voice vs tone

Voice vs Tone: The 1-2 Punch for Content That Crackles in 2023

Voice vs Tone in Writing. Master both and you’ll elevate your content, engage your audience, and boost your brand’s success. Here’s everything you need to know.

Voice vs Tone.

When it comes to crafting unique, brand-defining content, the nuances of style matter.

Voice and tone are a great place to start.

Taken separately, they serve different purposes. Put together, they’ll make your writing crackle with distinction. In this article, we’ll explore their differences and–

  • Show you why voice and tone are uniquely important.
  • Share examples of how voice and tone shape great writing.
  • Show you how voice and tone can make your writing pop.
  • Share a few tips from the masters.

Read this article through and you’ll have a solid grasp of voice and tone. Practice what’s here and you’ll elevate your content to new heights. Ready to go?

Let’s get started.


Voice vs Tone

Voice is the consistent personality of a writer or brand, a prevailing style that’s reflected in word choice, sentence structure, and attitude. Tone, on the other hand, is the varying emotional quality or mood of a piece of writing, one dictated by the context, audience, and purpose of the content.

voice vs tone

Voice In Writing

What is Voice?

In the world of writing, voice is character. It’s a writer’s individuality– their choice of words, sentence style, cadence and pace, the overall rhythm and flow of their prose– that becomes, in effect, a stylistic trademark.

Consider, for example, Ernest Hemingway, whose minimalist style stands out by its simple vocabulary and short sentences. Or J.K. Rowling, whose vivid, immersive description transports readers into magical worlds.

It’s the witty, satirical way Jane Austen lampoons English high society. It’s the clever humor and local vernacular Mark Twain used to revolutionize American Realism.

Voice is indispensable to your writing style– as unique as personality, as personal as appearance. Write naturally, write authentically, and yours will come through as well.

Elements of Voice

voice vs tone

Word Choice

Words reveal personality, and perspective. The casual style of a blogger feels approachable, relatable, while the white paper writer uses serious, technical vocabulary to be seen as sophisticated and authoritative.

William F. Buckley, for example, was an unapologetic elitist whose voice was marked by rich, precise vocabulary, as we see in this passage from God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom’

For if the institution of academic freedom is to survive as an integral part of the educational process, it is essential that its limitations, as well as its potentialities, be fully understood by all members of the academic community….

Stephen King, conversely, is an accessible storyteller whose voice is marked by colloquial, straightforward language creating vivid imagery and starkly knowable characters, as this passage from The Shining illustrates–

Ullman was the type who enjoyed polishing silverware and arranging ashtrays on the decks of ocean liners. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. And every detail, under his control.

voice vs tone
stephen king via lareviewofbooks.org

Sentence Structure

Sentence structure IS voice.

Bold claim, but kind of true. Short, simple sentences create urgency, scarcity, ruggedness, while longer, complex sentences convey a thoughtful, moody and contemplative voice.

Here are three examples—

Joan Didion is known for her painstakingly precise, often melancholic style. Long, complex sentences with multiple clauses within, as depicted in this contemplative passage (ellipses are mine) from The White Album

I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling…During those five years I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a hardworking member, but I now realize that I was bent on self-destruction.

voice vs tone
joan didion via thevillagesun.com

Famous for his concise, unadorned writing style, Ernest Hemingway’s reads are the stories of plain-spoken men, as this sampling of The Old Man and the Sea reveals

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him.

Finally, Carson McCullers used a mix of sentence lengths to convey beautifully, if not sadly, the themes of loneliness, alienation, and unfulfilled longing evidenced in this passage from her breakthrough novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The town was dark and the rain falling. And it was like a long blind spot in her life, seeing the dark buildings and the rain and feeling the coldness in her chest. All of the little empty places inside her opened up and the rain just poured in. She felt empty and lost.

voice vs tone
carson mccullers via radicalreads.com

Cadence & Flow

Cadence creates memorable voice, and great writers have distinguished themselves with it.

