Tone, Language and Style: Key Ingredients to Effective Content Writing

Creating good content is like baking or cooking. You need to put the right “ingredients” together — narrative, headline, body, visuals, data, etc — to get the final product (though not edible, of course). During this process, it’s understandable to focus on the bigger and meatier parts such as your content’s structure and presentation, but don’t overlook finer details such as tone, language and style. Yes, they’re subtle notes in the overall dish, but it’s this subtlety that adds unique flavor and ties everything together.

Knowing who and why

Getting your content’s tone, language and style right reflects several things — one of which is an awareness of who your intended target audience is. This includes their age range, cultural background, needs, interests and their assumed level of knowledge in the topic or of the product/brand, among others.

It also attests to knowing your content’s purpose. It’s not just about who you are writing to but why you are writing to them. Is it to educate or entertain? Is it to generate leads or drive brand sentiment? Is it to present facts because you want to inform or to persuade the reader to accept your point of view?

Knowing these things will strengthen your content’s personality. Think of it like selling a product — you can cast a wide net and see who takes the bait, or you can hone your approach and shape your sales pitch,aligning with your audience.

Here’s a breakdown of how tone, language and style add value to your content and form integral pieces of the puzzle:

Tone: What’s the attitude?

Tone is about the way you want to address your audience — in other words, your content’s attitude —and is a key part in molding your message so it resonates with the reader. In fact, a study shows that your content’s tone can influence a person’s impression of your brand’s desirability and even trustworthiness.

Tone doesn’t just mean either formal or informal, as it can exist along a spectrum. Adobe, for example, has a 5-point scale of different tones — i.e., motivational, helpful, instructive, reassuring and supportive— to find the right attitude or expression based on context and its audience’s needs.

Finding the perfect tone can be tricky, and there is no standard guide to follow. But a good starting point would be to ask:

  • Should I use a casual or formal voice for the intended audience?
  • Should the writing be matter of fact or can it be funny?
  • Should it sound positive, neutral or critical?

Language: Finding the right words

To understand the value of language in content, we have to look at how language is used as a tool to understand human behavior. Linguists have found that it can go as far as influencing consumer habits and purchasing decisions. In fact, Stanford research found a connection between the language used in product descriptions and sales performance.

Knowing the right words to say to your audience boosts authenticity while preventing a disconnect between the message and the person receiving it. Again, your target audience helps inform what language is suitable. For example, the Stanford researchers found that using “polite language that invokes culture or authority” helps products sell in Japan. The tone of your content can also better determine the appropriate words or vocabulary to match it.

Other elements to consider include:

  • Contractions: using “don’t”, “let’s” and “can’t” can make your content more accessible and is often suited for informal, casual or personal pieces (think blog posts, op-eds and commentaries); they should be avoided for business-oriented content such as reports, whitepapers and analytical articles.
  • Idiomatic expressions: using such phrases can spark life and add a personal touch, but do so sparingly as too many of them can make your content awkward to read.
  • Slang: use it at your own risk.
  • Directness: this refers to whether you directly or indirectly address the reader in your content (“You should think about what you want to say” versus “The writer should think about what he or she wants to say”—the former feels more personal, while the latter feels distant).

Style: It’s all about image

Style consists of both tone and language but also includes more granular and technical details. These include British versus American spelling, punctuation, formatting of dates and times, honorifics, job titles and other factors that vary depending on what a company, brand or organisation prefers. These may seem trivial but even reputable organizations or institutions, such as The New York Times and Oxford University, have their own set of style guidelines — each is a reflection of the company’s or institution’s values and history.

Depending on the industry or field of study, institutions may use the AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, or the Modern Language Association. Each of these style guides have rules covering a wide range of topics, including punctuation, editing, proofreading, and citation. For instance, journalists may prefer the Associated Press Stylebook, while academics typically rely on the Chicago Style. 

There are several benefits to having a style guide:

  • It helps exude professionalism and shows attention to detail.
  • It ensures consistency across all content/products.
  • It complements a brand’s identity and voice.

Nailing your content’s tone, language and style is a nuanced process. While there is no fool proof template to follow, keeping an audience-oriented approach while ensuring you don’t lose sight of your content’s purpose will help steer you in the right direction.

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