7 Tips to Finding the Right Tone of Voice

Every piece of writing has a tone of voice. Tone of voice is the personality of your writing. It can be formal, friendly, quirky, snobbish, or just about anything else you can imagine. A lot of technical writing has a stiff and formal tone of voice, probably because the tech writer thinks an instruction manual should give “just the facts, ma’am.”

Actually, often a stiff and formal tone of voice can make your user guide less helpful, not more. No one enjoys reading something that sounds robotic and lifeless—it’s pure drudgery. But we naturally connect with a friendly, human-sounding tone of voice. We become more engaged, more interested, and we learn better. Just think of Ben Stein’s scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off!

When writing your user guide, be purposeful about your tone of voice. The right tone of voice can be the difference between an onerous experience for your users and a rewarding one.

So what tone of voice is the right one? Well, that depends on several things. Here’s seven tips to help you create the right tone of voice for your user guides.

1. Speak directly to the user. A lot of instructions I come across say something like, “The user clicks the Widget button to start the widgeting process.” When the user is the audience, it comes off as though you’re speaking past them, or over them. There’s a disconnect, and it’ll rub your customer the wrong way, even if they’re not fully conscious of it. At the very least, it’s just common courtesy to address the reader directly, with “you,” instead of in the third person.

2. Keep it easy to understand. Use simple sentence structures and common words. Keep the active voice whenever possible. Use short sentences.

3. Consider your reader’s education and reading level. You don’t want to insult your users by talking down to them, or barrage them with highfalutin words that just sound pompous to their ears.

4. Consider the product. Often, the product itself can help you establish the proper tone for your user guide. For example, how would you expect the following user guides to read differently from each other?

Also, if safety is a big factor, you should keep the user guide more formal. You want to make sure the reader takes the proper precautions and a casual tone can undermine the seriousness of your instructions.

Creepy Burger King5. Consider your brand’s personality. The user guide is part of the product—it should be consistent with the product and the brand in every way. Every brand has a personality: Jeep is adventurous; Prudential is solid and dependable; most jewelers are passionate or romantic. Burger King is creepy.

6. Consider your user’s context. Will they be using your product in a hierarchical workplace like the Department of Defense? In their living room? A coffee shop? On an oil rig? Hierarchical and highly structured contexts call for more formal language in the user instructions. It’s more appropriate to the context, and the user will be looking for instructions that are defined by their authority, not their friendliness.

7. Remember that in the end, technical writing is all about you, a person, helping other persons. Always be human.