Most authors know the importance of tone and voice. Both affect how the reader perceives not only the information you’re providing but also you as a writer.
Tone and voice matter in the business world, too.
What is the difference between tone and voice? And how can you harness the power of tone and voice in your business? Let’s dig in.
Tone vs. voice: what’s the difference?
In a written work, tone is a window into a writer’s “attitude toward the subject matter or audience,” according to the Literary Devices website.
A character in a book conveys a certain tone; so might the author of the book.
Voice, on the other hand, is a writer’s trademark characteristic that comes across on the page.
Here’s how MasterClass defines voice: “the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner.”
It’s easy to see how you might confuse tone for voice.
Think of it this way: voice is your personality as a writer or brand. Tone takes that personality a step further and changes based on your needs.
Take the New York Times. The newspaper has always had an authoritative and informative voice, but its tone changes depending on the topic. Its story about what summer tastes like in America takes a warm, nostalgic tone while an article on the pandemic learning loss has a more serious, thoughtful tone.
Tone and voice both relate to how the writer or brand comes across to its audience. Voice is a constant and tone is the variable that changes with each piece or campaign.
How important is tone vs. voice in writing?
In writing, your voice shouldn’t fundamentally change. Always try to sound like yourself. Unless you’re going through an entire rebranding, the same is true for business. But your voice as a writer or a brand can grow and mature over time, just like a person’s literal voice does.
Tone, which you can compare to your mood on any given day, can vary in your writing.
Tips for finding your voice
Ask yourself these questions as you work to strengthen your voice:
- What three words would you use to describe yourself as a writer?
- How do the people in your life describe your writing style?
- Look around at your favorite books, articles, even movies or TV shows: which voices resonate most with you?
The answers will help you become aware of your voice as your writing skills mature.
Tips for developing your tone
When it comes to tone, ask yourself the same questions specific to what you’re writing:
- What three words would you use to describe the tone of your piece — compassionate? Direct? Funny?
- What three words do other people use to describe the piece?
- Take a look at similar pieces of writing and ask yourself: which tone or mixture of tones do you want to emulate?
It’s always helpful to get an uninvested third party to take a look at your writing and answer the second question. Your mom might think your writing voice is lovely, but it might come across as dry or distracting to someone who doesn’t know you.
Regardless of how distinct your voice is, if your tone is grating, aggressive, or vague, you’re not likely to engage your audience. You may even unintentionally put them off.
This is why it’s critical to differentiate between tone vs. voice and to get an objective critique.
More on how to get that outside feedback in a moment.
How do tone and voice work with mood?
Like tone, mood goes under the “voice” umbrella, in that voice is the constant under which tone and mood can change.
Each piece of writing should have a distinct mood (or moods) that places the reader in a certain atmosphere or evokes certain feelings.
If you’ve read a horror story and were scared enough to keep the lights on at night, you’ve experienced the power of mood.
If tone is the attitude the writer or character takes in a piece, mood is the emotional atmosphere the author creates.
Mood can shift within a piece of writing. Maybe it starts with an air of sorrow that shifts to joy. Or it begins with a serious mood that’s punctured with humor.
Think of voice, tone, and mood this way:
- Voice should be constant across all writing — it’s the author’s personality shining through.
- Tone should be constant across a single piece of content.
- Mood can shift and change within a piece.
Why do tone and voice matter in business?
You might be thinking, I’m not a writer. Why does my voice, tone, or mood matter to my business?
So much of branding is about crafting a certain character, the right tone, and a mood to match. Brands large and small must cultivate voice, tone, and mood in each piece of communication that goes out to its audiences.
Examples of tone vs. voice in business
Starbucks is so dedicated to its branding that it devotes a page on its website to the Starbucks voice.
Starbucks uses two voices: “functional” and “expressive.” Its functional voice is “used primarily for wayfinding and ordering, [and] this copy is so seamlessly integrated that it calls attention to the product — not itself. Functional doesn’t mean sterile; it means clear.”
The company’s expressive voice, on the other hand, is “where our brand personality unfurls with day-making thoughts. We use expressive moments on focal products to present a product truth in a fresh, relevant, interesting way.”
Below, you’ll see an example of the brand’s functional copy on the left and expressive copy on the right.
Both images show off Starbucks’s brand voice: friendly, personal, informative.
And both play with words and phrases such as “Notes from the cupping room” and “So much yes.”
We’d argue that the tone in the image on the left is informative, while the tone in the righthand image is breezy, summery, and fun.
Here’s another example of voice and tone, this one from tech giant Apple:
On the left, Apple’s tone is playful and confident. On the right, it’s more informative, delivered in Apple’s signature voice.
The biggest brands think carefully about the tone and voice of each piece of writing they put out there. So should you.
How to develop your brand voice
To develop your brand voice, ask yourself these questions with your brand’s goals at the forefront:
- What three words would you use to describe your brand?
- How do customers — and potential customers — describe your brand?
- Look around at your favorite brands and your competitors: which voices resonate most with you?
Remember how we mentioned how important feedback is when you’re writing? PickFu is the perfect tool for gathering unbiased feedback that will help you develop your brand voice, along with the tone and mood of your copy.
Test your voice and tone on a target audience
Take a look at what a PickFu user did in this survey. Targeting an audience of Amazon Prime members, the user wanted to know which of the two emails below would make them more willing to leave a product review.
In essence, the user was asking consumers to evaluate the tone of the email. Was it too friendly? Not friendly enough? Too needy?
Here’s what some of the 50 respondents said:
“I feel that Option B is more sincere and humble. Option A sounds business-like.”
“I chose [Option] B because I was asked by the person and not told to write a review. I feel like they value my time more and gave me more of a choice in choosing to write a review or not.”
“[Option] B sounds more natural and friendly. [Option A] sounds like a canned message.”
Overall, respondents seemed to appreciate the warmer, less straightforward tone.
Tone vs. voice: A recap
Whether you’re an established brand or a startup, take the time to ask your target audience to evaluate your copy. What do they think of your voice? Is the tone appropriate? Then use their feedback to polish your content.
Nailing your voice is important whether you’re building apps, designing ads for social media, working on a product pitch, or writing the “About Us” page on your website.
Save yourself the headache of unintentionally turning off customers by split testing your copy or asking for open-ended feedback using PickFu. It will help you develop a consistent and strong brand voice not to mention a devoted customer base, hopefully for years to come.