Tone of Voice for HR Tech Content: The Blockbuster Guide
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Tone of voice is the difference between coming, coming and coming. As in, “God mum! Stop it already, I’m coming”, “Yep, one mo; just coming” and “Jesus Christ, don’t stop, I’m…”. Well. Exactly.
It’s fundamental to your message. Or, more precisely, it’s fundamental to how your message is heard – which means it’s fundamental to how you’re perceived.
Are you likeable? Trustworthy? Confident? Interesting? Or are you a bit of a knob?
Tone of voice dictates how people see your business – which decides whether they become customers. In the hyper-competitive HR technology ecosystem, that’s a big deal.
Let’s unpick that, first.
Then I’ll share the five overarching principles that ALL good tone(s) of voice(s) have in common, HR tech content or not.
Then six tactics to decide what your unique tone of voice actually looks like.
And then five tips to deliver that across your business, even if you’ve got loads of audiences, segments, departments and people.
Tone of voice matters because…
…. it’s how you differentiate
HR tech is crazy crowded. Investors have put $2Bn into the market over the past couple of years, and legacy giants face constant new competition. Bersin by Deloitte values the HR technology market at $400Bn, to give a sense of scale.
And product isn’t a differentiator. At least, not for the vast majority of HR technology businesses. Which probably includes you, even if your stakeholders won’t admit it.
Tone of voice is. Or at least, it can be.
Think of a competitor. Go. Now go to their site, to their blog. Now think of another competitor. Open a new browser and go to their blog. Done?
Look at them side-by-side. How do they write? Because I’m betting if you ignore the branding, they’re almost completely identical. And both crap.
Now imagine you’re a paying customer, comparing two HR tech suppliers. Don’t you want to be not the same? Not crap? You can do that with tone of voice.
… it’s how you build rapport
Way back when, people traded stuff for other stuff, probably to eat. Then there was money, then there was human-to-human selling. For thousands of years.
Then, for a comparatively microscopic amount of time, there’s been the internet. And content has stepped into the role a human would’ve had. Often a huge chunk of the B2B sales process now relies on written content.
Your content has become your sales rep. And at last check, dull, carbon-copy sales reps don’t make many sales.
Tone of voice is your personality. It shows your customer who you are. Which is how you build rapport. Build trust. Build influence. Which is how you nurture them along the sales cycle.
Which is when you make more money.
… it’s how you disqualify bad eggs
I’ve worked with loads of start-ups who in the early days tend to share one common philosophy: there’s no such thing as a bad customer. Because it’s all so exciting.
All that blood, sweat and tears getting a product to market, and people finally want to buy it.
Except, not always.
Some customers, frankly, are more pain than they’re worth. They come on board and they don’t get it. They can’t do it. Their team don’t like it. They whinge, constantly.
They harangue your customer success people, who neglect other customers because loud is easy to confuse with important. (Hello Eisenhower matrix).
And then sometimes they leave, perhaps before they’ve justified your cost-per-acquisition and certainly ballsing-up your value projections.
Which all means, you don’t want those people. And the best way to tell them is tone of voice.
Tone of voice is a siren call for your ideal customers – and leads everyone else to the rocks. (Wait. Didn’t everyone who heard the sirens end up on the rocks? Hm. Well. You get the picture).
That’s why tone of voice matters. Here’s how you do it.
How to get tone of voice right
Getting tone of voice right has two parts.
First, the bit where you choose the right tone of voice for your business. Then the bit where
you implement effectively across your different audiences, segments and departments.
1. Choosing the right tone of voice
There are some overarching principles that every good B2B tone of voice has in common, HR
Clarity. Clarity trumps everything. HR tech people sometimes struggle to communicate so they’re easily understood, because they’re talking about technical and complicated subjects. Turning complex into clear is B2B content’s number one job. And challenge.
Authenticity. You do you. Because the alternative is being fake. Which means being insincere, and people don’t like insincerity. They feel you’re just trying to take their money. Even the driest, most corporate B2B business is building a universe – your voice is your collective world view.
Consistency.** If you’re chirpy and effusive today but forthright and pithy tomorrow, you’ve got a split personality problem. Which is better than a no personality problem. You know, where you’re dry and corporate today, tomorrow and the day after that. But not by much.
**Consistency doesn’t mean you can’t flex, by the way. Tone of voice is actually two different things – tone and voice. Your voice is unchanging; your tone is situational. Your voice is what you flex your tone within.
Then Doug Kessler of Velocity adds two more to the list. (His list actually had three including clarity, but I made it my own. Take that, Doug).
Confidence. Show the reader they’re in good hands. Make them feel, you’ve got this. You know what you’re taking about. You can help.
Compelling(ness). If your tone of voice isn’t compelling, it won’t get anyone to take action. And that’s what this B2B content marketing malarkey is all about.
So those five things are your starting point. Then you can start working out the nuance.
Are you… playful and witty, or purposeful and earnest? Cool-headed or hot-blooded? Assertive? Methodical?
Here’re some pointers to work that out.
Define your worldview
Tone of voice isn’t an isolated thing. It’s your worldview. Your values. Your mission. It’s fashionable to talk about purpose these days, and that’s relevant too.
