Tone of Voice: a how-to guide for charities
Language is a powerful tool. At Connect Assist, we know this all too well: every day we support hundreds of people facing severe challenges in their lives and many more simply looking for answers delivered with knowledge and empathy. We work alongside charities of all shapes and sizes as their communications partner. Using the right words when communicating with people, especially vulnerable people, is essential.
So it’s vital that your charity develops a clear tone of voice for all its communications. This way, your charity can explain who you are, build connections with people, and strengthen your brand. You can choose the right words to communicate with different audiences: persuading them to donate, informing them of your impact, or offering comfort and advice.
In this guide, we’ll explore how your charity can develop a tone of voice that can be tailored across multiple channels.
And we’ll explain how empathy mapping can help you understand your stakeholders, so you can adapt your communications to different audiences.
1. Developing a tone of voice
“The language we use when we communicate plays an important role in the emotional connections people make with us. Or perhaps don’t make with us. ..There’s another reason why our tone of voice is so important. It’s vital to get our messages across clearly and consistently.”
-Girlguiding’s Tone of Voice guidelines.
Your tone of voice is an integral part of your brand identity. It’s the way you get your key messages across, communicate your values and purpose, and help your charity achieve its aims.
It needs to be:
Distinctive. Your audiences must feel they understand what your charity stands for (and why it’s the best!). Carry out a competitor analysis to make sure your communications stand out.
Relatable. Your audiences must feel they could talk to your charity’s people if they met you. Audience research and empathy mapping can help you gain a deeper understanding of your supporters, donors and service users.
Consistent. Your audiences need to recognise your charity wherever they come across you. Consider how you can adapt to different channels – see point 2.
One analysis suggests there are four dimensions for tone of voice. It’s up to your charity to decide where its communications should lie.
2. Tailoring to different platforms
The point above about consistency raises a tricky issue, as charities must adjust their tone of voice to different audiences and platforms.
So your tone of voice needs to have some flexibility built in. Just as we choose different words when texting a friend or meeting with colleagues, so should your charity!
3. Avoiding donor apathy
“Fundraisers should always do the right thing by donors, treating them always with respect in the language they use, in how they communicate inspiration and in the fundraising practices they pursue. Pressure, persistence and undue persuasion are not the right approaches for fundraisers.”
–The Commission on the Donor Experience
Your tone of voice enables you to build a human connection with your donors. Otherwise, they can feel that your interactions with them are merely transactional – or, to put it in a different tone of voice, you’re only after their money!
Address them directly: “you” rather than “donors”.
Thank them! Retweet their fundraising posts, like their Facebook fundraising stories etc.
Provide follow-up stories to explain how their donations are making a difference.
4. Connecting with people who need you
By using personal, empathetic language, charities can connect better with people who might be struggling, and tell them that it’s okay to seek help.
Talk about your charity in the first person. By using “we” rather than “they”, you show that you are a team of caring individuals, not a faceless and remote organisation.
Avoid jargon, acronyms or complicated words. These can be overly clinical and off-putting.
Keep sentences short. It’s easier for everyone, particularly people who find reading hard.
Use inclusive language. Even if you target one particular demographic (e.g. older people), remember that they come from all sorts of different backgrounds.
5. Which charities have a great tone of voice?
Many charities have invested a huge amount of resources into getting their tone right. Here are a few of the best to inspire you:
Mind: The mental health charity has chosen a warm tone of voice using simple rather than clinical language (e.g. “tough time”). It emphasises that mental health issues can affect anyone, helping to reduce stigma and encourage people to open up and seek support.
6. Use ‘social proof’ to inspire
Humans are essentially pack animals; particularly when we’re uncertain about something, we turn to others for advice or for inspiration.
Here are a few ways you can incorporate social proof (also known as ‘informational social influence’) into your tone of voice:
Numbers: show how many pounds have been raised, how many people have run the marathon for you, or how many people have phoned your helpline.
Case studies: demonstrate how you have helped real individuals (using fake names and images if necessary).
Social media: encourage your supporters to post photos of their sponsored runs, or share your campaigns with their friends and followers.
Recommendations: use real-life quotes from donors or people you’ve supported can boost trust and inspire others to follow suit.
Celebrities: By getting a famous person on board your campaign, you can increase relatability and trust in your charity.
7. Timing and sensitivity in your communications
In communications, what works one day can fall flat – or worse – the next. This is particularly true currently, with issues such as COVID-19, the rising cost of living, the war in Ukraine, and climate change all having an impact.
A planned campaign might need to be tweaked, delayed, or discarded if its tone of voice or theme is out-of-kilter with the national mood.
Crisis communications, e.g. addressing an issue at your charity such as a breach of customer data, always require a more sombre tone of voice, even if you normally adopt a breezy manner.
Remember: you never know what your individual readers are going through at a given moment. While we cannot be serious all the time, we can try to be sensitive to the more common issues that audiences might experience.
8. Introduce empathy mapping
As a communicator, you know what your charity wants to say. But do you know what your audience needs and wants to hear, and how?
Empathy maps are tools to build a broader understanding of users, donors and supporters, and their motivation for interacting with your charity. They shift the focus from what your charity is trying to achieve (e.g. raise money) to what your donor is trying to achieve (e.g. feel their donation is having an impact).
Draw on data: your existing customer data; focus groups; external research etc.
Explore categories such as: feelings; tasks; influences; pain points; and goals.
Can be used as a foundation for audience personas, giving you an idea of a typical donor, supporter or service user.
Connect Assist: an empathetic ear
We employ call centre agents who are professionally trained with experience, expertise and empathy to support service users. They provide solution-focused therapy sessions by phone, video and email or can refer customers to more in-depth support such as face to face appointments.
We also offer training to your current helpline staff.
Contact us today to find out more about our contact centre and charity consultancy services.