The three words that will guarantee your brand voice dies on its arse.

It happened again. Last week I got a brief from a potential client keen to develop their voice and what were the three things they said they wanted their tone to be?

Human, professional, and authentic.


If I had a pound for every time I heard those words from a business I’d be penning this rant from a solid gold bathtub filled with turkish delight. (Yes. That’s absolutely how I’d spend my fortune.)

Yet none of those descriptors are even remotely helpful when it comes to making smart, meaningful choices about how you talk to your audience.

So in case you’re among those who’d be tempted to aspire to those attributes, let me break down exactly why they’re no good.

‘Professional’ is the first one I want to toss out of the window.

Its dictionary definition is simply to be engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime. Jesus. Shivers. And even if you acknowledge that it’s come to stand for something slightly more in a business context, I’d still say its basic meaning is pretty much just doing a job well. And if that doesn’t describe your business then you should probably close up shop right now.

Microsoft are a professional company. So are Dollar Shave Club. And Rolls Royce. And MailChimp. And Prada. And Bloom & Wild. And Asda. And HSBC. But they all sound completely different. Professional might describe what you are, but it doesn’t say anything about who you are – or how you sound.

And ‘human’?

Well, sure. But there are eight billion humans on this planet, all with different personalities and voices. The question is, what kind of human is your business like?

‘Authentic’ is the real killer though.

Because using it tells me that a company hasn’t understood what brand voice work really is. Developing an organisational tone is about learning to use language in a way that not only communicates what you do as a business but also what you’re like. Your voice is the verbal outworking of your identity. Every brand’s voice should be, by definition, authentic. If it’s not, then it’s not a voice – it’s a costume.

So do me (and your company) a huge favour and banish those three words from your brain.

When it comes to defining your organisational tone of voice, this is the best and simplest advice I can give you: don’t use any words that no brand in their right mind would want to be the opposite of.

For example, ‘honest’. That’s one I see a lot. But who the hell would hope that potential customers viewed their brand as dishonest? ‘Human’ comes under that category too. Who else would be writing on behalf of your brand, extra-terrestrials?

Other usual suspects are words and phrases like ‘reliable’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘people-centred’, ‘passionate’, or ‘committed to quality’, which are all fine (if a little bland) as company values – but they’re seriously unhelpful when it comes to personality and voice attributes. 

Something like ‘cheerfully mischievous’ on the other hand is great – a brand might easily be the opposite of that (‘quietly earnest’ perhaps, or ‘calmly forthright’) and it wouldn’t be bad, just different. Same goes for things like ‘feisty', ‘whimsical’, 'inquisitive', ‘casually elegant’, ‘brashly provocative’, or ‘irrepressibly sunny’.

Basically you're looking for attributes that aren't in themselves either good or bad, they're just descriptive of different types of people.

So don’t fall back on safe clichés that could (and should) apply to anyone’s comms.

Take the time to find the exact words that truly capture your company – and only your company.


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