Voice and tone

If you’re like many folks, you might not be sure of the difference between voice and tone. Maybe you’ve never deliberately crafted a voice and don’t know where to start. Not to fret! In this section, we’ll discuss the differences between voice and tone, how we describe our organizational voice, how to establish your own voice, and how to choose a tone that’s appropriate for whatever you’re writing.

The difference between voice and tone

It’s a common question and one that young writers find themselves asking often: What’s the difference between voice and tone?

Our voice is our unique personality. It can be helpful to think of voice as analogous to a person’s voice. Just as you can identify your best friend in a crowd as soon as you hear her distinctive laugh, you can use an author’s or organization’s voice to identify a piece of writing even if you haven’t seen the byline. A well-crafted voice communicates personality and values — it’s a distilled representation of an author or organization.

Tone is more like attitude — the emotional context of a piece. It can be helpful to think of authorial tone as analogous to a person’s tone of voice. Just as a person would use a somber, sympathetic tone of voice to console a friend about the loss of a pet, an author writing a story about a natural disaster would most likely use a somber, serious tone. Conversely, an author writing a blog post about the launch of a new product might use an enthusiastic, upbeat tone.

Our voice

At 18F, we like to communicate in a friendly, straightforward way. We consider our voice to be:

  • Authoritative
  • Conversational
  • Friendly
  • Instructive
  • Welcoming to all audiences

We believe that government communication can — and should — be fun and easy to read, and our voice represents this.

Here are a few sentences, taken from the 18F Content Guide, that exemplify our voice:

We created this guide for reference on an as-needed basis. It’s here when you’re wondering whether to capitalize the word federal, for instance, or when you’re wondering how to create a friendly, informational tone.

Use contractions

In all of the communication we produce, we want to create a strong connection with our users. We want to get them the information they need in a straightforward way and show that we know what’s important to them. As a government organization, we need to sound somewhat official; we also recognize that official doesn’t need to translate to stuffy, archaic, or aloof.

For this reason, we use contractions in the writing we create for our site. We also encourage clients to consider using contractions, too, though we recognize this may not be the right choice for all contexts.

The government is run by people for the benefit of people, and we never want users to forget that 18F is a group of enthusiastic, dedicated, hardworking (and friendly) folks. This desire informs how we craft our voice.

Establishing your own voice

Whether you realize it or not, you already have a unique voice; the tricky part can be classifying it and pinning it down.

To describe your voice — which, in turn, will allow you to diagram it, create guidelines around it, and make it reproducible — you’ll need to do some investigation and self reflection. Ask yourself these questions:

What are my core values? Your voice is a reflection of your core values. Before you craft a voice, consider the values your organization represents and how you can translate these into stylistic patterns. If you’re part of a young organization that hasn’t yet codified its values, you might use this opportunity to start that conversation. Crafting a voice before you’ve determined your organization’s values can be dangerous — your voice might not reflect what you eventually decide on. Along the same lines, if your organization is undergoing a large-scale values overhaul, you’ll want to make sure your organizational voice reflects your new values.

Who is my audience? In writing, as elsewhere, your audience is paramount — without them, you’d have no reason to write. Put yourself in their situation and think about the stylistic traits that might appeal to them. Remember, your voice doesn’t need to appeal to everyone (and, in fact, shouldn’t — cure-alls cure nothing, as the old saying goes).

Use your answers to these questions to craft a description of your voice. Once you’ve come up with your description, look it over and identify any contradictions or holes (never a good thing). While voices should be nuanced, they should also be cohesive.

Choosing a tone

As we mentioned earlier, your voice is a constant, but your tone is a variable. Consider the following: If you’re having an irredeemably terrible day, you might get peeved at a store associate who chirpily (and repeatedly) asks if they can help you with anything. Instead of picking up on your nonverbal — or perhaps verbal — cues, this associate is tone-deaf. The associate maintained a consistently helpful voice, but they failed to shift their tone from energetic to restrained. As a result, their message (however valuable or well-intended) is lost on you.

To avoid going the way of the associate, think about your users’ needs in different situations. Use these needs to determine your tone.

Let’s consider three examples that target three different reader groups. Obituaries, technical blog posts, and marketing emails targeted at newly engaged couples have vastly different tones. Why? The three types of writing correspond to audiences in three highly different emotional states.

Type of writing Intended readership Tone Example
Obituary of a prominent community member People who knew (or knew of) the deceased Respectful, reverent, somber “Professor Pelham was respected by his colleagues and revered by students, many of whom would wake before dawn on registration day to ensure gaining entry to his classes. His wit, gentle humor, and compassion left their mark on everyone he talked to.”
Blog post announcing open source documentation guide Developers and other readers with a strong tech background Direct, impartial “The Open Source Style Guide is a comprehensive handbook for writing clear, accessible, and user-friendly documentation so that your open source code repositories are accessible both internally and externally.
Marketing email from the boutique bridal department of a well-known clothing company Newly engaged women (ages 28 through 33) Enthusiastic, earnest, bubbly “Say ‘I do!’ to 25% off. Now through July 3rd, take an additional 25% off all bridal wear and accessories. Celebrate your big day in style (and get a jumpstart on your honeymoon fund!).”

If you’re having trouble finding an appropriate tone, try reframing the situation: How would you talk to a friend who’s in the same situation as your target user? Remembering that written communication is a conversation can help you settle on the best tone for your purpose.

Further reading

  • MailChimp’s voice and tone guide: This beautifully designed tool allows you to select different content types and learn more about what the user might be feeling while reading them, along with examples of tones appropriate to those content types. Super simple to use, this is a great quick reference for creating diverse types of content.
  • The nonviolent communication (NVC) framework for feelings: Pinpointing the most appropriate tone for a piece of content starts with identifying what your readers might be feeling when they read that content. This list of feelings is broken into two categories — feelings you experience when your needs are being met and when they aren’t.
  • Jeff Goins’ voice activities: Use author Jeff Goins’ ten-step exercise to pinpoint your authorial voice. The “steps” are actually discrete activities and can be undertaken in any order.
  • If you’re still a little confused about voice and tone, Wheaton College provides an excellent breakdown of those — and more — writing components.
  • Fast Company has also weighed in on the voice and tone discussion.