Finding and Defining Your Website's Voice and Tone

When you don’t have a clearly defined voice and tone strategy for your website, your website is communicating the wrong message to your visitors. Instead of greeting them with a unique message full of context and information they can relate to, your website instead says:

"We don't really understand who you people are... in fact we don't really understand who we are either."


Why is this? If you don't take the time to understand your users you won't be able to communicate effectively with them. Sometimes the terms you're used to using internally don't always resonate with your audience. They may use a different vocabulary or expect to be spoken to in a more casual or professional tone. Additionally, if you don't know how to communicate who you are as a company you will not make a strong and memorable impression on your audience.

Voice and Tone? What’s the difference?

Voice is your how you describe your company’s brand. It stays consistent throughout your site and across your various personas. Tone is a subset of voice that changes based on the audience and context. This means while your voice will remain the same, your tone changes throughout your content depending on who the information is for, where it lives, and where the user is in their buyer’s journey.

Finding and Defining Your Website’s Voice and Tone:

There are some great voice and tone exercises you can do as a group, or with a web design company you’ve hired, to help you figure out the best voice, tone and language in which to communicate with your users. This will help create an enjoyable experience that they will remember in a positive light.

Exercise #1: This But Not That

Some examples of “this but not that.” We would describe our company voice as:

  • Fun but not childish
  • Clever but not silly
  • Confident but not arrogant
  • Casual but not sloppy
  • Helpful but not overbearing
  • Authoritative but not bossy

A great example of a company that does this well is MailChimp. MailChimp’s Voice and Tone Guidelines clearly explain that their voice “is human. It’s familiar, friendly, and straightforward.”

For example, MailChimp says “We’re experts, but not bossy. We wouldn’t say:
 You must login before you are allowed to view your stats. Instead, we’d say:
 Looking for your stats? Log in to MailChimp.”

They have an interactive guide for how their tone changes based on context. They make sure to be aware of the user’s feelings and use language that is clear even if it sacrifices a bit of entertainment value. For MailChimp, clarity is paramount.


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Exercise #2: Voice and Tone Slider

Take some terms your website might use and have team members place them on the slider based on where they think the term falls between adjectives from exercise #1.


                      1      2       3       4       5        6       7       8       9       10

professional ------------------------------------------------------------------------  stuffy

fun               ------------------------------------------------------------------------  childish

laid back      ------------------------------------------------------------------------  unprofessional

clever          ------------------------------------------------------------------------  stuffy

detailed       ------------------------------------------------------------------------  perfectionists


Here are a few terms to place on the sliders:

Let’s Chat, Discuss, Connect, Get It, Download Now, Request, Ask, Inquire, Trial, Sample, Learn More, Contact Us, Get in Touch, Set up a Meeting

The Long and Short of It

Long words may sound stuffy, but they are very precise. There are few genuine one-syllable synonyms for words such as ‘altruistic’ or ‘intuitive’. While you can get rid of them to sound more casual, you’ll have to rephrase and your copy will be a bit longer. If you’re going for short copy and simple words you risk losing some meaning or clarity. Conversely, if you use the most precise language you possibly can, some sense of friendliness will be lost. You want to consider which words align most closely with your organization’s voice and the tone for the given situation since it’s a trade-off either way. Take the time to decide what wording is appropriate and your users will thank you by engage more with your content!

Framing the Message

When writing new copy it’s also important to consider how you’re framing your message. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this positive or negative?
  • Is this loss-framed or gain-framed? Are we referencing risk or reward?
  • Is this action-oriented or passive?
  • More generally, what associations are brought to mind with this message?

One example I like is how a deli might advertise that a type of turkey is “95% fat free.” This sounds healthy, whereas “only 5% fat” might sound unhealthy because it emphasizes the existing fat. If you’re buying a lottery ticket does it feel better to know you have a 10% chance of losing or a 90% chance of winning?

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Don’t Forget to Remember to Be Clear

This subheading was a bit confusing wasn’t it? Instead of saying “don’t forget to remember to be clear” I could just as easily have said “remember to be clear” or “don’t forget to be clear.” Look at your copy and ask yourself “is this really clear to a new user?” If it could it be confusing, misleading, or misinterpreted then it needs to be reconsidered. Poor copywriting can be almost impossible to spot if you know too much about your product or service. The moment you know the right way to interpret the text, you’re cursed by your existing knowledge and unable to spot ambiguity. Consider this example from iTunes:



If the user clicks “continue” it is unclear if the files will be transferred or if the update will begin and the purchases might be lost. To solve this problem, they could have had the two buttons simply say “update anyway” or “transfer files” to remove doubt for the users.

According to Oli Gardner’s 4 Corners of Conversion, “clarity is probably the single biggest factor in posts.” A lot of times, the most clear information falls in the subheading on a page rather than the heading. Take this example:


Image via: Understanding the Intersection of Copy, Design, Interaction and Psychology 

At first glance, the heading isn’t very clear. It addresses an issue but doesn’t describe what the product or service does. However, if you were to swap the subheading copy with the heading you’d have a much more clear page.

Call-to-Action Copy:

When it comes to call-to-action copy, first and foremost your calls to action should use action-oriented language. Imagine that! What I mean by action-oriented language is that the copy should begin with a verb like “download” or “call.”

In addition, I like to consider the WYLT-IWLT (pronounced “wilty-wilt”) test. This stands for “would you like to? I would like to…” Think about if your CTA copy can be attached to the ends of these phrases and still make sense. For example if we took the CTA “sign up today” it would pass the test.

Would you like to >>> sign up today?

I would like to >>> sign up today!

Making your CTA perspective-neutral can help people feel a connection with the CTA more easily and can imagine it applying specifically to them. If your copy doesn’t pass the test but you still want to use it, use 1st person pronouns. Instead of “sign up today” try “sign me up.” You can also always consider A/B testing CTA copy to see which version works best. Just remember to only change one variable at a time; don’t go changing the button color at the same time!

Let’s Review: 

  1. Voice is your overall representation of your brand
  2. Tone is a subset of voice that changes based on the situation
  3. You need to clearly define your websites voice and the different tones you may use
  4. Consider how you’re framing your messages
  5. Clarity is key
  6. Use action-oriented language in your CTA copy
  7. Either follow WYLT-IWLT or use 1st person pronouns in your CTA copy

By following these seven simple guidelines you’ll be on your way to having content that accurately represents your brand, communicates clearly with your users in a way that appeals to them, and leads to more conversions from your content.

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