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Style Manual

Voice and tone

Writing style is a result of voice and tone. Adjust your style to meet user needs. It influences whether and how people engage with content.

Adapt writing style with tone and voice

Writing style describes the way you express ideas in content. The tone and voice you use influence the writing style for any type of content.

Tone is the way you express ideas. It includes the words you use, the way you put them together and their level of formality.

Voice captures who is writing – a persona that people understand when they engage with the content. Voice can be objective and institutional or personal and friendly.

Adapt tone and voice to engage users, so the content can meet their needs. For example, briefs for ministers will use a different tone and voice to a speech or information on a website.

Align tone to context

Tone is created by four elements:

  • choice of words
  • viewpoint
  • grammar
  • level of formality.

Word choice

Word choice will influence how users respond to you and your organisation. The smallest details, such as using contractions, can affect how content comes across.

Viewpoint

The way the user relates to the content can depend on what pronouns feature in sentence structure.

The second person (using the pronoun ‘you’) is active, direct and personal. It can be more engaging for people reading and using government content.

Using the first person singular (the pronoun ‘I’) is rarely suitable in government content, except in correspondence.

Grammar

Grammar is about sentence structure. It affects the way your writing sounds and how easy it is to read.

Formality

Formality is about how closely you follow standard English and how familiar the tone of content needs to be.

Choose how formal tone should be

The appropriate level of formality depends on what the relationship is between content and its user. There are three levels of formality:

  • formal
  • standard
  • informal.

A formal tone creates a distance between the content’s persona and the content’s reader.

An informal tone suggests a relationship that is more casual and intimate.

A standard tone sits between these two. It is appropriate for most government content. It creates little distance, but not too much familiarity, into the relationship with readers.

Example

Guests should be seated 15 minutes before the performance starts. [Formal]

Why don’t you come in early and grab a seat before things get started? [Informal]

Standard style is the easiest for many people to understand.

Example

Please arrive 15 minutes before the concert starts. [Standard]

Formality does not affect plain language.

Formal tone

Formal tone:

  • doesn’t use contractions
  • is literal – words are used with their dictionary meaning
  • doesn’t use metaphor, slang or idioms
  • often uses the third person (he, she, they, them).

Legal writing, policies, reports and ministerial letters often adopt a formal tone. You can also use it in emails and letters when you have not yet met the person you are writing to.

Formal tone is used in ceremonies and to show respect for someone in authority.

Standard tone

Standard tone combines formal and informal tone. Most people find standard tone easiest to understand.

Standard tone:

  • can use contractions and personal pronouns
  • doesn’t use metaphors, idioms or slang.

You will probably use standard tone for most government content. This includes:

  • emails and letters
  • online government services
  • corporate communications
  • media releases
  • articles.

Informal tone

Informal tone uses contractions and personal pronouns.

Informal tone can use metaphors and idioms, which can have a negative effect on inclusion. Metaphors and idioms are not plain language.

You should not use slang when writing on behalf of government.

Social media and blogs often use informal tone. Your writing might also become more informal as you get to know the people you are writing to.

Identify the right voice

Voice is sometimes called a persona. It refers to the personality implicit in the content.

Voice can be objective, formal and institutional, or it can be personal and friendly. The right voice for content will depend on the persona fit for the content.

Voice and the elements of tone are closely connected. Voice can create a tone of equality (a relationship between equals) or one that assumes authority (power is unequal).

A voice, or persona, can be:

  • supportive, friendly, positive and empowering
  • expert, impartial and balanced
  • serious and authoritative, but reasonable, legitimate and measured.

Check your organisation’s style guide to see if it has advice about the organisation’s voice.

If not, a safe place to start is with a basic government voice. It is the voice of a ‘definitive source’ and is:

  • respectful
  • clear and direct
  • objective and impartial.

A respectful writing style:

  • uses inclusive language
  • expresses ideas in everyday words
  • ‘speaks’ to people – using the pronoun ‘you’, for example
  • doesn’t use inflammatory language, such as name-calling or sarcasm
  • doesn’t speak down to people, but isn’t too familiar either.

A clear and direct writing style:

  • is in plain language
  • uses active voice
  • is concise
  • structures ideas
  • makes it easy for people to understand what they need to know or do.
Write this

We will not be funding any new projects this year.

Not this

In-flight projects will be funded subject to FAS FMDC approval. Other projects have not passed the first capital bid round and are deemed unsuccessful.

Objective and impartial writing:

  • relies on facts
  • doesn’t include opinion
  • is balanced and non-biased.

The difference between fact and opinion can be subtle.

Viewpoint affects perception of whether information is neutral or impartial. Using adjectives and adverbs can too.

Write this

There was 15 mm of rain last summer. This made it the driest summer for 120 years.

Not this

Only 15 mm of rain meant last summer was the driest we’ve ever had.

Release notes

The digital edition has mostly new content on voice and tone.

It uses the terms ‘voice’ and ‘tone’, but does not use the term ‘register’ as described in the sixth edition. Instead, this edition uses voice and tone to describe different aspects of register.

The Content Guide had brief advice on voice and tone in ‘Writing style’.

About this page

References

General Services Administration (n.d.) ‘Voice and tone’, 18F content guide, 18F Content Guide website, accessed 9 September 2020.

Kelleher T (2009) ‘Conversational voice, communicated commitment, and public relations outcomes in interactive online communication’, Journal of Communication,59(1):172–188, doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.01410.x.

McKenzie J (2011) The editor’s companion, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

New Zealand Government (2020) ‘Voice and tone’, Content design guidance, digital,govt.nz, accessed 9 September 2020.

Nordquist, R (2019) What is Tone in Writing?, ThoughCo.com, viewed on 4 January 2020.

NSW Government (2020) ‘Finding a tone of voice’, digital.nsw, accessed 5 May 2020.

Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2020) ‘Tone’, Canada.ca content style guide, Canada.ca, accessed 9 September 2020.

University of Maryland University College (2011) A word about style, voice and tone, Online Guide to Writing and Research, University of Maryland University College website, accessed 15 October 2019.

University of Reading (2013) GOV.UK content principles: conventions and research background, GOV.UK website, accessed 4 May 2020.

Wheaton College (2009) Style, diction, tone and voice, Wheaton College, viewed on 15 October 2019.

This page was updated Monday 21 September 2020.

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