Ellen de Vries
Ellen de Vries
11th August 2016

Creating a fresh tone of voice is about discovering the formula for the most colourful chemical reaction between visuals, language and the strategic intent at the heart of it all.

'Tone of voice' is not just language. 'Brand' is not just imagery. And that grey corporate, strategic language is always in terrible danger of leaking through into the final product. Binding these elements together to tell an evocative story is the ultimate challenge for any website.

To discover those alchemical reactions between visual language, brand language and strategic intent, we put a UXer, a designer and a content strategist in a room together for a day.

A tiny lesson: The ripping exercise

Here’s a step by step account of one of the activities we used during the day.

1. Gather up a set of magazines, some of which you feel have affinity with your brand, some of which are total wild cards. 

We used National Geographic, Wired, New Scientist, Womankind, Monocle and Better Health.

2. Establish a question that you’re hoping to answer with this exercise. 

Our question was “How do we show individuals solving problems?”.

3. Allow your team to spend time ripping out anything and everything that sparks their imagination, from the profound to the downright silly.

Bearing the question in mind, we made notes on the images with post-it notes.

4. Ask the team to group the images according to relevance. Do it out loud.

Everyone grouped their ripped up pieces into people and processes, with a grey area in between. We spoke about our groupings out loud.

5. Harvest their language as you go.

As we spoke about our choices, wild and wonderful language emerged - almost by accident. This language serves as an authentic starting point for the tone of voice.

Show, don't tell

In almost every project I’ve worked on as a content strategist, there has been a strong temptation to ‘tell’ the brand strategy on the website (or whatever service it is). Your strategy is fundamental, yes, but utterly lacking in ability to engage an audience. You need to paint the picture. Evoke the concept. Bring it alive. This is something magazines do brilliantly.

Transposing reality onto the ideas

It’s all very well to develop wonderful visuals, and to think of language that hits readers between the eyes. 

But once you’ve done the wild creativity, you need to think of your resources, the reality of your story. What are the facts that you have you got to work with?

We began to transpose the real stories, with real people, and real problems onto the ripped up concepts we had gathered to see how they worked.

To keep the storytelling fresh we also asked each other these questions:

1. What do you really love about this?

2. What is the finest, most lovable detail?

Outputs from the day

By the end of the day we were exhausted, but we made a concerted effort to finish the day with some convergence. 

We brought the results together so that we could use them in the next stages of the site design:

1. We discovered a set of design and content principles

2. We harvested a healthy set of tone of voice phrases that form the starting point for tone of voice development

3. We had a set of sketched out concepts which gave the designer something to play with

4. We had shared investment in several story elements that form ingredients for the website

And you?

Have you worked on your tone of voice? Have you got suggestions for activities? Or questions to ask? 

If you’re interested in hearing more about the process, drop me a line: ellen@clearleft.com.