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.

Need help crafting written content? Drop us a line at [email protected].

A musician’s guide to public relations

Like any young boy, I went through phases about what I was convinced I was going to do with my life. When I was 10, I was sure I wanted to repair cars for a living. When I was 12, I wanted to be a musician after I first picked up the guitar, and by the time I was 22 I had been introduced to the wonderful world of public relations.

The car thing fell by the wayside, but the music has always been a constant – I’ve been playing at local shows with a band since I was 14. Of course, times have changed and the advent of YouTube and other online platforms have made things a lot more convenient for musicians to get themselves out there.

Along the way, I’ve met a lot of people and picked up a thing or two, be it about making music or the art of connecting with people and audiences. Thanks to my chosen career in PR, I’ve been able to apply a lot of what I’ve learned into my music and managing the profile of my band, and vice versa.

1. Messaging

Messaging in this context refers to what your audience takes away from listening to you, which happens to be a very big component in PR. How do I explain my music to an individual in a way that is most appealing to them? I came up with a formula and translated it into the context of PR:

  • Relevance

How do I convince the organiser I am relevant to their event? What relevance does my music have to the audience?

Similarly in PR, how do I craft my message in a way that’s most relevant to the audience or media? Would this media be interested in the business aspect of my client or the R&D done for my client’s product or service?

  • Tone

Part of the beauty of playing music in a small community is having the chance to meet people of different ages and backgrounds. In order to better relay my key messages, I use different analogies and references to get them across.

Just like in PR, depending on who you are talking to, your choice of words have to be picked carefully and need to be tailored to engage various individuals.

  • Engagement

What makes some music more popular than others? I’ve always believed that it’s a result of how that music subconsciously relates to a person one way or another.

When it comes to PR, I translate that principle and take a step back before engaging with people, by researching about them before speaking to them. That way, it allows me to better relate my messages to their interest and seamlessly advocate the mutual benefits.

2. Always be ready

As the great Ronda Rousey said, “I don’t train to get ready, I train to stay ready”.

It’s not uncommon for musicians to be booked at the very last moment as a replacement. The challenge lies in getting the band ready in time to put up nothing short of a spectacular show, because that’s all that matters.

Similarly in PR, it’s not unheard of for clients to request for a press release to be done and blasted the next day. Just like the audience at a music festival, all that matters is getting the job done. This is where I realised that systems and processes in are important to get things done in the most accurate and time efficient way. Who will write the release? Who will collate a media list? Who will pitch?

3. Sincerity

Last but not least, being sincere goes a long way and usually has a big part to play in the art of convincing. Everyone can tell when someone is not sincere, and faking it ‘til you make it will never work when you’re in it for the long haul. By being genuine in your cause, you will find yourself adopting the right tone whilst relating well to your audience.

In PR, we meet different people all the time and first impressions are somewhat of a big deal. One way to combat the potential problem of being misconstrued is to be sincere – that alone subconsciously sets the mind on the right path.

If you’re interested in exploring what a PR strategy can do for your business, get in touch with us at [email protected]