoying — and potentially losing — them:

  • Trigger your pop-up as visitors are about to leave your site
  • Make your pop-up offer as appealing and compelling as you can
  • If you’re including an opt-out, a simple no thanks or maybe later will do.

Robotic Robert

Robert’s tone is monotonous.

His sentences are a similar length. With a similar number of words. And little variation in the rhythm. He sounds like a broken record. Droning on and on and on.

Copy that plods along like this sounds dull, flat and lifeless .

And it’s not pleasant to read — so your readers might not want to read it.

How to avoid robotic-sounding copy

To remedy monotone copy, you need to inject some variety.

To do this:

  • Vary the length of your sentences
  • Create a jolt with an occasional one or two-word sentence
  • Use longer sentences when you know you have your readers’ attention.

Matey Matthew

Matthew’s just like you.

He talks like he knows you. Like he could be one of your best mates on social media.

Like you’re in this together.

He knows what you like, the kind of lifestyle you want, and the kind of person you aspire to be.

And he’s there, cheering you on from the sidelines, with matey banter and relentless championing.

In Matthew’s eyes, everything you do is right — even when it’s not the right thing for you.

He wants you to feel good about yourself — and you will… if you buy what he’s selling.

Unfortunately for Matthew, the trend for brands that sound like your best mate has passed. It’s been overdone to the point that it’s become nauseating.

Proper friendship is a two-way process. So Matthew’s approach often comes across as contrived, manipulative and even a bit creepy.

How to sound friendly without being creepy

Your website copy can be friendly. It can even leave your visitors feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

But you need to set some boundaries.

Remember, they don’t need a mate, they need someone they can trust to guide them.

To do that, you need to:

  • Be honest, truthful and trustworthy
  • Work in your visitors’ best interests
  • Make visitors feel comfortable
  • Give them the confidence to make the best choices.

Banal Brenda

Brenda talks in overused buzzwords and clichés.

She describes your current marketing strategy as flogging a dead horse and says you have to take the tiger by the tail.

And she uses worn-out phrases like low-hanging fruit, blue-sky thinking and thinking outside the box.

Brenda sounds like she’s never had an original idea — which is kind of worrying if you’re entrusting her with marketing your business.

Yes, most people know what these phrases mean. But they also find them intensely irritating and unimaginative.

Avoid using buzzwords and clichés

If you want your brand to sound fresh and original, you need to be aware of these phrases and weed them out.

Talk about these things in new ways that will surprise and delight your audience — not make their eyes roll.

Copycat Colin

Colin’s a quirky guy.

But website visitors feel like they might have heard his voice before. Maybe on another website.

And they probably have.

Because Colin is emulating a brand this company admires and wants to sound like.

The problem is, it doesn’t sound like them. It sounds like Innocent might sound if they opened a shoe shop: incompatible and not at all genuine.

The website visitors don’t know quite what to make of it.

Your tone of voice is your chance to be uniquely you and to demonstrate your originality.

But you can’t do that if you’re basing it on another brand’s personality.

How to be more authentic in your copy

To show some authenticity, you need to think about what makes you, you.

So think about:

  • Your culture and values
  • The image you want to promote
  • What your customers expect from you
  • What you’re delivering for them.

Need some help to give your brand a voice?

I’m Jenny Lucas, a website copywriter with chameleon-like capabilities when it comes to brand tone of voice.

Photo by Matt Glover Photography

I can help you find a true and genuine tone that suits your personality and resonates with your customers.

For more information, visit my main website or get in touch to discuss your needs.