The Power of Tone of Voice in Life Science Marketing – Part I

By David Chapin

tone of voice life science marketing pt 1




In marketing communications, tone of voice is not your content or message, but it is crucial nonetheless. While tone of voice is a powerful tool to differentiate your offerings, it is often ignored. In this first in a series on tone of voice in marketing, I tease apart some of the interesting aspects of tone of voice, reveal a multi-dimensional scale that can be used to classify different tones of voice, and outline one possible system for defining your specific tone of voice.

Life science marketing communication is multi-dimensional.

Most marketing in the life sciences tends to emphasize only certain dimensions of communication while ignoring others. This is understandable, but it’s a mistake.Marketing is one corporate function whose main responsibility involves clear communication. Communication is—of course—multi-dimensional (more on this in a second), but most marketing in the life sciences tends to emphasize only certain dimensions while ignoring others. This is understandable, but it’s a mistake. Marketers are missing the boat when they do this, passing up opportunities to differentiate their organization, clarify their message, engage their audience and align their sales, marketing, operations and leadership teams.

Six aspects of life science marketing communication.
Most marketers define their communication strategy by approaching the multiple aspects of marketing communication in a specific order, starting at the top of this list and work their way down:

  • Who we’re talking to—the audience; for example: C-suite executives inside mid-size sponsor organizations
  • Why we’re talking—the rationale or call to action; for example: to increase interest in our new offering or to drive traffic to our trade show booth
  • What we say—the message; for example: “our services are comprehensive” or “our instrument has the highest resolution”
  • Where we say it—the channel; for example: web site, trade show booth, email blasts, content, etc.
  • When we say it—the timing; for example: three weeks before the big trade show
  • How we say it—the tone of voice; for example, formal vs. casual, or humorous vs. serious. 

Are you different from your life science competitors? If not, you’re a commodity.
To understand why it’s a mistake to ignore some of these aspects, consider your competitors. They’re probably using this list and tackling it in the same order, right? So where will the differences between you and them be most noticeable?

Figure 1: There are only two aspects where your differentiation can be seen clearly.
Yet most marketers don’t pay enough attention to tone of voice (“How it’s said”) as an avenue for creating differentiation.

    • Who it’s said to—the audience. Your prospects are the same ones being targeted by your competitors. Not much obvious difference here.
    • Why it’s said—the rationale or call to action. Your competitors want attention; you want attention. Not much obvious difference here.
    • What to say—the message. This is a prime dimension for differentiating yourself. (Though in reality many marketers still haven’t drawn a clear enough distinction between themselves and their competitors, through their positioning and UVP.)
There are only two aspects where your differentiation can be seen clearly. Yet most marketers don’t pay enough attention to tone of voice (“How it’s said”) as an avenue for creating differentiation.
  • Where it’s said—the channel. There aren’t that many channels, and prospects only pay attention to a few, so again, there’s not much obvious difference here.
  • When it’s said—the timing. It’s difficult to predict the timing that will best fit with your prospects’ needs. Sometimes this can be predicted (e.g., in the last few weeks before the trade show), and many times it can’t (e.g., when a prospect is finally ready to get serious about solving their problem). In any case, since most of the timing is driven by the prospect, there’s not much obvious difference between you and your competitors here.
  • How it’s said—the tone of voice. This is a prime opportunity to differentiate yourself.

The forgotten aspect of life science marketing communication.
Scanning the list above, two key aspects of life science marketing communication clearly stand out as vehicles for differentiation: What is said—the message, and How it’s said—the tone of voice. Unfortunately, many marketers focus only on the first and ignore the second.

A quick experiment: how common is it to use tone of voice to differentiate life science marketing communications?
My hypothesis is that many marketers ignore the power of tone of voice to differentiate. It’s easy to run an experiment to determine whether this is true. I’ve snatched the two paragraphs below from the web sites of two different, well-known organizations (I’ve redacted only their specific brand names). I didn’t cherry-pick these examples to prove my point. I simply chose a sector (flow cytometry) and let my trusty search engine take me to the specific product pages of two of the highest-ranking products.

