Your Brand Voice: Does It Pass the “No Shit” Test?

You believe in your business. It’s obvious to you that your brand offers something your competitors don’t. And you know that more of your prospective customers would agree—your current customers already do!—if you could just do a better job of connecting with them.

One of the first steps: defining a brand voice that speaks to your target audience and reflects what makes your brand special, valuable, and worth remembering.

There are a million tools for structuring clear, tactical voice and tone guidelines that will inform your brand communications well into the future—but that’s for another day. For now, let’s focus on one of my favorites: the “Is/Is Not” list.

The purpose of an “Is/Is Not” list is to articulate the nuances of your brand voice. To illustrate: imagine you’re describing someone you just met, maybe a potential match for a single friend. You might describe the person as smart, funny, and handsome—all useful things to know, but not particularly distinctive.

Now imagine you say instead that the person is smart, but not bookish; funny, but not goofy; handsome, but not in a Ken-doll sort of way. Starts to paint a much more specific picture, doesn’t it?

But here’s the thing. When you’re talking about your own business, it can be really hard to stay focused. A lot—and I mean a lot—of businesses mistake the “Is/Is Not” list for a chance to define all the ways in which their brands are awesome. Here’s what a very typical “Is/Is Not” list might look like.

The Company X Brand Voice

IS

IS NOT

Persistent

Pushy

Concise

Abrupt

Authoritative

Patronizing

Energetic

Irritating

My first response when I see this list? Yeah, no shit, you wouldn’t describe your brand voice as pushy, abrupt, patronizing, or irritating. Put another way, would any business ever use “pushy, abrupt, patronizing, and irritating” as “Is” words? Of course not!

Rule of thumb: Your “Is Not” words should be able to function as “Is” words in a parallel universe.

Now imagine that we rewrite this list to use less negative, more nuanced words in the “Is Not” column.

The Company X Brand Voice

IS

IS NOT

Persistent

Insistent

Concise

Simple

Authoritative

Formal

Energetic

Excited

Now we’re getting somewhere. I know that the brand sticks to its message, but doesn’t push it. I know it keeps things brief, but is thoughtful about word choice. I know the brand shows its expertise, but in a relatable way. And I know the brand has energy, but isn’t given to using exclamation points.

Would a different business potentially describe its brand voice as “insistent”? “Simple”? “Formal”? “Excited”? Sure. Those aren’t inherently negative words—they just carry different connotations.

Now, I’ll be honest: writing that list was a lot harder. But you know what? It should be a little hard. It should take a while. It should require that you bust out the old thesaurus (or your favorite dictionary app) to find exactly the right words to describe the living, human characteristics of your brand voice.

So start by writing down words that describe how you want your brand to sound. Don’t censor yourself—write down anything that comes to you, even if you’re not sure about it yet. Think about all the ways your brand communicates: through your website, emails, ads, brochures, blog posts, you name it. Your brand voice should be consistent and recognizable in ALL of those places.

Once you’ve got a long list of words to work with, start thinking about contrasting words for each of them. Run every single pair through the “no shit” test. Be brutal. Your “Is” words may even begin to change as the “Is Nots” become clearer.

Expect several rounds of this before you narrow it down to the 6-8 word pairs that feel right: more will be overwhelming; fewer won’t capture the full complexity of your brand. And be open as you go through the process—some of the best words will pop into your head at the weirdest times (say, in the shower…anyone?).

And trust me—if you take the time to do this, you’ll have an end product that will noticeably clarify your brand communications, help your brand resonate with the customers who are right for your business, and remain relevant as your business grows. No shit.

Now, your turn: What “Is/Is Not” words have you struggled with the most? What’s the best “no shit” example you’ve seen? Tweet it, share it, or send me an email.



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