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Don't Let Your Tone Fall Flat – Dimensions Of Tone Of Voice

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Content marketers in the Social Motive office having an animated discussion about tone of voice
Jules and Nish having an animated chat in front of the Social Motive Fiddle Leaf Fig, Fergie

Tone of Voice refers to the emotion or attitude conveyed through word choice and sentence structure. Your brand’s voice should have a consistent tone that represents who you are, what you do, and why+how you do it. You can learn more about crafting tone of voice in our article on how to establish your brand voice.

You can build tone in your copy by being aware of your audience’s vocabulary or slang. What type of person would you picture on the receiving end of an eDM that began “Dear valued patron” compared to “Hey, mate!”?

What are the four dimensions of Tone Of Voice?

Nielsen Gorman group studied an extensive list of literary tone words and narrowed Tone of Voice (TOV) into four ‘dimensions’, or pairs of opposites which represent the spectrum on which your tone can fall:

  • Funny vs. Serious

  • Formal vs. Casual

  • Respectful vs. Irreverent

  • Enthusiastic vs. Matter of Fact

These dimensions don’t mean your tone is consistently one or the other; your copy can lean toward one of two ways within each dimension of tone. By being aware of these overarching tones, you can make a more conscious decision about your brand voice; use these dimensions to evaluate and improve your tone and word choice.

Which tone is right for your brand?

Different tones can be appropriate at different times. For example, your landing page may be more casual and irreverent compared to your copy for error messages. Or, your copy for error messages may be particularly irreverent if your brand voice is cheeky, edgy and quippy.

“Bummer! Page not found, dude. Try later. Or don’t.” would fall quite strongly at the ‘funny’, ‘casual’ and ‘irreverent’ ends of the spectrum but could likely offend some audiences. If your brand’s ‘thing’ is to be humorous and controversial, a la Cards Against Humanity, then go for it! Just know why you’re doing it.

Case study

Kate Moran, who ran this study, published findings of an experiment using hypothetical brands with particular TOVs and gauged how audiences responded. For example, they created copy for made-up car insurance brands. “Alpha” used funny, irreverent, casual and enthusiastic language; lots of exclamation points and shorter choppier sentences, along with words like “easy”, “rack up hundreds in savings”, and “top-notch auto insurance”, while “Beta” stayed more serious and matter-of-fact; words like “quality protection”, “premium discount”, “knowledgeable and friendly BETA agent”.

Interestingly, both fake companies scored equally for overall desirability, but Alpha was deemed more friendly and Beta more trustworthy. This result is noteworthy as it led to a tie, though participants commented that Alpha’s tone was “too chummy” and the “friendliness kind of takes away some of the credibility”.

Alternatively, sometimes taking a friendly approach to an otherwise serious or boring topic, like car insurance, can keep people’s attention and help you stand out from the crowd. Split testing can help you if you’re unsure which dimensions are best for speaking to your audience.

TOV considerations

It is important to consider your audience’s emotional needs. How are they feeling when they’re reading this copy? Are they frustrated to have reached the error page? Are they the type of person to appreciate a joke here, or would they prefer to see something more earnest?

While your tone should be consistent, it can still be adaptable. Your voice may fall on varying points of each dimension spectrum depending on the context of your messaging, but at the heart, it should still be your brand’s TOV – it should still sound like you (‘you’ being your brand).

Determining your brand’s tone

To find your brand’s TOV, think about the following:

  1. If your brand were a person, what would they say at a time like this? Consider the words in their vocabulary and their attitude toward the situation at hand, be it welcoming your audience to your site, encouraging conversion or action, or apologising for an inconvenience.

  2. What does your brand stand for, and how would they conduct themselves in certain situations? Why should people care? 

  3. You can consult this list of tone word descriptors from Nielson Gorman group here to better understand the points within each dimension.

  4. Monitor engagement to gauge whether your intended tone is perceived as you hoped by your target groups.

Over time, you will become familiar with your brand’s TOV as you would a good friend. A consistent TOV keeps your copy honest and helps to build trust and relatability with your audience. If you’d like some guidance in building your TOV, or you’re looking for some copywriters to construct TOV for you, reach out to us at We’d love to hear from you.

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