Being Strategic Managing Style

Style? Voice? Tone? What’s the diff?

Based on the number of articles about the topic, defining (and distinguishing among) these three terms or concepts is of some importance to content creators. I’ve added links to a few relevant articles below. The 18-minute video has basically the same information as this blog post because I needed to define these concepts clearly for my grad students this term.

Let’s Talk Style

You should be aware that the concept of communication style has a long intellectual history. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, written around 350 BC, distinguished the development of a message into three parts: invention (the development of a persuasive argument), arrangement (the effective organization of that argument), and style (the way the argument was presented in order to influence the audience). The primary way the concept of style has been used since Aristotle is prescriptive. It’s about what people SHOULD do.

That’s the way we’re using the concept when referring to standards from the Microsoft Writing Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style.

  • Writing style refers to the mechanical choices (e.g., preferred terms or spellings, Oxford commas, source references, footnotes vs. endnotes, etc.) people should make based on the content they write.

At least from the 20th century, linguists have also talked about style.

  • Linguistic style refers to any variation in language (e.g., sounds = phonology, words = lexicography or morphology, sentences = syntax, spelling or punctuation = orthography, etc.).

Linguists observe and explain those variations in dialects, registers, and genres (see Biber & Conrad in the sources below). But we don’t tell anyone which variety to use. Unlike in the rhetorical tradition, a linguistics focus on style is descriptive. It’s about observing what people actually DO. The fact that there is a 40-year old, research journal titled World Englishes (yes, with a plural) is one compelling piece of evidence that linguists study all varieties of all languages, including English.

Linguistic style describes a variation in language. Here’s a personal example: the word coke refers only to Coca-Cola for some people but to any carbonated soft drink for others. My husband taught me to use coke for all soft drinks with my in-laws, but I still use it only for Coca-Cola with my own family because we follow a different standard for naming those beverages.

My husband taught me to use coke for all soft drinks with my in-laws, but I still use it only for Coca-Cola with my own family because we follow a different standard for naming those beverages.

The heart of the difference is that the variation in the meaning of coke is a description for linguists and a prescription for me. Now that you know the difference between linguistic style and writing style, I want to help you connect linguistic style to voice.

Talking about Tone of Voice

Tone and voice are closely related concepts. Most communication professionals (see some sources listed below) accept this distinction:

  • Voice refers to a unique, distinctive brand personality created with language.
  • Tone refers to a brand voice modified for a specific rhetorical situation.

The granddaddy of UX consultancies, Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g), offers a terrific three-minute video explaining that tone of voice appears to occupy just four dimensions. (Note that NN/g does not distinguish tone from voice here.)

NN/g also provides an article on their blog that goes into a little more detail about the four dimensions of tone of voice they’ve identified in their research. Here are two versions of an error message they use as examples.

  1. We apologize, but we are experiencing a problem.
  2. Oops! We’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a problem on our end.

Their research found that the tone of version 1 is perceived as serious, formal, respectful, and matter-of-fact. In contrast, version 2 is perceived as less serious, more casual, a little more irreverent, and more enthusiastic.

This is probably a good time to clarify that a company could choose the tone of either of these two message versions as their brand voice. In the case of version 2, that means the brand voice will be neither funny nor serious; it will be casual; and it will be a little irreverent and enthusiastic. Even though that’s the brand voice, there might be situations in which a specific message requires the tone to be less irreverent and more like version 1. 

Altering Tone of Voice with Linguistic Style

Now let’s dig a little deeper to understand how linguistic style creates tone of voice in the two versions of NN/g’s error message. Here’s a summary table we can discuss.

ToneVersion 1Version 2Linguistic Style Variation
casual, funny, irreverentNAOopslexical
casual, enthusiasticNAOops!orthographic
casualapologizeare sorrylexical
casualNA… on our endlexical
Details of linguistic style variations used to alter tone in NN/g error message versions

To make version 2 of the error message above more funny, casual, irreverent, and enthusiastic, the word Oops and an exclamation point were added at the beginning of the message. The difference in wording of the two versions is lexical, and the difference in punctuation is orthographic.

There are three other differences that create the more casual (but not more funny or irreverent or enthusiastic) tone of voice in version 2 of the message. First, using are sorry as a synonym for apologize is a more casual lexical variation. Second, adding the contraction we’re is a casual orthographic variation. Third, adding on our end is a casual lexical variation of the message.

I think this post is sufficient to define style, tone, and voice. I’m planning another with a different set of examples from an About Us page to demonstrate dimensions of tone of voice created with additional linguistic style variations. Stay tuned …

Sources to Learn More

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