STC Technical Communication Review of Voice and Tone Strategy

Cover of Voice and Tone Strategy: Connecting with People through Content
Voice and Tone Strategy: Connecting with People through Content is a short book full of practical advice. John Caldwell writes from his experience as lead strategist for products like TurboTax, QuickBooks, and Mint.

He starts by differentiating character, voice, and tone. Character “captures who you are” as a brand. Voice is “the relationship you create with customers” in all the ways you touch those customers. Tone is “about mood” and emotion (p. 3).

You can modify voice and tone for different situations—Caldwell calls this “flexing”—but you must always be consistent with your product’s character (p. 2).

Although Caldwell does not mention it, I’m reminded of the article that Mary Coney and Michaël Steehouder published in Technical Communication 20 years ago: “Role Playing on the Web: Guidelines for Designing and Evaluating Personas Online” (August 2000, 327-340). Coney and Steehouder pointed out that “persona” applies not only to the users of a website but also to the “author persona” of the website—its character, voice, and tone.

Caldwell goes beyond the guidelines that Coney and Steehouder gave us by walking us through a framework for developing and using a voice and tone strategy.

In this framework, you start with a goal: What do you want the voice and tone of the product to achieve? For the goal, Caldwell suggests considering the emotional impact you want to have.

Everything you put into the voice and tone framework must serve that goal. Therefore, you want to get input and then “buy in” from key stakeholders, research industry trends so your goal gives you market advantage, align with your organization’s vision and other goals, and be aspirational—think beyond the current box.

From the goal, Caldwell takes us through four building blocks:

  • Customer needs and desires
  • Voice attributes
  • Voice principles
  • Examples

For each building block, he explains how to gather relevant data, think deeply about the issues, and consolidate and select a useful and usable short list. He also devotes Chapter 6 to “flexing” (modifying) both voice and tone for specific situations.

As writers, we can appreciate how voice and tone influence the messages we send. On page 53, Caldwell gives this example from his work with TurboTax: The old voice said, “TurboTax is as easy as 1, 2, 3.” But understanding how vulnerable people feel when dealing with taxes, Caldwell’s team changed to a new voice that says, “Taxes are complex. But we’ll be by your side to conquer them together.” With that hero story, conversion and retention rates went up.

In the final chapters, Caldwell has excellent suggestions for presenting and rolling out your new voice and tone strategy. Throughout—and especially in this part—he reminds us of the power of emotion and storytelling.

Voice and tone are critical to connecting with your users. Caldwell’s book with a specific framework and many examples will help you rethink how to connect most successfully.

Reviewed by Janice (Ginny) Redish

Ginny Redish helps clients and colleagues meet business goals and users’ needs through content strategy and plain language. Her book, Letting Go of the Words – Writing Web Content that Works, (Elsevier, 2nd ed., 2012) still gets rave reviews. Ginny is an STC Fellow and winner of several STC awards.

Review from the August 2020 edition of STC Technical Communication. Used with permission.