Think about those nearest and dearest who you communicate with regularly. WhatsApp, text messages, emails; we’re using written communication more than ever. And through these forms of communication, you quickly become familiar with your friends and family members’ individual tone of voices. We’ve all got that one friend who sends the message staccato style, in 34 separate missives and the family member who signs off every text with a very formal ‘best wishes’. I don’t know about you but I am pretty confident I’d know pretty quickly if someone else was writing these messages- you’d recognise that the familiar tone was off.

This is all a roundabout way to say, tone of voice matters. We soak it up as we read. It helps convey personality, values and instils a sense of cohesion and comfort. It’s unnerving if someone is always cracking jokes and making sarcastic remarks, to suddenly switch tack and become very serious. How do you know if they’re being truthful?

Adele Baxby Meehan

Consumer brands will invest lots of time and money to get their tone of voice right. Innocent Drinks’ quirky and humorous tone is often held up as an example of a strong, recognisable brand voice which exists everywhere – from the bottles’ small print right through to the website’s 404 error page (which features a video to an ‘808 jam’ on a drum machine).  Starbucks have their tone of voice guidelines online which detail how and when they use functional and expressive language. MailChimp’s excellent brand style guide distinguishes between its voice and tone, explaining ‘We prefer the subtle over the noisy, the wry over the farcical. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.’ The guide goes on to list how their voice should change depending on the tone and who they need to speak to – from how to write a Tweet to their legal content.

But it’s not just consumer brands that should invest in their tone of voice – law firms need to think about it too and for two reasons. I recently wrote about the importance of being human, a theme which reared its head time and time again throughout The Lawyers Marketing Summit, as attendees discussed marketing post-pandemic and the importance of showing clients and members of staff a more personal, relatable side of the firm as a whole. Another key issue which was discussed in detail at a previous Marketing Summit was how law firms can make their voices heard in a busy, saturated market. A strong and definable tone of voice can help in both of these respects.

But going back to basics, what is a tone of voice? Simply put, it’s how you say it – not what you say. Are you the type of firms to write ‘best wishes’ at the end of each text or include three kisses? Do you deliver lots of little messages for a longform one? A firm’s tone of voice helps to communicate its values, personality and connect with clients. A cohesive tone of voice helps build trust and can help elevate a firm’s positioning. In my experience, many firms will have extensive brand guidelines, detailing how the firm should look to the wider world with fonts, logos and colour palettes. But how they should sound is often neglected.

I am not suggesting law firms start cracking jokes and posting horoscopes on their websites (Innocent Smoothies again) but it’s important firms think about their tone of voice and how it communicates the sort of firm they are. Do you say clients are at the heart of everything you do? Does your firm’s tone of voice really communicate that? And this isn’t just an exercise for big law firms – small firms could really benefit from defining their tone of voice and working on a brief guide – it’s a good way to induct new lawyers, especially when you’re encouraging everyone to write blog posts and update social media on behalf of the firm. A tone of voice guide can also help make a firm sound more human. In the world of professional services, it’s often easier to make things sound very, well, professional. But does this engage the target audience? A tone of voice guide which encourages a more human, but still appropriate, voice, is certainly no bad thing.

Adele Baxby Meehan is the creative and content director at Kysen PR.