Let’s take a close look at the message and the tone of voice of these two competitors.

Organization 1: “The XYZ Flow Cytometer provides the performance you need in an easy to use system allowing you to focus on the science, not the instrumentation. The XYZ Flow Cytometer’s superior sensitivity and resolution throughout all configurations give it the edge over other cytometry systems four times its size.”

Organization 2: “SENSITIVITY. PURITY. CONSISTENCY. The sensitivity and automated technology of the ABC system makes it ideal for identifying rare cells, which can make all the difference in your research. Simplifying the workflow while reducing variation, the ABC high performance cell sorter provides excellent purity and yield to drive superior performance.”

Where are the differences? Let’s start by examining What is said (the message).

Organization 1’s message emphasizes performance, ease of use, sensitivity and resolution.

Organization 2’s message emphasizes sensitivity, automation, simplified workflow (that is, ease of use), purity and yield.

Frankly, there’s not much difference between these two, is there? Certainly, there’s nothing that’s being touted as completely unique on either site.

Now let’s examine How it’s said, that is, the tone of voice. Go back and read the two paragraphs; do you detect any differences in the tone of voice? I don’t. They’re both slightly enthusiastic, serious, and slightly formal.

What are the results of our experiment—that is, what differentiation do we see? There’s little differentiation in message and no difference in tone of voice. These marketers are not doing enough to differentiate their offering. And they’re certainly not using tone of voice as a competitive differentiator.

This is just one specific example of a broad trend in life science marketing.
I’m not trying to pick on these specific marketers; I’m only using these examples to make my point. You see, this experiment is easily replicable. Pick any two competitors in the life sciences. On each site, examine the pages devoted to a specific offering. Look closely for differentiation. Any differentiation you do see will likely exist only in the message, not in the tone of voice.

What if we ran this same experiment with your web site and your top competitors’? What differences would we find in the messages? What about in the tone of voice? Are you utilizing tone of voice as a differentiator?

Tone of voice is not the content of your communications, but when used properly it communicates clearly (and differentiates) just the same.

The fact is, most life science marketers don’t focus enough on differentiating their offerings in any way at all. And if they do, they only emphasize one aspect of their palette of communication tools: the message. Tone of voice is often ignored. This is a wasted opportunity.

Tone of voice is a strong differentiator.
Tone of voice is not the content of your communications, but when used properly it communicates clearly just the same. Take a look at the two images in figure 1. The message is the same, but because of the photos the message is paired with, one can hear the words with a completely separate tone of voice—one that completely changes the meaning of the message.

Figure 2: Tone of voice can differentiate. It’s not the content of what is being communicated, but it communicates just the same. “Can I help you?” can come across as loving or sarcastic. The message is the same, but the tone of voice is completely different.

Pairing different visuals with a message is one way to create a different tone of voice; another is to present the same basic message using different words. Here’s an example: a typical error message that you might see on a web site. Let’s look at four such messages:

  • We apologize, but we’re experiencing a problem.
  • We’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a problem on our end.
  • Oops! We’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a problem on our end.
  • What did you do!? You broke it! (Just kidding. We’re experiencing a problem on our end.)

The core content is the same for all four messages; the difference is in the tone of voice.

Is it possible to classify tone of voice?

The Neilson/Norman Group defines 4 spectra that can classify tone of voice.
• Funny vs. Serious
• Formal vs. Casual
• Respectful vs. Irreverent
• Enthusiastic vs. Matter of Fact
These examples come from the user experience experts at The Neilson/Norman Group ( They’ve used these examples to complete research on tone of voice—as it applies to copy on web sites—and codified their results. They outline four dimensions that, taken together, allow us to clearly specify an organization’s tone of voice.

  • Funny vs. Serious
  • Formal vs. Casual
  • Respectful vs. Irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. Matter of Fact

Figure 3. Tone of voice can be classified according to four spectra, according to the experts at The Neilson/Norman Group.

