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Find your own voice: a tone that works
for your whole charity

February 2016

When I worked with CharityComms on a guide on tone of voice, it was in response to a call for help from communications teams who wanted their charity's use of written language to match their visual identity as a way of expressing brand values.

With thousands of copies of Perfect Pitch: linking voice and values downloaded, and a second edition out this month featuring more case studies, it's a good moment  to look at where we are now that more charities are investing in this element of brand.

In the first edition of Perfect Pitch, I highlighted the potential risk when members of the same sector start reviewing how they speak to their audiences, and developing tone of voice guidelines to stand out. It’s pretty easy for peers to catch up, and so what may have started as a distinctive way to use language becomes the norm –with everyone sounding the same. 

For those developing their charity's tone of voice, and looking for a way to sound distinctive, the challenge will be to go beyond generic descriptors like ‘warm’, ‘friendly’ and ‘positive’ that could (hopefully) be applied to any charity, and use language to reinforce what is truly particular about their organisation. As our work with World Vision UK has shown, it’s possible to claim and use language in ways that subtly reinforce your charity’s approach and what you want to be known for, as well as grabbing your audience’s attention with copy that’s warm, friendly and positive. 

A great tone of voice project can also help bring together different departments and find a way to balance across audiences, messages and goals. I'll be talking about this at CharityComms' upcoming event Integrated campaigns: planning, delivering and evaluating.

You can read more about how brand language is evolving, and download the new edition of Perfect Pitch: linking voice and values here.

Turning values into a voice: how language shapes charities’ relationships with donors
January 2016
When we reflect our charity’s values in the way we speak to each other at work, it follows that our external communications improve too. I’m pleased the first 'special project' being undertaken by the Commission on Donor Experience is all about charities’ use of language when they speak to donors. According to the Commission, who are working with researchers at Oxford Brookes University:

‘The language that charities use to communicate with donors has an important influence on donors’ feelings about charity fundraising. This project will focus on developing language to improve the donor experience and recommend what language fundraisers shouldn’t use if they wish to be welcomed and understood by donors.’

Of course, words and tone of voice are only one element in the sum total of the donor experience, and the Commission will be examining other areas too. But the role of language in helping define and shape the relationship between donor and charity should not be overlooked.

When I work with charities on defining and shaping the tone of voice that’s right for them, we start by looking at lots of examples of their written text – from webpages and tweets, to appeals and annual reports. Among the (many, many) questions I’m asking at that point are:

What assumptions would someone reading this make about you?
What assumptions would they make about the person you’re addressing?
What relationship between you and your intended audience could be inferred?

A big influencing factor is the extent to which ‘inside’ language – the shorthand terms, business speak and jargon most of use when we’re at work – contaminate our ‘outside’ language when we’re talking to people beyond the charity.

I’ve written before in praise of the brilliant work done at Prostate Cancer UK  as part of their brand review, analysing their use of language in meetings, internal emails and even the staff kitchen, and identifying how this was impacting their external voice (you can check out the case study in CharityComms’ Branding Inside Out). I’ve found that with most of my clients, this issue of internal language ‘infecting’ the external voice always raises its head at some point in the process.

As Vicky Browning, chief executive at CharityComms, says:
‘When we use words such as "target", "acquisition" and "cultivation", for example, we're not thinking of donors or supporters as people, but as commodities. This is a disconnect many charities want to tackle.’

She highlights an initiative by homelessness charity Crisis, who have introduced a ‘supporter in the room’ policy for its fundraising staff and suppliers. They’re tasked with asking themselves: ‘If one of our supporters was in the room now, how would they feel about what they saw or heard and how we spoke about them?’ The next stage is to consider whether they would do or say anything differently as a result.

For me, if you commit to your values, and then truly embed these in your own language in the workplace, it can’t help but positively impact the way you’ll speak to all your audiences – not just donors but also volunteers, staff and all the people who benefit from your brilliant work.

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