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How To Create a Great Voice and Tone for Your Brand

Here's how we at Salesforce work on getting our voice and tone right – and five tips for how you can, too.

A photo of Salesforce SVP Chris Duarte, an expert on voice and tone.
Brands are the new thought leaders. A great voice and tone differentiates the best of them.

If you’re a marketer, you’re probably wondering: How do I sound more human with my voice and tone? How do I step into my audience’s shoes the way the best brands do it? 

You know, like how your paper towel brand shares a recipe for Halloween cupcakes. Or a major credit card company discusses the importance of hiring refugees. Or the lovely way your chapstick maker shares sustainable living tips.

It’s true: Brands are the new thought leaders, and that is not slowing down. A great voice and tone differentiates the best of them. 

In this article, we’ll break down:

1) The basics of brand voice and tone 

2) How to start a voice and tone program at your company

We’ll also layer in a healthy dose of how we here at Salesforce handle these things — in the spirit of helping you get your voice and tone right. Okay now — let’s do this.

The basics of voice and tone

If you’re going to create content for your customers, prospects, and partners, then it needs to sound like it all came from the same company. When you have an established voice and tone for your brand, and you use it consistently, you build trust with your audience.

So, what do I mean when I say content? For starters, I mean educational content. At Salesforce, that includes videos, Trailhead badges, expert-led courses, user interface text, and how-to articles.

If you’re going to create content for your customers, prospects, and partners, then it needs to sound like it all came from the same company.

When I see companies doing content well, they’re doing all aspects of content well. That includes social media, slideshows, white papers, films — even their PR and news articles — all springing from the same well. The content has a clear voice, consistent approach, and is aligned with the company’s values.

Values come first

Salesforce is a values-driven company. Our founder, Marc Benioff, developed the V2MOM framework to help us clarify our vision and identify the values that guide everything we do. That means we think about our values when we write, to make sure we’re creating content that reflects who we are and what we believe in.

Salesforce’s core values are:

  • Trust
  • Customer success
  • Innovation
  • Equality
  • Sustainability

These values inform our voice and tone. 

What’s the difference between voice and tone? 

Our voice expresses who we are as a company. It shows our personality and reflects our values. On Trailhead, our online learning platform, our voice is honest, inspiring, helpful, and it has heart. We’ll talk more about these qualities of our voice in a bit.

Unlike voice, which doesn’t change, our tone varies depending on the audience and their goals.

Our voice expresses who we are as a company. Our tone varies depending on the audience and their goals.

For example, an informal, slightly playful tone works for an audience that’s seeking out new knowledge and has some time to learn. Check out this snippet of a blog post about Slack:

What does Slack have in common with lasers and scuba diving? For one thing, you might not know that the name is an acronym: it stands for Searchable Log of All Conversations and Knowledge. 

This copy gives you a bit of interesting information (what “Slack” stands for) and makes the information memorable by adding a comparison to two seemingly unrelated (and kind of funny-sounding) words: laser and scuba. The tone is welcoming and inviting, and we hope it makes readers want to learn more about Slack.

When the audience is on the job and more pressed for time, we use a tone that’s brief, encouraging, and to the point. This example appears in a pop-up box inside our software:

Influence Our Product Roadmap: Calling all admins! IdeaExchange Prioritization is now open. In just a few minutes, you can review top ideas and prioritize them for consideration in a future release.

In this case, the audience is admins, and their goal is to keep Salesforce running smoothly for their users. Because they might be in the middle of another task when they see the message, we make it quick to read and easy to digest, so we don’t disrupt their workflow. The tone is upbeat and professional, and we hope it lets admins know we value their opinion and respect their time.

How to start a voice and tone program

Now that you have some fundamentals of voice and tone, let’s get started creating your company’s voice and tone program. You can implement a program across the entire company ecosystem.

These five fundamental principles will get you started:

1. Make it simple and memorable

If you have more than one person making content for your company, or if you’re hiring an outside agency to help you, you’ll need those people to understand your company’s brand and style guidelines, and be able to apply them. 

If your guidelines are lengthy, complex, and/or inconsistent, then it will be hard to use them.

Pro tip: If your voice and tone guidance has more than five key concepts to remember, it’s probably too complicated.

2. Create a library of samples

Once everyone understands the guidelines, you’ll need to show how they work in practice. And for that, the best thing to do is create a searchable library with samples of “good” voice and tone across your different content types, including videos, blogs, knowledge articles, and other content. 

As you continue to build content for your company, keep adding to your library with your best content.

Pro tip: As you add to your library, include notes that explain why each piece of content is “good.” This will help new people to better understand your guidelines and better equip them to create content aligned with your voice and tone.