Let’s use these attributes to highlight the differences between these four different error messages.

  • We apologize, but we’re experiencing a problem. Serious, formal, respectful and matter-of-fact.
  • We’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a problem on our end. Serious, more casual, respectful and matter-of-fact.
  • Oops! We’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a problem on our end. Serious, more casual, respectful and more enthusiastic.
  • What did you do!? You broke it! (Just kidding. We’re experiencing a problem on our end.) Humorous, more casual, more irreverent and more enthusiastic.

Figure 4. Tone of voice can be used to distinguish similar messages.

Remember that this taxonomy is intended to codify the tone of voice in a very specific situation: copy used on web sites. As I’ll describe in a later issue, tone of voice can also play a role across the entire marketing spectrum, not just copy—because as we’ve seen in Figure 2 above, images can communicate tone of voice—and not just web sites—but every marketing and sales communication.

Tone of voice gives you a big impact for a small investment.
Your tone of voice can be a powerful tool for differentiation. There are several reasons.

First: differences in tone of voice are clearly noticeable by audiences. The Neilson/Norman Group reports that: “variations along the 4 tone dimensions… produce measurable differences in user impressions…”

The Neilson/Norman Group reports that differences in tone of voice are clearly noticeable by audiences AND that they have an effect on the resulting audience impressions of the organization.

Second, differences in tone of voice have an effect on audiences. The research found that the different impressions generated by different tones of voice influence the viewer in other ways, including impressions of friendliness, trustworthiness and desirability (that is, whether the respondent would recommend the offering to a friend).

Third: tone of voice is relatively simple to implement. Tone of voice can be changed quickly and simply, for example, by updating copy in your sales deck, your web site, your trade show booth, etc.

If you’re going to differentiate using your tone of voice, you must be clear.
If you’re thinking about harnessing your organization’s tone of voice as a way to differentiate, you’re in a small minority. Good for you. How do you harness this powerful tool?

There are basically two ways you can define and implement a clear tone of voiceYou must start by being clear—first about your intentions, and then about your tone of voice. Start with these questions: What tone of voice is appropriate? What tone of voice differentiates your offering?

There are basically two ways you can define and implement a clear tone of voice. I’ll outline the first one—from the folks at The Neilson/Norman Group—in this issue; I’ll cover another even more powerful method in our next issue.

The first option—Descriptive Analysis: one way to define and control your tone of voice.
The folks at Neilson/Norman Group outline a five step process to define your tone of voice.

  1. Audit your current content, typically starting with your most prominent copy, on your web site. Sort that content into clusters by its tone, using a label from the list below. These words describe a person that would speak in a particular tone. Here are some words you can use to label your content.

Authoritative, Caring, Cheerful, Coarse, Conservative, Conversational, Casual, Dry, Edgy, Enthusiastic, Formal, Frank, Friendly, Fun, Funny, Humorous, Informative, Irreverent, Matter-of-fact, Nostalgic, Passionate, Playful, Professional, Provocative, Quirky, Respectful, Romantic, Sarcastic, Serious, Smart, Snarky, Sympathetic, Trendy, Trustworthy, Unapologetic, Upbeat, Witty

  1. Extend this list of words—the ones that describe the tone of voice you desire. Choose other positive tone words that represent the tone you think is the most appropriate.
  2. Create a second list of negative tone words. These are words that represent an inappropriate tone, such as silly, sarcastic, or pompous.
  3. Decide on the three most important positive words, and the three most important negative words. Rewrite sections of your current to embody the positive tone while clearly avoiding the negative tone.
  4. Test your copy. To ensure that your test if valid, put these copy excerpts into a low fidelity website wireframe. Have users read the copy and pick from a list of “product reaction words” those that best describe their impression.Here is a list of product reaction words you can use.

