When your brand shouldn’t sound like Apple—and 3 ways to find your true voice.

What’s almost worse than complex and soul-crushingly boring business writing? Writing that’s edgy and provocative—when your brand is anything but.

It used to be that the cardinal writing sin in the business world (and most other places, frankly) was to ward off your audience by sounding too academic and stuffy. So self-righteous, pompous and self-involved that most readers, most of the time, had no idea what you were on about. That’s still bad form. But now, there’s a new cliché in town.

It’s a tone of voice thing. And it’s an increasingly common thing.

One that’s been sparked by our love for brand voices like those of Apple and Google. Because we all love the idea that we’re one of the cool kids. Pithy phrases and a punchy pace are our jam, yo! But when adopted by brands that aren’t Apple or Google (or even close), this edgy tone of voice comes across as awkward and try-hard. It causes cocked eyebrows and confusion for customers, employees, stakeholders. Because unless I missed something, you’re still selling insurance. Right?

So here’s the deal: don’t dress like your teenage daughter unless you can really rock the leather pants. People will notice—but for the wrong reasons. They won’t trust you—and they won’t know why. Instead, love the skin you’re in and write in a way that speaks honestly to what your brand stands for, and what your audience connects with. It doesn’t mean doing away with the spark and clout. Just make sure they’re relative.

Here’s how. (Tip of the iceberg stuff. But if you’re going to start somewhere, this is a great place.)

1. Model your brand personality on a real personality.

The best brands sound like humans. To define your tone of voice clearly, first figure out whose human voice you want to hear when you read your writing. Is it that of your CEO? Or someone else? How do they talk? Are there specific words, phrases or stylistic devices they favor that you can sprinkle through your copy to make it sound real and consistent? This is a great technique when you have a number of people writing for your business. A real reference point gives everyone a clear spec to work to.

2. Define what you stand for and speak it.

What’s the boiled-down essence of your brand? The core value you stand for and your strategy aligns to? For Disney, you might say it’s fun, family entertainment. This is the happiest place on earth and everything the brand says and does has entertainment as its cornerstone. Imagination, enchantment, dreams, a sense of family and magic—these attributes characterize and color the brand’s voice. In language, as much as style and structure.

Consider creating your own language palette that gives your writers a consistent bunch of words and phrases to choose from that connect to your brand’s core value. (And maybe some to actively avoid as well.) When you lightly pepper copy with ideal keywords, it’s like giving your verbal brand ID a discernable yet subtle flavor.

3. Bring your brand to life with ‘before-and-afters’.

We all love a makeover. It’s easier to size up transformation, and what works and doesn’t, when we see ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. It’s the same deal with writing. People need actual examples not conceptual theory.

‘Make it more approachable’ doesn’t mean anything unless you show someone exactly what ‘approachable’ looks like in your brand voice, talking about what you do, how and why. And really get into the nitty-gritty of how to get there. (For example: “Using more personal pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘you’ instead of ‘the company’ closes the distance between us and the reader. This creates rapport and a more conversational tone. See how we do that here…”)

Don’t get me wrong. If cutting-edge is what your brand’s all about, then by all means—be bold and quirky. Challenge us. But whoever you are, be true to you. Because in business, as in life, real is what we love the most.