Why Style and Tone in Writing Matter (and How To Nail Them for Your Client)
Creating content has become the lynchpin of an effective marketing strategy. Most creators are drowning under the weight of how much content is needed as well as the consistent stream of one looming deadline after another.
When under the pressure to create the next great piece of content, sometimes style and tone in writing get thrown under the bus in exchange for expediency. If writing content that delivers an impactful message to your audience is your goal, you’ll want to recognize tone and style as important elements to master.
What Are Style and Tone in Writing?
Tone and style in content writing are a bit different than they would be for a literary writer. In literature, the writer is expressing him or herself, whereas in content writing the writer needs to express the brand. In effect, content writers are ghostwriters, creating messages that are outside of oneself, giving the brand a personality and voice. It is the tone and style of content writing that concerns us here.
As a content writer chooses the words to use, the tone is the way those words communicate the brand’s personality and how the brand feels about its message. By choosing a tone consistent with the brand, the message will be relevant to the audience and will influence how they feel about the message.
Too often, the definition of tone in relation to a brand is described as “be authentic.” But, if the tone is to define the brand, this advice is too vague and obvious. Authenticity for each brand will be different, leaving the content writer to still uncover what tone is right. Tone is the ‘how’ we communicate with our audience as opposed to the ‘what.’
The Nielsen Norman Group, a leader in user experience has distilled examples of tone down to four dimensions:
- Funny vs. Serious
- Formal vs. Casual
- Respectful vs. Irreverent
- Enthusiastic vs. Matter-of-Fact
Each of these dimensions can be interpreted on a sliding scale and can also include more than one of these dimensions. For instance, a message can land somewhere between funny and serious. It can also be funny and enthusiastic.
To use an exaggerated example: A comedy club can certainly get away with a funny and irreverent tone more successfully than a 100-year-old financial institution. A new completely online financial institution aiming its message to an audience of Gen Z or millennials can develop a more casual and enthusiastic tone. Even though that same 100-year-old financial institution speaks to its Boomer or Gen X audience in a different tone, it may be saying the same thing — trust your money to us.
Here is an example of tone choices relating to the example above through the about page of both Citibank, one of the oldest banking institutions in the U.S., and the about page of Ally, an online-only bank:
- Citi Bank: While we’re a global bank, our mission is simple: We responsibly provide financial services that enable growth and economic progress.
- Ally Bank: Doing it right is the core of who we are. We’re making banking smarter and simpler while serving our communities.
Citibank’s tone is more formal and matter-of-fact, while Ally’s is more casual. Citi mentions responsibility and economic progress, and language more in line with an older generation. Ally mentions simplicity and community service which are more aligned with younger generations.
Writing Commons, a go-to online resource for writers and researchers defines style as “how a text is composed — its diction, grammar, use of mechanics, sentence structure, and tone. It’s the literary element of how the writer chooses and uses words and puts it together to convey mood, meaning, and context.
Just as people make assertions and assumptions about visuals such as what a person is wearing, style guides your audience toward a desired interpretation or personality. A content writer who does not think about style carefully runs the risk of having the reader respond in a way the writer did not intend.
Strunk & White, in their book, Elements of Style writes, “a careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge…” While this book is in almost every writer’s library, this statement has exceptions, especially when the writer is not expressing his or her own personality or point of view. They are representing the brand through their words.
It is also useful for writers to understand that when writing content there will be the need to adopt different ways of expressing a point on social media or a white paper than when writing a letter to a family member. Audience and publication type need consideration and can elicit different styles:
- Narrative writing is useful when developing a feature story or crafting a speech.
- Descriptive writing is a good choice when communicating details as in product descriptions or creating a sense of place in destinations.
- Persuasive style can be helpful when writing an op-ed or sales copy.
- Expository is the style to adopt when explaining a process or informing an audience. How To’s and FAQs are good examples of when to use this style.
- Creative writing is probably the style used least in content writing but is helpful when writing humorously.
Style is what will distinguish one brand from another through the writer’s choice of words, grammar, voice, and sentence structure.
Using 404 pages, here are some examples of how different brands express their style:
Style vs. Tone
Style and tone might sound similar to many writers, but they are not. And, one cannot choose between style and tone when creating content that expertly connects with your target audience and guides them where you want them to go.
The tone is an element of style.
It’s one of the choices a writer has when making different style choices. Tone can change according to the purpose of the writing and the audience. For instance, when writing an email you might take a different tone with someone you don’t know well then you would with someone you’ve known for years.
Style should remain consistent across all messaging as this communicates your brand’s personality.
Creating a Content Writing Guide for Brands
Because in most companies, content is being written by multiple people in multiple departments, a content or style guide is an effective way for brands to be able to maintain control and consistency. Consistent use of style and tone helps a brand connect with its audience(s) by:
- Differentiating your brand from competitors.
- Building relationships and trust through the communication of shared values.
- Delivering relevant messages over time that reinforce consumer expectations and needs.
A guide will also help all those involved in developing content by:
- Aligning messaging across all content.
- Increasing productivity as team members have access to a valuable content creation resource that helps answer questions and decreases the number of revisions needed.
- Strengthening the brand through cohesive content that engages the audience.
An example of a well-thought-out guide is one from California State University, Chico. In it, they define who they are and what their style is in tremendous detail. They even have a cheat sheet as a quick reference. Other brands who’ve recognized the importance of a style guide include:
Final Word on Tone and Style
It’s not what you say, but how you say it. I know this is a common adage, but it’s true. All too often, content writers concentrate on the message itself, thinking tone and style are something that comes naturally. But, to build brands that resonate, tone and style must be a vital and carefully crafted part of messaging.
Tone and style will determine how the reader responds to your communication. If the piece of content is humorous and conversational, the reader will relax and enjoy the read. If the piece sounds serious and angry, the reader will become anxious. If the writing has a neutral tone and style, the reader will click and move on.
Whatever your method of tackling tone and style, it’s always best to establish your tone and style in the first sentence and keep it consistent from there.
Deborah was the kid who would rather write book reports and essays than play ball during recess. Although she didn’t score many points with her peers, it did lead to her career creating content for TV, radio, print and new media for companies as varied as Dooney& Bourke, Panera Breads, Visa, SUNY Ulster and Hudson Valley Federal Savings Bank.
She is also a principal of small packages – a digital design company, and past partner/marketing director of whatis.com, the world’s foremost reference on information technology. And, her love of food enabled her to become a contributing editor of both Gourmet Retailer and Food Distribution Magazines.
Deborah has a bachelor degree in fine art from the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford and a masters in higher education administration from Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing, her love of quilting, furry animals, friends, and family sustains her.