Accessible, Advanced, Annoying, Appealing, Approachable, Attractive, Boring, Business-like, Busy, Calm, Clean, Clear, Collaborative, Comfortable, Compatible, Compelling, Complex, Comprehensive, Confident, Confusing, Connected, Consistent, Controllable, Convenient, Creative, Customizable, Cutting edge, Dated, Desirable, Difficult, Disconnected, Disruptive, Distracting, Dull, Easy to use, Effective, Efficient, Effortless, Empowering, Energetic, Engaging, Entertaining, Enthusiastic, Essential, Exceptional, Exciting, Expected, Familiar, Fast, Flexible, Fragile, Fresh, Friendly, Frustrating, Fun, Gets in the way, Hard to Use, Helpful, High quality, Impersonal, Impressive, Incomprehensible, Inconsistent, Ineffective, Innovative, Inspiring, Integrated, Intimidating, Intuitive, Inviting, Irrelevant, Low Maintenance, Meaningful, Motivating, Not Secure, Not Valuable, Novel, Old, Optimistic, Ordinary, Organized, Overbearing, Overwhelming, Patronizing, Personal, Poor quality, Powerful, Predictable, Professional, Relevant, Reliable, Responsive, Rigid, Satisfying, Secure, Simplistic, Slow, Sophisticated, Stable, Sterile, Stimulating, Straight Forward, Stressful, Time-consuming, Time-Saving, Too Technical, Trustworthy, Unapproachable, Unattractive, Uncontrollable, Unconventional, Understandable, Undesirable, Unpredictable, Unrefined, Usable, Useful, Valuable

  1. Does the users’ reaction match the tone you intended? If not, modify the copy and test again.

Don’t forget about differentiation.
The multi-step process outlined above can be very helpful in understanding, verifying and establishing an appropriate tone of voice for your web copy. But it’s missing some core features. For example, it doesn’t create a tone that differentiates you from your competitors. It doesn’t offer any guidance for keeping your tone consistent across time, places your copy appears, or even across different authors. These are significant oversights.

In the next issue, I’ll discuss another system for guiding your tone of voice, one with many additional benefits—including not just a method for creating differentiation, but also a way to drive consistency in the application of your tone of voice.

When used properly, tone of voice can be a powerful differentiator in life science marketing.

Tone of voice is a powerful tool for differentiation. Isn’t it better to be conscious of your organization’s tone of voice, and in control of it?In some ways an organization’s tone of voice is similar to their position – a company presents one to their audiences whether they’re conscious of it or not. Isn’t it better to be conscious of it, and in control of it? And once you decide to take conscious control, wouldn’t you want to be consistent with your tone of voice?

Tone of voice is a powerful tool for differentiation. All too often marketers ignore this, and default to a tone of voice that sounds just like their competitors. While the challenges of defining and maintaining a unique tone of voice are not trivial, the payoff can be well worth it.

Until next time. Please respond with comments and questions.

The Marketing of Science is published by Forma Life Science Marketing approximately ten times per year. To subscribe to this free publication, email us at

David Chapin is author of the book “The Marketing of Science: Making the Complex Compelling,” available now from Rockbench Press and on Amazon. He was named Best Consultant in the inaugural 2013 BDO Triangle Life Science Awards. David serves on the board of NCBio.

David has a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in Design from NC State University. He is the named inventor on more than forty patents in the US and abroad. His work has been recognized by AIGA, and featured in publications such as the Harvard Business Review, ID magazine, Print magazine, Design News magazine and Medical Marketing and Media. David has authored articles published by Life Science Leader, Impact, and PharmaExec magazines and MedAd News. He has taught at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the College of Design at NC State University. He has lectured and presented to numerous groups about various topics in marketing.

Forma Life Science Marketing is a leading marketing firm for life science, companies. Forma works with life science organizations to increase marketing effectiveness and drive revenue, differentiate organizations, focus their messages and align their employee teams. Forma distills and communicates complex messages into compelling communications; we make the complex compelling.

© 2024 Forma Life Science Marketing, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted without obtaining written permission from Forma Life Science Marketing.

Share This...