Virginia Woolf, for example, wrote with fluid rhythm, her sentences meandering, flowing in a continuous stream of consciousness, as seen in this sample from To the Lighthouse

So she would still find herself arguing in St. James’s Park, still making out that she had been right—and she had too—not to marry, not to have a single tie; but to remain, she said, “a private person”; as she said, “disinterested”; as she said, “with a mind made up of curls and feather boas”; to be, she said, “not formidable, not angular, not strong, but sweet.”

Cormac McCarthy writes with a cadence best described as sparse, like the harsh, desolate landscapes of his novels. This passage from The Road is a great example

The blackness he woke to on those nights was sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.

voice vs tone
cormac mccarthy via nytimes.com

Point of View (POV)

Point of view is the most intentional element of voice because it’s chosen deliberately by the author as the platform from which she’ll tell her story. Jane Austen, whose stories have undergone all manner of Hollywood and BBC adaptations, writes Pride and Prejudice through the limited (third person) POV of the spirited Elizabeth Bennet, whose solitary perspective allows Austen to satirize the phoniness of English gentry–

Mr. Darcy drew the attention of the room by his handsome features… and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till he was discovered to be proud… above his company… and not even his large estate could save him…

In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger gives us the first person POV of Holden Caulfield, a disillusioned teenager who, having been expelled from prep school, spends the length of the novel wandering New York City in search of all that remains pure and uncorrupted—

Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.

voice vs tone
jd salinger via time.com

Find your voice, write with voice, and your readers will spot you a mile away.

Tone in Writing

What is Tone?

A writer doesn’t have a soundtrack or a strobe light to build the effect she wants. She has conflict, surprise, imagery, details, the words she chooses, and the way she arranges them in sentences.

Adair Lara, Writersdigest.com

Tone, if you think about it, is the flavor, color and shade of those special effects Adair Lara is talking about. Tone is attitude, mood, emotional quality. It’s what shapes the reader’s perception of your writing. It aligns them with the angle you’re coming at them from.

Sarcastic tone says isn’t that absurd? Serious tone says I’m an authority so sit up straight and listen.

voice vs tone

Unlike voice, which remains consistent, tone changes complexion to match audience and context. It’s the key to connecting with the reader, and creates the response you’re looking for.

Positive, encouraging, conversational tones create openness in the reader. Condescending, self-important tones are an instant turn-off.

So, now that we have a sense of what tone is, let’s see how it’s done.

Elements That Convey Tone

Word Choice

Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

voice vs tone
jk rowling via gbnews.com

J.K. Rowling’s word choice–knobbly knees, bright green eyes and glasses held together with a lot of Sellotape— each contribute to the whimsical, enchanting tone that carries the Harry Potter series. Here’s a more stark but equally effective example from George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones

In the cold, dead world of the long night, warm things moved, things that had no place in the world of ice and darkness. They were small, those warm things, no larger than a man’s hand, but quick and fierce as they scuttled across the snow.

Martin’s immersion into the complex, brutal world of Westeros creates a tone both grand and gritty. His word choices– cold, dead world of the long night and quick and fierce— create tension, an unease that adds to the dark, brutish tone pervading the series.

Sentence Structure

Sentence complexity impacts tone in much the same way it does voice.

Short, simple sentences feel quick, direct and accessible, while longer, more intricate sentences feel complicated, contemplative, nuanced and involved. Check this out–

But what was there to say? Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief. Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

A Temporary Matter from Interpreter of Maladies

voice vs tone
jhumpa lahiri via barnard.edu


Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story captures brilliantly the conflicted reflection of a man’s passion with his estranged spouse. The tone– introspective, elegant, deeply emotional– is powerfully delivered through parallel sentence structure and repetition. Her poignant comparison of Quietness and Emptiness to stacked spoons is a powerful metaphor for the intimacy they shared.


Punctuation creates tone.

Exclamation points add enthusiasm. A series of ellipses create suspense, hesitation. The em-dash conveys confusion, indecision, despair. And the comma-semicolon will influence rhythm and pacing.