3. Publish your voice and tone guidelines

Once you’ve got your guidelines finalized and you’ve started your library of samples, you’re ready to publish. You can publish on an internal site or collaborative document, or pin the guidance to your Slack channel for content creators. 

Make sure your guidelines are available to everyone who is creating content for your company, and be prepared to update your guidelines over time.

Pro tip: Publish your voice and tone guidelines on your company’s website and make them available to everyone. This helps people better understand your brand and makes it easier to work with external agencies and consultants that help you with content.

4. Collaborate with your creators

When you’re starting up a new voice and tone program, the people who are creating content are going to have questions. Create a collaboration channel where they can work together. 

They can share proposed content drafts with each other, give each other feedback, and work to hone their skills as creators. You can do this in a Slack channel or collaborative document; even a group text can work in a pinch.

Pro tip: By collaborating online, you’re creating a searchable reference tool for future content creators as your company grows.

5. Retire ‘bad’ content

If you’ve already created content that doesn’t align with your newly established voice and tone guidelines, you can revise it, and republish it with an updated timestamp – or you can set up a redirect from the older content to something new and relevant that abides by your new guidelines. 

If you leave content out there that doesn’t align with your voice and tone, you risk confusing your audience and damaging the trust you’re working to build.

If you leave content out there that doesn’t align with your voice and tone, you risk confusing your audience and damaging the trust you’re working to build.

Pro tip: Use data to determine your strategy on what gets revised and republished versus permanently retired. For example, if a content asset has high engagement on social media, then take the time to revise it so that it aligns better with your voice and tone.

Understanding voice and tone for Trailhead

Over the past seven years, I’ve led content for Trailhead at Salesforce, and my point of view on voice and tone has evolved over time. Many of the voice and tone guidelines I’ve written are lengthy, making them hard to remember and follow. And I’ve personally given vague guidance around being “fun” and “imaginative,” which is hard to execute on. But I’ve learned from these mistakes.

As already mentioned, the most successful voice and tone frameworks are simple and memorable. Here is what we use for Trailhead these days:

Honest 🤝

Helpful ✅

Inspiring 💡

Has Heart 💖

Our content is honest 

This means:

  • We are open about our challenges and mistakes
  • We realize the value in sharing openly for the good of all

We write from the standpoint of a trusted colleague, because we truly aim to connect with our readers that way.

We write from the standpoint of a trusted colleague, because we truly aim to connect with our readers that way. That means we’ll share the highs and lows of our own business journey in order to help our readers along theirs. We don’t sugarcoat the difficult stuff, we avoid jargon, and we are here to celebrate our own wins and those of our audience. 

Our job as content producers is to guide them along the way with transparent, honest information they can use to make decisions and take action.

Our content Is helpful

Taking in new information takes effort. In return for that effort, our content should help people do things they want to do. That means:

  • We listen to our customers
  • We solve their problems
  • We give them trustworthy information, at the right time and in the right format

People use Salesforce products, earn Trailhead badges, and participate in the Trailblazer community to achieve specific goals — goals like building a sales report, learning Apex, or becoming a better manager. If our audience can’t act after reading our content, we’re not doing it right. 

Our content is inspiring and has heart

We believe that technology has the potential to make the world a better place, but we also know that any change can be scary. So we try to write with an uplifting tone. That means:

  • We’re engaging.
  • We’re optimistic.
  • We create content that helps people succeed and feel confident.

We want everyone to feel welcome and inspired when they read our content. It’s important that our community sees themselves reflected in our stories and examples. So we use inclusive language and do our best to make sure our content is accessible to everyone.

We write the way we would talk to a friend, choosing everyday words like use and more instead of more formal ones like leverage and additional.

We write the way we would talk to a friend, choosing everyday words like use and more instead of more formal ones like leverage and additional. We even play Buzzword Bingo to make sure we’re using simple, common words instead of jargon.

It may not seem like a big deal, but we believe that plain and clear language makes it more likely that people will understand our ideas–and reminds them that there’s a caring person behind the words.

What about fun?

Now, you probably noticed there wasn’t anything up there about being funny or having fun. And yes, Trailhead is known as a fun way to learn. But on Trailhead, we strive for human, conversational, and approachable content. We believe in empathy and we use casual language. Occasionally, we add fun and sparkle. But we think the fun in learning content should be like sprinkles on a cupcake — it’s not required, but a little goes a long way.

On Trailhead, we believe the “fun” comes from the feeling you get when you build a great dashboard, or when you debug your code and it works in production. You know what’s really fun? Trying something new and doing it right. There’s no feeling like that in the world.

The “right” voice and tone is the one that fits your brand. By investing in consistent voice and tone across all of your content, you can build trust with your audience, grow your customer base, and lay the foundation for your company’s future growth.

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