Mastering Tone of Voice: How Successful Writers Engage Audiences
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Have you ever read an essay, article, or blog post that just seemed…meh? Interesting ideas, yet somehow forgettable?
As an editor, I’ve read hundreds of essays, articles, and blog posts that needed a little extra push toward greatness. And I’ve found that understanding tone of voice is one of the keys to fixing forgettable writing. Choosing the right tone for a piece is an underrated yet crucial skill that can help engage readers by adding emotional interest and subtext.
In this article, I’ll share some of my trade secrets on tone. I’ll offer various tone examples and include a framework that will help you home in on the right tonal choice for any piece — from essays to social media content — and take your writing to the next level.
What Is Tone of Voice?
Tone of voice is the attitude your writing conveys to others — be it respectful, serious, playful, or dramatic. It gives your writing “flavor” by showing nuanced emotions.
We express how we feel in person in many ways — facial expressions, body language, word choice, etc — and our tone changes with context. For instance, when speaking to your boss, you might stand up straight, make eye contact, and avoid negative language. However, with a child you’re likely to speak simply and enthusiastically (and probably make some silly noises).
Your writing can’t convey body language or the sound of your voice, but it’s still possible to send emotional cues. In fact, almost every part of your writing can be tweaked to affect how your tone is perceived, including the following:
- Word choice
- Sentence structure and length
- Grammatical correctness (or lack thereof)
- Use of emoji
- Choice of content (images, facts, topics, discussion of emotions, etc.)
- Point of view (first person, third person, etc.)
Why Does Tone of Voice Matter?
No matter who you are writing for, your tone of voice affects your ability to connect with them. A tone that doesn’t match the situation — such as being overly casual on a job application — can make you seem misguided, while the appropriate tone can create an emotional connection with readers and generate feelings of respect or empathy.
If you’re a student, utilizing the correct tone can show respect to your teachers and demonstrate higher-level writing skills.
If you’re a researcher, using a tone that matches your peers will help people take your work seriously and gain you respect in your field.
If you’re writing for social media or marketing, you can draw your ideal subscribers in with a voice that speaks to them. When your brand uses a tone that customers find relatable or authoritative, they’re more likely to trust your advice and ultimately buy from you.
Choosing a unique or surprising tone is also a fantastic way to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Just ask Duolingo, the language-learning app that went viral for its TikToks featuring an arguably unhinged owl mascot. While it’s far from “professional,” Duo’s Gen Z slang and bizarre humor clearly resonate with its millions of viewers.
Different Types of Tone of Voice
To move from abstract concept to concrete practice, here are some examples of a variety of tones, what creates them, and when they might be appropriate.
Formal vs Casual
Formal: To whom it may concern
Casual: Hey there :)
The level of formality needed in your writing depends on your relationship with the reader. For instance, this formal abstract from an article on marketing and emotion is ideal for submitting to an academic publisher, but would probably fall flat on your personal Instagram feed.
Larger, more complex words and longer sentences can help create a formal tone. Though, too much of this can sound stuffy and make your writing hard to understand. Correct grammar is an absolute must.
For casual writing, including one or two emoji keeps things light. Minor grammar infractions, especially sentence fragments — using a phrase on its own with full sentence punctuation, even if it does not include both a noun and a verb — can be really useful here. You’ll often find them in marketing copy: Elegant. Powerful. Not your average stroller.
In the Wordtune Editor, our AI-powered writing assistant, you can highlight your text and click Casual or Formal to see a list of suggestions for these tones.
Funny vs Serious
Funny: I'm going to get my degree in procrastination — I already have a master's!
Serious: Earning a college degree can be an important step in your career.
Choosing whether to be funny or serious depends on your goals.
If you want to show respect or inspire urgent action on a problem, a serious approach may work best. Use correct grammar and more formal language, avoid jokes or asides, and focus on the consequences of your topic for the audience. Though many serious pieces, such as news or academic articles, focus mostly on facts, serious writing doesn’t have to avoid emotions. Just be sure to acknowledge them with dignity.
On the other hand, if you want to catch people’s attention without stressing them, humor can be a great tool. It can help you relate to your audience, make a point, or lighten otherwise heavy information.
You might do this by using informal language and adding a joke or two. Consider the many flavors of funny: would you rather be sarcastic, goofy, clever, or ironic? Feel free to use slang, silly, or risqué words that would be out of place in an essay (Bangin’, adorkable, ogle, or oodles, anyone?).
