In our business we get to see a lot of tone of voice guidance, editorial style sheets and brand guidelines.
We’ve written and contributed to a fair few as well.
The problem is, though, that there’s a lot of confusion about what they are, how they differ, and how they fit together.
So, in this piece we thought we’d explain the difference.
How they fit together
Imagine that your organisation was a person walking into a room for the first time.
Their brand or personality is the general impression they give. The tone of voice is how they come across when they speak, and the editorial style is the finer details of how they present themselves.
So, brand guidelines explain their ‘look’, tone of voice guidance covers the language they use and how they speak, and editorial guidelines covers all the detail they need to know to come across consistently.
Brand guidelines – every successful organisation has a personality: it’s how they look, the impression they make, the way they act and behave, and how they interact and communicate with customers and stakeholders.
The key point here is that all the parts of successful organisations need to behave in the same way, and in a manner that is authentic and consistent, as well as distinctive, credible and (hopefully) likeable and appealing.
These guidelines give you all the details about the brand – how it should appear, be seen and come across, in different settings. They usually focus on visual presentation issues such as the colours to use, and how logos should be applied.
Tone of voice – this describes in detail an organisation’s voice: the language, words, expressions, phrases and intonations it wants to use to communicate, and to reinforce its brand or personality.
Tone of voice is the way that organisations write and speak: not so much what they say, rather how they say it.
Tone of voice is all about how organisations come across to others. Guidelines come in all shapes and sizes, but they are usually overview documents. They aren’t usually a firm set of rules: they are more likely to describe how the organisations wants to come across in writing, giving tips and guidance on the language they use and how to convey different traits or aspects of the brand’s personality. They usually give clear examples of how things could be written (and often how they shouldn’t).
Editorial style guidelines – these really drill down, and give you the detail about what words to use, how they should be spelt and how they should be presented. For instance, they cover the nitty gritty of writing issues such as when to use capital letters; whether to write percent, per cent or %; how to present bullet points, or whether to hyphenate certain words (for instance, is it care-free, or care free?).
Editorial style guidelines are important because they are the rules that ensure that the brand is always presented in the same way. They ensure consistency, whoever the writer is and whatever the circumstances.
There is some overlap between these three important documents. Brand guidelines often contain some tone of voice elements, and editorial style guidelines feature points that help convey tone of voice. However, it’s important to recognise that all three have distinctive roles and purposes, even though they work together to help define and portray successful brands.
More information about our work helping organisations define and develop their tone of voice can be found here.