Whenever my agency embarks on a brand new copywriting project, we always start with an in-depth brand voice study. While many businesses have thoughtful, detailed tone of voice guidelines — documents that detail not only what we need to communicate, but how — the majority don’t.

You might be familiar with Albert Mehrabian, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA and a respected researcher in the field of nonverbal communication. Professor Mehrabian posits that successful communication is made up of three distinct parts:

  • The words you use (7%)
  • Your tone of voice (38%)
  • Your body language (55%).

For businesses who communicate online (including schools!), you obviously can’t communicate through body language. This means your tone is the most important tool you have when it comes to ensuring your message lands with your intended audience. While many of us sweat over the words we say — particularly when it comes to a big project, like a new website, or a press release — we should instead be focusing on the nuances of our language, and the impression we’re making on our audience.

Why are school brand voice guidelines so important?

Unfortunately, without tone of voice guidelines (also known as brand voice guidelines), your written communication will be disjointed: sometimes too formal, sometimes too casual, reflecting the writer’s style rather than your school’s. Having a clear set of brand voice guidelines gets everyone who will be writing on behalf of your school on the same page.

School brand guidelines clearly spell out exactly how your school would ‘speak’ if it were a person, and provides clear examples of how to write (and, conversely, how not to write) in your school’s brand. If your school hasn’t created brand guidelines yet, here’s how you can get started developing some of your own.

1. Start with the heartbeat of your school: your vision, mission and values

When you’re developing your tone of voice guidelines, the most important factor is brand alignment. This means that your tone of voice complements your visuals, creating a seamless brand identity across all of your touchpoints: your website, social media, email marketing, print advertising, and so on.

The best way to achieve this cohesion is to create a brand voice that is truly authentic to your school. By diving into your school’s vision, mission, and values, you can use them as the foundations for your brand voice. A great way to get started is by creating a word map around your school values. Use adjectives, phrases and other words that relate to each value. You’ll start to recognize strong themes for each value, which will form the basis for the next step in the process.

2. Determine your school brand personality and tone profiles

Next up, it’s time to use the word map you’ve created and distil the themes into your brand personality. Your brand personality is the way you present yourself to the world. It’s the way that your community speaks about your school — almost as if it’s a person. 

A great tool to help narrow in on your personality is Nielsen Norman Group’s four key tone of voice dimensions. When my team uses this tool when we’re working with clients who are struggling to determine how to convey their distinct brand through words. To create your ‘tone profile’, your school can determine where you fall within each dimension — either at one extreme (or the other) or somewhere in the middle:

  • Funny vs. serious

  • Formal vs. casual

  • Respectful vs. irreverent

  • Enthusiastic vs. matter of fact.

While a serious, formal, respectful and matter-of-fact tone of voice will likely be appropriate for many schools, other schools might find that a more casual tone of voice is appropriate and will resonate with their community. Others may tweak the tone of voice to be more enthusiastic, or add touches of humor in order to tailor their brand voice to match their school’s personality.

3. Review your existing copy for examples of your brand voice

Once you’re clear on how you want your tone of voice to ‘sound’, it’s time to start finding good examples of it in action. Take a look through your website copy, your blog posts, email communications and social posts and look for any positive examples that you can use in your brand guidelines. You may also come across some copy that definitely does not represent your school’s brand voice — these can be equally helpful by providing future writers with a clear example of what not to do. Auditing your content and throwing away anything that doesn’t fit is a great way for solidifying in your mind what does fit, and will make you more confident when crafting your guidelines. 

As you perform your content audit, keep an eye out for any quirky phrases, names, hashtags, emojis or abbreviations that are unique to your school’s culture. Make sure you document them to create a helpful glossary or word bank to include in your style guide.  

Contextualize your brand voice for different channels

Finally, tie everything together by providing clear guides for using your brand voice across different channels. Each channel has a different purpose, and therefore the nuances of your tone, and the way you communicate will vary depending on the audience and their expectations. 

Pull the real-life examples that you gathered and include them throughout your guidelines to clearly demonstrate what you expect from your content creators in different mediums. You might explain that hashtags, emojis, and conversational language are appropriate on your school’s social media captions, but not on your blog.

You might also use certain words to describe your culture when communicating to an internal audience (your community), but different words when communicating externally on your website or advertising. The more detail you can provide within your guidelines, the easier it will be for new writers to pick up your tone and confidently put it to use.

Call in the professionals

If you’ve reached the end of this article and you’re still feeling stuck, consider calling in the professionals to help you develop your guidelines. Aligning your copy and your website design can support you to create an online brand that makes a big impact on prospective families in your area. 

Looking for a team of professional copywriters to help you get started on your next big project? My team at Heydays Creative would love to hear from you. In the market for a new school website to showcase your brand? Digistorm’s leading team of designers and developers can create a custom-designed site that tells your school’s story. Learn more about developing a new school website with Digistorm.


Published August 1 2022