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Tone of voice

UCL produces outstanding research that transforms how the world is understood and the way that global problems are tackled. We provide a radical and outstanding education to students from across the globe.

So when we communicate, what we write should describe such innovative work in a confident and engaging way. This is where an agreed tone of voice comes in. It expresses to new and existing audiences who we are and what we do, while embodying our values:

  • Commitment to excellence and advancement on merit
  • Fairness and equality
  • Diversity
  • Collegiality and community-building
  • Inclusiveness
  • Openness
  • Ethically acceptable standards of conduct
  • Fostering innovation and creativity

By using a consistent tone of voice, we can build (or reinforce) a sense of trust and authority in the reader.

In the following sections, you will find more detail on the principles that underpin our tone of voice and examples of how it works in practice.


Address your audience

Good communication involves creating a dialogue and building relationships with people.

To do this effectively, you should think about who your audience is, as this will help you to engage with them. Most of all, you should remember that you are talking to real people with needs, wishes and aspirations.

In the same way, it is worth thinking of UCL as a person and the personality that we are seeking to convey in any conversation.

Our personality:


Visionary, creative, pioneering, progressive, dynamic. Cosmopolitan, authoritative, respected. Prestigious, relevant, engaging, global, distinctive.


Examples of our tone of voice

UCL is made up of remarkable people: eminent professors and exceptional students; public engagement professionals and lab technicians, and all the other pieces of the puzzle that make up a leading university.

Example 1

The Institute of Making is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to diamonds, socks to cities. Annual membership of the institute is available to all UCL staff and students.

Example 2 (from the UCL Facebook page):

In more informal contexts, such as social media or student communications, it’s particularly worthwhile addressing your audience using the second person (“you”) and talking about UCL in the first person (“we”).

By doing this, you immediately establish a sense of a conversation on equal terms between you and the intended audience.

UCL
20 March
Today, we’re going to try something a little bit different. We’ve opened an interactive map to which the UCL community (that’s you!) can add their favourite places to eat at around campus.

Write clearly and concisely

To communicate effectively, we should be brief, simple and direct.

This means avoiding jargon and specialist language, spelling out acronyms and getting to the point quickly. Where possible, we should also not resort to impersonal management language or higher education clichés such as “world-leading”, “iconic” or “cutting-edge”.

This is not dumbing down. It is demonstrating to our intended audience that we understand that they are busy and want to find the information that they are looking for as quickly as possible.

Research from Nielsen Norman Group shows that people scan webpages in an F-shaped pattern rather than word-by-word, so it is crucial that your first two paragraphs contain the most important information.

Examples

You should write:

We want to work with businesses that share our values. Improving the health and wellbeing of people in the developing world is one of our key priorities and we are looking for partners who want to help us achieve that goal.

Rather than:

We will apprise potential commercial partners of our institutions’ commitment to contribute to the health and wellbeing of populations throughout the developing world and to cultivate productive relationships with companies that share our values and are able and willing to advance our global health mission.

It can be useful to test out your copy using online tools such as Hemingway App.


Avoid old language

Our tone of voice is clear and contemporary, so we should avoid dry, stuffy or old-fashioned language.

In practice, this means that it is fine to reflect current English usage in what we write. So, it is perfectly acceptable to use who rather than “whom”, while rather than “whilst” and among rather than “amongst”.

Similarly, it is also acceptable to start a sentence with and, but, because, so or however.

Further reading

Both are available as downloads from www.plainenglish.co.uk


Show don’t tell

Rather than making vague, unsubstantiated claims, we should make statements that are backed up with evidence.

Our audiences, particularly prospective students, face a barrage of competing assertions from universities about the facilities that they offer or graduate starting salaries. Not surprisingly, the students are left unsure whether such information can be trusted.

So, any statements that we make should be supported by statistics and, when published online, include relevant, descriptive weblinks.

Examples

You should write:

The average starting salary for UCL graduates in the UK and EU was £27,975 in 2011–12 – a full 30% higher than the national average (£21,443). (HESA 2013) UCL is one of the top five universities in the UK for graduate employability, and one of the top 20 worldwide. New York Times 2012

Rather than:

There is informal evidence of an ever-growing commercial demand for machine learning graduates. Machine learning can be used in any domain where fast, consistent and reliable decisions have to be made given uncertainty and a huge amount of data.

Adjust your tone on social media

Twitter and other social media enable us to create a different, more interactive relationship with our audience in comparison with traditional web content and print media.

As such, we should use a more informal, playful tone that makes use of social media elements such as hashtags and bit.ly links:

Congrats to @GrantMuseum who have won the Culture Pros Pick award at the @GdnCulturePros #MandHAwards http://bit.ly/11GKj54  Go team UCL!
The quad is looking wonderful this afternoon. Take your sandwiches outside! pic.twitter.com/W77w7l5YfU

However, we should never be a slave to fads nor make hackneyed allusions to pop culture just to attract attention, as in the following examples:

In the movie of you life, who's your co-star #Oscars
#Oscar noms get $45,000 swag bags. People preferred bing over Google for the web's top searches. #BelieveIt binged.it/Yq3ZU9

Focus on people and stories

Authenticity is another key part of our tone of voice and a powerful way to achieve this is to use voices from the UCL community.

People engage with written or multimedia case studies because they put a human face on what can sometimes seem like an otherwise monolithic institution.

Once people have someone to empathise or identify with, they are more likely to listen to the messages that we are trying to communicate, especially if they are being told a strong story in the process.

Examples

On the UCL YouTube channel:

On the UCL Soundcloud channel:

On the UCL 2034 website:

On the UCL London Olympics website:


… a few tips from George Orwell

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

Example

You should write: 

Professor Carol Dezateux, UCL Institute of Child Health, is leading the largest ever UK-wide study of babies and young children.

Rather than:

The largest ever UK-wide study of babies and young children is being led by Professor Carol Dezateux, UCL Institute of Child Health.

See also …

Editorial house style