So go back to those things. Ask the leadership team. Ask your people. That’s the starting point for a great conversation about tone of voice. When you know who you are, you can better decide how to present that self to the world.
Reflect your customers
When we say tone of voice is like personality, we anthropomorphise business. Which is great, but it only goes so far. Like, in real life I’d stand mostly by the advice to fuck the haterz. You’re you, that’s that.
That’s a bit true for HR tech businesses (see above RE: disqualifying bad eggs) but your brand voice needs to be much more tethered to perception.
So don’t decide your tone of voice in an echo-chamber.
What do your customers care about? How do they talk?** Imagine your ideal customers are a clique you want to join. How do you show you’re one of them? How do you become likeable to those specific people?
** You’ll hear people say you should avoid jargon. That’s reductive. You should use the same jargon that your audience use. You’re an insider, remember. (That’s not an excuse to embed jargon in dense, horrible sentences though, mind).
Watch the competition
Watch doesn’t mean copy. It can mean copy. Well. Not so much copy as learn from. If you like or dislike something, unpick why. Reverse engineer it.
Watch how competitors talk to your audience – and how your audience respond. That’s crucial because it tells you what your audience already know. Which tells you where to pitch your messaging.
Look at the stats
Even if you haven’t pinned down tone of voice yet, your brand still communicates. So look back-end at what’s hitting versus missing the mark.
In the context of your target audience, though, yeah? Punslinging and other social savagery is
almost guaranteed to drive social media engagement – but engagement from the wrong people is a pyrrhic victory.
Don’t confuse professionalism with complexity
You’re writing B2B tech content. Of course you talk about complex technical things. You have to use a certain measure of complex technical language.
But that doesn’t mean you need to write in a complex technical way – that’s not professionalism.
When people do, it’s often insecurity. They want to make doubly-sure they belong, so they namedrop complex things. Think like Einstein, who apparently** said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
** Never trust internet quote attribution
Don’t try too hard
“Being brilliantly normal is hardest of all”, a clever man** once wrote.
**That clever man is Nick Parker, who’s strictly “a competitor” but also a mad genius with oodles to say about tone of voice. So here’s a link to his cool guide/e-book on tone of voice.
Because here’s the thing. If you‘re a super quirky start-up selling a new way of doing things, your tone of voice should reflect that.
But maybe you’re a well-established HRIS provider who’ve built a business around being safe, solid and steadfast. That’s a personality too, you know. You don’t have to throw that to the wind just because social media.
Not everyone in HR tech is cool, sexy and new. Be you, just in a clear, authentic, consistent,
confident, compelling way.
2. Putting tone of voice into action
Presenting a clear, authentic, consistent, confident, compelling tone of voice can be difficult, especially if you’re a big business.
Or even in small business. I was helping an HR tech start-up launch their job app last year and although they knew exactly what their tone-of-voice was, they struggled to implement consistently.
Their business model rested on getting an MVP out fast, then testing and refining fast. So we were launching updates weekly – and one person wrote the press release, someone else the app store updates, someone else the in-app copy, etc.
Whether you have eight people or 800, managing tone of voice consistently across different people is hard. But here are 5 tips.
Create a tone of voice guide
It’ll be more useful if it’s short, because people won’t be intimidated to re-read it (which is key to, you know, actually using it).
And include examples – good and bad, rewritten. Pull from your own content ecosystem if you can (no naming and shaming), as well as examples from the wider HR tech landscape (or even wider still – tone of voice knows no boundaries).
Add a phrase list
You need people to understand the spirit of your guide, but you’ll also have some hard and fast rules. Like… ‘we never swear’. Or… ‘you can say ‘bloody’ but not ‘fuck’’.
One tone doesn’t fit all. Make your guide actionable by splitting it by audience, department, occasion, medium and format.
So your people can confidently express your intelligent, straightforward voice in a situation-appropriate way, whether they’re announcing a product update or handling a customer complaint or publishing a whitepaper or building an infographic.
You can’t expect your people to immediately get it. You can rattle off ‘we’re THIS but not THAT’’s without thinking twice, but that’s only because you’ve been through the whole difficult and time-consuming process.
Bring those hard-won phrases to life, off the page, so people feel confident enacting them.
Prioritise tone of voice
Don’t abandon your tone of voice guide in a dusty corner of your intranet. Or your people will deduce (probably correctly) that you only jumped on the tone of voice bandwagon because you knew you should.
Make tone of voice an active conversation, and make your people accountable. Create targets. Manage performance around tone of voice. Send reminders, and fresh examples.
Make your HR tech voice heard
Tone of voice matters, and it matters a lot. It’s how you differentiate in the hyper-crowded-and-getting-more-so HR tech landscape. It’s how to ensure your content resonates (as opposed rings hollow).
Choosing – and implementing – the right tone of voice is hard. But it’s not the unsolvable equation you might think. Stick to the principles in this guide and frankly, you’ll already be doing better than the vast majority of B2B businesses.
And if you’re still a bit stuck? Now’s the call-to-action. Get us at 01223 455 186 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or check out our bloody awesome eBook, to learn how to build B2B buyer personas that guide your tone of voice decisions.