Look at how Toni Morrison uses punctuation in her novel Beloved

She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.

Morrison is known for using punctuation sparsely but impactfully. In this passage, Morrison’s punctuation creates intimate connection, her absence of periods and capitalization allows for a flowing sense of the emotional intensity of the relationship.

voice vs tone

Tone Using All Three

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

The Tell-Tale Heart

The master of macabre, Edgar Allen Poe uses short, choppy sentences, repetition, exclamatory statements, all of them building the frantic storyteller’s increasing paranoia and guilt. His use of dashes creates urgency, an inability to maintain a thought. His repetition of nervous builds a sense of agitation, and rhetorical questions reinforce his defensiveness.

All of this while insisting on healthily, calmly, telling the story.

Tone moves the reader. It invites with empathy, it repels with condescension and self-importance, it attracts with intrigue. Get tone right, and you’ll readers by the bushel.

Voice vs Tone In Branding, Content and Ad Copy

We’ve used literary works to show the impact of voice and tone in great writing. Let’s shift focus and see how they’re used in branding and marketing.

Voice As Persona

Voice is a brand’s overarching persona. It bleeds brand personality and creates an indelible familiarity with the audience. The biggest brands get this, as the following illustrate–


voice vs tone

Meet the iPhone 13. Available in five new colors, it has the brightest, most colorful display ever on an iPhone. Both Wide and Ultra Wide cameras now have Night mode…Plus, it’s powered by the fastest chip in a smartphone…

Simple, direct sentences. Feature-and-benefit copy that’s focused on design and functionality. Apple’s voice breathes simplicity, elegance, and innovation.


…we’re all capable of greatness, and it’s time to stop waiting and start doing… Nike is here to help you overcome your doubts and fears and push yourself to achieve your goals.

Inspiration, empowerment, perseverance and excellence, Nike’s voice rings through its emotional, encouraging storytelling.


voice vs tone

Open happiness…share in the simple moments of joy that make life sweet… Coca-Cola is there to help you make memories and celebrate the moments that matter.

With warm, friendly language and accents of community and celebration, Coca-Cola’s voice is nostalgia, happiness, and togetherness.

Tone As An Adaptive Style Element

Whereas a brand maintains the same voice throughout its content and copy, it will use different tones to match a situation or audience. Let’s illustrate–

Airbnb–an Inspiring Tone for Travellers

Live like a local… whether it’s a chic apartment in Paris or a cozy cabin in the woods, you’ll find your home away from home with Airbnb.

Airbnb’s uses an aspirational tone to appeal to a traveller’s sense of adventure and discovery.

voice vs tone

Airbnb–a Reassuring Tone for Hosts

Hosting with Airbnb is easy and safe. We verify every guest’s identity…and provide 24/7 support in case of emergencies. Plus, you’re in control of who stays in your home and when.

When targeting hosts, Airbnb uses practical, reassuring tones to assuage concerns over security and control.

Voice vs Tone & Getting It Right

Your voice and relevant tones will become clearer as you work through branding and content strategy. But voice and tone need to be used intelligently so your brand comes across as sensitive and tuned in.

Here are a few examples of how it’s done well, and, well, how it’s not—

Voice Done Well–MailChimp

voice vs tone

We checked the mail, and something from your website was waiting for us. But don’t worry, it’s nothing bad! We just need you to review a few things…  

In a tech-slanged niche space, Mailchimp’s brand voice is refreshingly friendly, straightforward, and slightly quirky. Even when things get technical, Mailchimp keeps it engaging, digestible and unintimidating.

Voice Done Badly—Pepsi

voice vs tone
NY Times via Pepsi-YouTube

In 2017, Pepsi dropped an insensitive, cringe-worthy ad showing Kendall Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join a protest, and subsequently de-escalating the conflict by offering a Pepsi to a police officer.


Would that life were so simple. But it’s not, and the ad was pilloried for trivializing social justice issues.  Result? Pepsi’s presumptuous play with their brand voice damaged its identity.

And trust.

