Discovering Your Institution’s Voice

Posted: December 10, 2013

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As a writer in the world of higher ed, you’re often asked to sift through dense mountains of material to communicate what’s most important to your audience. Knowing what to say can be a challenging task for any writer, but knowing how to say it can be even more difficult. With a diverse audience made up of current students, prospective students, faculty, staff, alumni and more, how do you find the right way to speak to them all?

By defining your institution’s voice and tone, you’ll be able to deliver content that consistently represents your institution’s brand while also strengthening its credibility.

Defining Voice and Tone

Voice

Voice is simply your content’s personality and is an extension of your institution’s brand.

Let’s use music as an analogy. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is a classic song that’s been covered countless times over the years. When other musicians take the stage to belt out Ol’ Blue Eyes’ song, it’s their voice “their personality “that makes the song unique. So when someone like the late Sid Vicious takes a shot at “My Way,” he does so in his unique voice in order to make it stand out from what Sinatra originally produced (beware: this video is not for the faint of heart).

The same concept is true for your writing. Compare your institution with any other and you’ll find there’s likely a lot of content dedicated to addressing similar topics (admissions, academics, athletics, alumni, about us, student life, etc.). Your school’s voice is one of the things that makes your content unique from that of other schools and paints a picture about who you are as an institution.

Tone

If voice is your institution’s personality, tone is your institution’s attitude. It’s simply a subcategory of your institution’s voice. While your institution’s voice remains constant throughout your content and acts as an identifier for your institution, your tone is what gives you a chance to mold content to different situations and audiences. Tone may shift from article to article, depending on the circumstances.

Let’s say your school’s voice could be described as informal and conversational. How would your tone shift in the following situations?

  • Your school has just made a huge leap in the rankings and you’re announcing the achievement to the world. In this case, your voice stays the same but your tone demonstrates excitement. An example Facebook post might look like: U.S. News just released this year’s rankings. We jumped 15 spots over last year and couldn’t be more thrilled!  [link to US News article]
  • Your university’s basketball program just lost a heartbreaker in a post-season tournament. In this case, your content might be a tad somber in tone. An example Twitter post might look like: We’re sad the ride had to end, but we couldn’t be more proud of our men’s basketball program. Keep your heads up, guys. #GoHawks #NextYear
  • A prominent alumnus makes a major gift in his family’s name to help build desperately needed facilities at your school. You want to write a blog post announcing his contribution. As before, your voice remains consistent, but your tone would be grateful and humbled. Example copy from a blog might look like: John Smith’s generous gift will benefit so many students here at State University. We’re honored to start construction of the new Smith Center for Human Sciences in the coming months. 

Now that you’ve got a feel for what voice and tone are, it’s time to take a shot at defining them for your institution.

Determining Your Institution’s Voice and Tone

Understanding your institution’s voice will be easier if you already have an established brand. If you don’t, it’s important to define a voice that matches up with your school’s culture and values.

One of the best ways to get a feel for your voice is to sit down for a brainstorm session with content creators, brand managers, and other marketing personnel in your institution. Create a list of adjectives that could be used to describe your school.

As you move through the brainstorm, consider the following questions:

  • Who is the audience you are trying to engage?
  • How does your target audience perceive you?
  • How do you want your audience to perceive you?
  • What’s your institution’s personality?

When you’ve finished your brainstorm, the final descriptors you come up with might look something like this: welcoming, down-to-earth, intelligent, conversational.

Next Steps

Now that you’ve defined your voice, here are some next steps you can take to help put it into action.

Whatever your list looks like, continue to move the process forward by:

  1. Passing it by your marketing and communications department or brand manager for approval.
  2. Producing real examples of how to combine voice and tone (similar to what we did above).
  3. Sharing your newly established guidelines with the rest of your content development team.
  4. Reviewing new content as it is developed to ensure that it is in line with the established guidelines.

Finding Inspiration

If you’re looking for places to start on your quest to defining your institution’s voice and tone, take a look at these examples of well-developed guidelines in higher ed:

You could also check out MailChimp’s Interactive Guide to Voice & Tone for some great exercises on finding the right voice and tone for different situations and audiences.

When developed and employed consistently, your university’s voice will help you engage with your audience and help them learn more about your institution’s story. For your target audiences, it’ll be the difference between hearing their favorite song sung awfully on karaoke night and seeing it performed live by their favorite band.

If you’d like to learn more about how to craft your institution’s tone and voice, reach out to us today. We’re always happy to lend a listening ear and talk shop.