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What is tone of voice?

Everyone has a voice – we use it to communicate. It identifies who we are and makes us easily recognisable.

Organisations, businesses and charities also have their own voices. It is important they do, as it helps people to identify them easily, and to identify with them.

But a voice has another layer – its tone. We adapt the tone of our voice depending on who we are speaking to. Organisations do the same, through the language they use and the way they write.

Why is tone of voice important?

Our tone of voice unifies our brand messaging, helping to improve the way we communicate with our customers and colleagues.

How our content is written has a direct impact on how Kent Fire and Rescue Service is seen. It can affect how content is received by the audience you are hoping to reach – both internally and externally.

Tone of voice allows us to consistently express our brand personality – collaborative, innovative, compassionate, and dedicated – through the words we use. By thinking about what and how we write, it can both enhance our reputation and increase confidence in what we have to say.

Firemen on scene of crash

Writing content – where to start?

Written communications should always be clear, concise, straightforward, honest, open, professional, respectful and accessible.

When writing to customers or each other, be both personal and direct. Our content should be capable of being spoken out loud and making sense. If you stumble over commas, for example, shortening your sentences will help.

When communicating about difficult subjects, the tone should be genuine, showing both understanding and respect. The customer – whether internal or external – should feel they have been positively informed.

If you are writing about complex subjects, use words which are as simple and accessible as possible. Avoid jargon, acronyms and unnecessary technical language.

Key principles

Be concise and conversational

Explain things in a straightforward, clear and concise way, using plain English. That does not mean ‘dumbing down.’ Do not be afraid to give direct instruction or expand a sentence if more detail is needed to explain something. Think of your reader. If it helps, include a link to more information.

Be interesting and engaging

We all come from diverse backgrounds. The way we communicate in writing will need to engage every one of them. Do not judge. Show rather than tell by using examples or facts and figures. Use active language. That means words such as ‘we’ and ‘our’ rather than ‘you’, for example.

Be warm and supportive

Try to reflect the human touch in your writing, giving it warmth and keeping it personable. Empathise with the reader and the emotions they may be feeling, while still remaining professional. If content sounds better coming from someone, check if they are happy to put it in their name.

Child holding the byrnes family activity sheet

Internal vs external tone of voice

Having one universal tone of voice for both internal and external audiences is essential. It helps to keep our communications consistent and aligned with our brand guidelines and values.

The difference between the two is not tone of voice, but the specific needs of the audience. For everyone we communicate with, we want to be working to the same key principles, as set out on page 49. These principles do not change.

We use our tone of voice to help shape all written content. The following examples illustrate how we can use our tone of voice to communicate effectively with our customers and each other.

Key styles of writing

Tone of voice lays the foundations for how we express our brand personality through words. It sets out the standard which all written content should follow – being concise and conversational, interesting and engaging, and warm and supportive.

We can build on this further by thinking more about the specific needs of our internal and external audiences. Sometimes we need to frame the content we produce differently to get the result we want or to take account of the situation we are dealing with.

A marketing email for customers and an internal update on a disciplinary matter will both need to be written in such a way that is easy to understand by their audience (the tone) but the subject matter or circumstance will determine how it is written (audience need).

The language used for writing about a disciplinary matter will be more formal in style than a marketing email but will still be written in such a way that is clear and useful to the reader.

The marketing email can afford to be upbeat, punchy or emotional, because that is the right approach for that circumstance to get the desired result. In both cases the tone can be adjusted to suit the specific audience or circumstance.

When writing content:

  • Think who your content is for.
  • Think how you want your content to be received.
  • Think how it will be received.
  • Think what you want your recipient to think, feel, believe or do as a result of your content.

Write for your audience

The following examples illustrate how we might use our tone of voice in specific circumstances with some broader advice on taking the right approach.

When writing content for our customers on home safety encourage the reader to act in a safe and sensible way rather than telling them what they should do.

Rather than say:

Barbecues can be dangerous. It is important to make sure you follow these guidelines to keep you and your family safe.

Talk to the reader positively and encourage them to read on:

As you get out the barbecue and get ready to have fun with family and friends, don’t forget to follow a few straightforward safety tips to help everyone stay safe.

When communicating with a colleague or an external customer, it is useful to divide emails or letters into several sections – an opening, the message and the departure – as you would do if meeting someone face to face.

The following may be efficient but has no connection with the recipient:

Dear xxx

We are aware of the changes needed and are looking into it. It may therefore take several weeks before the answer is available. We will advise you as soon as the information is received.

Yours faithfully

Instead, structure the email/letter, writing with courtesy as though the recipient were in front of you, dividing it up roughly into the three parts referred to above:

Hello xxxx or Dear xxxx [dependent on your familiarity]

Thank you for your email [telephone call] [letter] of the xx of May, 2020 regarding xxxxxx.

I have made enquiries and hope to be able to provide the information you need within the next two to three weeks. Should there be a further delay I will, of course, let you know immediately.

In the meantime, please feel free to contact me should you require any further information.

With best wishes,

[Your name and job title if appropriate]