Clothing company MeUndies opts for a cheeky tone (see what I did there) when asking users to sign up for SMS alerts by teasing, “We can't promise we won't butt dial.”
Matter-of-Fact vs Enthusiastic
Matter-of-Fact: Your order has been delivered.
Enthusiastic: Your order is on its way! Woo!!
Another tonal difference to focus on is the level of excitement your text needs to convey. For how-tos, product manuals, and essays, a matter-of-fact tone can benefit readers who want to get right to the point. You’ll want to cut extra descriptor words, remove all repetition, and keep sentences short.
On the other hand, for social media or blog posts, an enthusiastic tone can help create a buzz and get people excited about your topic.
Print company MOO differentiates itself from competitors by using a friendly and excited tone that communicates personal care for its customers.
To show excitement, pile on the modifiers! Feel free to describe your own emotions, and don’t forget interjections like wow or oops. A change in punctuation can also add extra energy:
Excited: We guarantee our slippers will rock your socks off!
A bit more excited: We guarantee our slippers will rock. Your. Socks. Off!
How to Choose the Best Tone for Any Piece of Writing
For students, researchers, and marketers, the key to using tone of voice is understanding who your audience is and knowing what kind of relationship with them you are aiming for. With this in mind, you should be able to find a voice that will “speak” to them.
1. Understand Your Target Audience
Before you begin writing, ask yourself these three questions.
A. Who am I writing for?
This could be one person, like the teacher who will be reading your essay. Or it could be a group, like teenagers wondering if they have ADHD. Try to be as specific as possible.
You may want to research your target audience. Consider how they might speak in certain contexts and what they want that your writing can offer them.
B. What is my relationship to my audience?
Your tone should reflect whether you are in a position of authority versus if you are speaking to someone with a higher status than you. If you don’t currently have a relationship with them, think of what relationship you're aiming for — a seller-customer relationship, for instance. This can clarify what tones of voice may be socially appropriate, as it’s more acceptable to write with and share emotion in some situations than in others.
C. How do I want people to feel about me and my piece?
Do you want to make strangers feel like your close friends? Is it more important to you to catch people’s attention and shock them, or to show that you are factually accurate?
Your tone should support the kinds of emotions you’d like people to feel about you and your subject, and it should reflect how much emotion is considered appropriate for the situation.
If you want to appear as a trustworthy job candidate, a formal, confident, and matter-of-fact tone that avoids most emotion would be a good goal. If you want people to get excited to buy refurbished vintage furniture, a personal, enthusiastic tone might hit the spot.
2. Define Your Tone of Voice
With the answers to your questions in mind, brainstorm a tone that will best connect you to your audience, and write down some keywords that define it.
See how the MeUndies brand ambassadors page clearly defines the tone of voice the company uses in its marketing with the line, “#TeamCheeks Ambassadors are authentic, charismatic, and enthusiastic creators who can help bring the playful energy of our brand to life.”
3. Develop a Clear Style Guide
Find examples of the tone of voice you would like to achieve and study them. Make notes on how these examples create the tone you're looking for.
This could include word choice, sentence structure, the type of jokes being made, emoji use (or lack thereof), and more. It can also include their choices of content — lots of images, specific topics, how-tos, etc.
Once you begin to see the patterns, write them down as a set of rough guidelines.
For the Wordtune blog, we have a detailed style guide that every writer follows to ensure all our blog posts have a consistent voice. But your style guide doesn’t need to be complicated as long as it helps you write.
4. Do Regular Reviews
Regularly reviewing your work and checking it against your style guide can keep you on target as you develop your tone.
If you can, ask some friends and colleagues to read your piece and share feedback on what “feeling” they’re picking up. Then, you can work on further developing your tone if needed.
When writing in the Wordtune editor, highlight text and click the Casual or Formal buttons to see which tone your writing resembles most and decide if it’s in line with your goals.
Whether you’re striving to perfect an essay or prove yourself as a content creator, tone of voice can help you form an emotional connection with your readers. While you can’t literally communicate vocal tones in your writing, your choice of words, sentence structure, punctuation, and use of emoji — just to name a few — can create distinct experiences for your readers and add an emotional zing to bland writing.
Remember to focus on who you’re writing for, the relationship you want to have with them, and the reasons you’re writing in the first place. Using these guidelines, your own style guide, and Wordtune’s tools can help you develop a strong voice that differentiates you from the competition and adds vital emotional resonance to your work.