Does your brand voice pass the "no shit" test?

It’s obvious to you that your brand offers something your competitors don’t. And you know that more people would agree if you could just do a better job of connecting with them.

One of the first steps: defining a brand voice that speaks to the right people and reflects what makes you (your brand) special, valuable, and worth remembering.

Why your brand voice is important

A defined and documented brand voice is a tool for anyone who communicates on behalf of your brand, like copywriters, customer service representatives, publicists, marketers, video producers, app developers, and so forth.

By understanding the voice they need to communicate in, everyone will be able to create things that feel consistent and true to your brand—which translates to a consistent and authentic experience for the people your business serves.

Creating an Is/Is Not list

There are a million tools for structuring voice and tone guidelines, but for now, let’s focus on one of my favorites: the “Is/Is Not” list. If your brand voice is a tool, imagine it as a pencil. Creating a thoughtful Is/Is Not list is like sharpening your pencil. It articulates the nuances of your brand voice and brings it into clearer (sharper) focus.

To illustrate: imagine you’re describing someone you just met, maybe a potential match for a single friend. You might describe the person as smart, funny, and handsome—all useful things to know, but not particularly distinctive. 

Now imagine you say instead that the person is smart, but not bookish; funny, but not goofy; handsome, but not in a Ken-doll sort of way. Starts to paint a much more specific picture, doesn’t it?

That's the Is/Is Not list in action.

It sounds simple, and it is. But a lot—and I mean a lot—of businesses (even smart ones!) flub it, thanks to three common pitfalls.

Pitfall #1: Only outlining how awesome your brand is

Your brand voice should define the ways in which your brand is awesome, but that's only half the battle. I often see Is/Is Not lists that look sort of like this*:

Company X Brand Voice

 

IS

Persistent

Concise

Authoritative

Energetic

IS NOT

Pushy

Snippy

Patronizing

Annoying

 

What's wrong with this list? Well, the "Is" words are great—descriptive, unique, and useful. The "Is Not" words, on the other hand, are totally unhelpful. Because no shit, your brand voice isn't pushy, terse, patronizing, or annoying. No one would describe their brand voice in those terms. And no writer or creator would ever assume a brand voice should be pushy, terse, patronizing, or annoying. What's patronizing and annoying, in fact, is this list! 

Rule of thumb #1: Your “Is Not” words should be able to function as “Is” words for another brand.

Don't phone it in with your Is Not column by using obviously negative words that no brand would ever use. Remember: your brand voice is a tool for people who communicate on behalf of your business. The Is/Is Not list is intended to make that tool more useful. 

2. Listing "Is Not" words that are just opposites of your "Is" words

Here's an example:

Company X Brand Voice

 

IS

Persistent

Concise

Authoritative

Energetic

IS NOT

Lazy

Long-winded

Amateur

Sedate

 

In this case, the "Is Not" words aren't all negative, but they're not helping us out much either. If we're concise, then no shit, we're not long-winded. Say it with me: if we're energetic, then no shit, we're not sedate. Because no brand can be both of those things at the same time. These are kind of like saying "My eyes are blue, not brown," or "The earth is round, not flat". Uh, thanks?

Rule of thumb #2: Your "Is Not" words should go further than stating the obvious.

Put another way, your "Is Not" words shouldn't be automatically cancelled out by your "Is" words. They should be able to coexist. This is what makes your Is/Is Not list useful. It's telling you that while these words could coexist, in this case, they don't. 

For some people, it helps to think of the two columns as "Is" and "But Not" (think, "Is blue, But Not navy" or "Is round, But Not perfectly circular"). It's a little clearer, this way, that the second column is adding texture and detail to the first, not drawing a stark contrast.

3. Letting Microsoft Word Thesaurus do the work for you

This one applies to both columns: your Is Not words and your Is words. Take a look at this example:

Company X Brand Voice

 

IS

Assiduous

Pithy

Masterful

Dynamic

IS NOT

Laborious

Trenchant

Imperious

Jocund

 

Feel a headache coming on? Good. You get the point. The "no shit" test, in this case, is whether a word or pair of words inspires the reaction, "You're shitting me, right?" Or, perhaps, "What does that shit mean?"

People should never have to pull up an online dictionary to understand the words you choose to describe your voice. They should be words you'd actually use in real life (read your list aloud to out awkward word choices). 

Corporate buzzwords like "dynamic" are also off-limits. No one really knows what they mean (admit it: you don't either), and nothing makes people glaze over and shut down faster.

The words you choose can be really, really simple. In fact, it's better if they are. That's the beauty of an Is/Is Not list: its structure allows you the luxury of saying exactly what you mean by them.

Rule of thumb #3: The words you choose should be simple to understand and easy to remember.

So what does a good list look like? Without the overtly negative words, the easy opposites, or the deep-Thesaurus words? Here's one example:

Company X Brand Voice

 

IS

Persistent

Concise

Authoritative

Energetic

IS NOT

Persuasive

Simple

Formal

Bubbly

 

Now we’re getting somewhere. I know that the brand sticks to its message, but doesn’t try to "sell" it. I know it keeps things brief, but not at the expense of doing justice to more complex topics. I know the brand shows its expertise, but in a more relatable way. And I know the brand has energy, but wouldn't overdo the exclamation points.

And if you look at the list of "Is Not" words, there's not a single one that feels negative, obvious, or hard to understand. Another brand might use some of these words to describe their voice. That's how we know this list is doing its job: it helps us understand how our voice is actually distinct from other, close-but-not-quite voices.

And it doesn't have to be a big, serious process that results in smart-sounding words. If you prefer to be more informal, by all means, have fun with it! The Is/Is Not list is meant to help you better describe your voice, not force it into a certain format. 

Company X Brand Voice

 

IS

Stick to our guns

Direct, to the point

Owning it

High energy, welcoming

IS NOT

Set in our ways

Sassy about it

"Professional"

Peppy or "hey girrrrl"

 

You can even get creative with how you apply this general idea, like naming celebrities or characters your voice sounds like (for example, "Is David Letterman, Is Not Jimmy Fallon" tells me your brand voice has a drier, wittier sense of humor and smart sense of depth, versus a goofy, joyful sense of humor and a childlike sensibility). You get the idea.

So let's get to work.

Start by writing down words that describe how you want your brand to sound. Don’t censor yourself—write down anything that comes to you, even if you’re not sure about it yet. 

Once you’ve got a long list of words to work with, start thinking about which ones feel spot-on and which ones don't feel quiiiite right.

Begin to group them, and listen to any gut-level concerns that arise ("I like this word, but I don't want people to think it means X").

As you start to build your pairs, run every single one through the “no shit” tests above. Be brutal. Your “Is” words may even begin to change as the “Is Nots” become clearer.

Expect several rounds of this before you narrow it down to the 4-6 word pairs that feel right. And be open as you go through the process—some of the best words will pop into your head at the weirdest times (in the shower, on your commute, during a run, after several drinks—you do you).

And trust me—if you take the time to do this, you’ll have an end product that will noticeably clarify your communication, help your business connect with the right people, and remain relevant as your business grows. No shit.