Tone Done Well—Dove

You’re more beautiful than you think. Don’t let your insecurities hold you back. You are strong, you are powerful, you are beautiful.

voice vs tone

Dove’s remarkable Real Beauty campaign uses empathy and sensitivity to promote body positivity and self-acceptance among those who struggle with body image.

Tone Done Deafly—H&M

In 2018, H&M released an ad featuring a an African-American boy wearing a hoodie with the phrase Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.  

Wow. Really?

Regrettably, yes, and, as it should have been, the ad was widely criticized for being racially tone-deaf.

Predictably, the ad sparked outrage and calls for boycott. H&M’s sloppy failure to mind their tone needlessly damaged the brand.

Voice vs Tone & Being Consistently Good

A brand’s success with voice and tone are no accident. Here are 3 keys to being consistently good–

Take Your Cues From Patagonia

voice vs tone

Patagonia is a brand who knows their core values and personality traits–

  • We’re in business to save our home planet.
  • Don’t buy what we make if you don’t need it.

In Ads, on their website, Patagonia’s brand voice is unabashedly eco-conscious. Consistently positive, boldly willing to sell less to be authentic, they’re an inspiration to progressive branding. So, as you progress through your own, get clear with your brand values, your personality, and the emotions that go with it.

Grow Your Voice With Strategy & Style

When you know your brand values and personality, your voice tends to develop organically. However, having voice and tone guidelines in your content strategy can speed up the process. And for consistency in your content, make them part of your style guide as well.

A content style guide gives staff and freelance creators the direction and preferences that keep content voice where you want it. It’s an indispensable piece for any brand that’s serious about content marketing. If you don’t have one yet, get up to speed and check out these excellent examples—

Let Tone Be a Chameleon

voice vs tone

Nike’s brand voice is inspiring and motivational, but their audiences are a diverse composite of high-level athletes, casual wearers, and Nike kid parents.

Accordingly, their tone adapts itself–

  • For Athletes, tone emphasizes hard work, dedication, top-athlete storytelling pushes it across the finish line.
  • For Casual wearers, tone is relaxed, relatable, a focus on comfort and style.
  • For Kids (parents), tone is fun, brightly colored, playful graphics and childlike language that speak to both.
voice vs tone

Adapting tone means knowing your audience so your word choice is empathetic. Match your tone to the purpose of your content–

Inspire? Amuse? Agitate?

Different purposes mean different tones, even if the ultimate objective is the same (Nike sells messages… and Shoes).

Voice & Tone– Tips from the Legends


voice vs tone
mia angelou via goalcast.com
Maya Angelou– Your Power is the Effect You Have on Your Readers

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Anne Lamott– Write What You Know

Your voice is your experience. When you write from what you know, you speak with authority.  

J.K. Rowling– Read, Read, Read

Read as much as you can. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing, and it will enlarge your vocabulary.

Ernest Hemingway– Experiment With Different Styles
voice vs tone
ernest hemingway photograph by yousuf karsh

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. You needn’t parrot other writers, but experiment with styles and voices to find your own.


Anton Chekhov– Words Tell, Details Show

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Stephen King– Write for Yourself, Edit for Audience

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out into the world.

Edgar Allan Poe—Repetition Begets Rhythm

There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion. Repetition creates a sense of rhythm that defines the impact of tone.  

Voice vs Tone—Time to Level Up

voice vs tone

Voice that rings of personality. Tone matched perfectly to the moment. Master both and you’ll elevate your writing, so….

Read widely, to discover voices, and appreciate tones.

Write, under this voice and that, with tones high and low. Experiment, with long sentences, and short. Play with punctuation like you were Poe. Write without rules and see how it feels.

You’re finding your voice. And tone ain’t far behind.

See you on page 1.

Questions? Clarifications? Feel free to drop me a line. Check out our blog page for examples to model your own work on. You can shoot over to our portfolio page for inspiration too. And if you prefer to have an agency do it for you, read about our content writing and SEO services here.

In the meantime, Best of Luck. And Be Well.

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