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Internal Comms Tone of Voice - How to find & define yours.

I wrote a few days ago about whether having an agreed and consistent tone of voice for your internal comms is important (clue: it is) and so today, I thought I’d give a few pointers on how you can find and define this.

The most important thing is that our tone of voice should reflect our vision, values, and culture. They should encourage the behaviours we want in our people, and they should instil trust and confidence in us as leaders.

It’s important to be honest to keep things authentic. Aspirations as a business are great, but your tone of voice should reflect who you are today, not who you hope to be in a few years’ time (or who you’re never going to be, but you have almost admirable delusions of grandeur!)

Go back to the basics: what is the purpose of the business? Why are you here? Do you have clearly defined values and principles that need to be factored into the way you communicate with your people? Once you have that clear, you can start to look at who you are. Analyse your personality as a business...

If your company was a person, what would they be like? And what would they absolutely not be like?!

It is invaluable to involve others in your organisation when looking at this. Those from different departments and different levels of seniority or responsibility may have slightly different views on this and all are important. (Collaborating cross-business can also be great for buy-in at a later date.)

You may even find that this process comes naturally off the back of a highly beneficial comms health check.

You can then start to break things down according to a few sliding scales. The most obvious one, and probably the best place to start, is where you want to sit on the formal-to-informal scale. This is closely linked to how corporate you want to sound in your business-as-usual comms. Whilst this will vary wildly from business to business, and depend heavily on industry, purpose, and values, it’s a common mistake for companies or individuals to default to “unnecessarily corporate” in their written comms. This can really turn your audience off.

Stuffy at best and preachy at worst, it will do little to engage your people or make them feel a valued part of a larger team. Conversational is often the best way to go, and it can still be informative, authoritative, and professional. It conveys respect and relatability. More often than not, it comes across as more authentic and builds trust. (Harvard Business review has known this for years and has the research to back it up.)

After deciding on formality, look at other personality traits and how well they would apply to the way your business communicates. Consider how humorous or witty you can be whilst staying 'on brand'. Humour can be a powerful tool when it comes to getting people on-side and nurturing a contagious sense of belonging and confidence in leadership. But it needs to be very carefully considered and measured as offence can easily be caused and in-jokes will only breed a sense of disconnect or isolation.

Similarly, the level of enthusiasm you want to employ can make a big difference. More formal often sits more comfortably with a matter-of-fact approach, but the two are not mutually exclusive. If your people are naturally enthusiastic and your company portrays a vibrancy, then why not include some of that effervescence in your business-as-usual comms?

Look at your business and its values and culture on other sliding scales of contrasting characteristics. These will depend on your industry, but some good examples may include:

  • Serious vs fun

  • Conservative vs provocative

  • Conventional vs contemporary

  • Authoritarian vs empathic

  • Respectful vs irreverent

  • Passionate vs stoic

Once again, it is advisable to involve others from your organisation (ideally from different levels, departments and areas of the business) when thrashing this out. These analyses absolutely should not be made by one or two individuals at the very top of the company's structure.

Once the personality of your business and the overall tone of your voice has been determined and agreed, work should begin on setting any finer detail that is required and, most importantly, rolling this out as a standard and replicating it across all internal comms. As discussed in my last piece, consistency is of paramount importance for familiarity which leads to trust and reassurance and nurtures feelings of reliability, dependability, and stability.

A tone-of-voice or style guide, as part of your internal comms strategy, should be a vital aid to all who write comms. The level of detail is up to you, but this can start with how to address employees en masse (are they ‘colleagues’, ‘employees’, ‘partners’?) and whether an active or passive voice is preferred (the former is usually preferable), right down to which acronyms are allowed and whether or not to capitalise job titles. Including examples of text that are and aren’t in your tone of voice can really help, as can including some preferred alternatives for commonly used expressions.

Again, this will depend on business and industry type, but some examples of commonly found instructions within style guides are:

  • The use of simple English. (“This is because we need to…” instead of “This is due to a requirement for…

  • Keeping sentences short and snappy. (Seemingly endless sentences with multiple subclauses and sprinkled with commas just confuse.)

  • Sound grammar and punctuation - though some of the more old-fashioned and 'purest' examples of grammar can now be considered unnecessary, especially when aiming for a less formal tone. (The use of “whom”, for example, may be technically correct when referring to the object of a verb or preposition, but your audience is not going to misunderstand a sentence if “who” is used instead.)

  • An avoidance of acronyms, jargon, or technical terms that (parts of) your audience may not be familiar with or understand.

Clearly, your tone of voice will be as bespoke as you are. And the way you analyse, create, and roll it out will vary wildly, too. Included here are just some examples that apply to a wide range of organisations with diverse teams. They may not be for you.

What’s important is that you have an appropriate tone of voice for your business and your people, and that you apply this consistently across your business-as-usual comms. You’ll have a more engaged, committed and trusting workforce for it.


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