Apples to Apples to Voice to Content

December 14, 2016 by Dustin Diehl in Content

How a simple card game can help align the voice of your branded content.

Brand guidelines. Brand book. Style guide. Voice and tone guide. These terms aren’t exactly interchangeable, but their purposes are (at a high level) generally the same: They are tools content creators use to ensure consistency and on-brand messaging.


But how do you create these content tools, these guides? It would take a lot more than a single blog post to dive into the intricacies and myriad methods employed to create a brand style guide, but we can tackle something near and dear to every content strategist’s heart: voice.

We can argue what “voice” actually means in the context of content strategy (and content marketing), how it differs from “tone,” etc., but for the work we do with our clients here at Ethology, “voice” encapsulates part of a brand’s personality.

Identifying an agreed-upon voice for a brand’s content affects:

  • — How written content “sounds.”
  • — How content is laid out, how it’s formatted.
  • — Word choice.
  • — Sentence length.
  • — Which style manual to use.
  • — Punctuation usage.
  • — Phrasing.
  • — Jargon usage.
  • — It can (and should) even influence brand colors, imagery, design and more.


Seems like a lot, right?

Well, let’s start small. And you can’t get much smaller than a playing card.

Step 1: Get the Materials

Have you heard of the card game Apples to Apples? Know how to play? Well, either way, it doesn’t matter (although, if you’ve never played, we highly recommend it).

All you need is the cards themselves. And only the green cards, at that.

(NOTE: The game comes with a deck of green cards and a deck of red cards. For our purposes, we only use the green ones; you won’t even need to bring the red ones.)

You can buy the game new, borrow it from a family member, find it at a garage sale or ask a coworker for their copy.

Step 2: Set Up the Exercise

When working with clients during a voice card sort exercise like this, it’s important to communicate the value of participation. If the group doesn’t participate, the exercise won’t work. This inevitably begs the question: Who participates? While this exercise is typically just one of many in our initial content workshops and discovery sessions, it’s nice to get as many “decision-makers” involved as possible.

Think about it this way: Do you play an active role in branding, messaging, communication or content creation/editing/publishing for your organization? If yes, then this exercise is for you.

(NOTE: We recommend keeping it around five people at a minimum, and 15 maximum.)

Once the participants have been selected, pass out all the cards in the deck (remember, only the green ones — oh, and shuffle them thoroughly beforehand, too). There are quite a few cards, so passing them out one by one will probably take too much time. Consider having them pre-divided (if you know how many people will attend, prior to the meeting) or just guesstimate and pass out small stacks of cards to all client team members present (you can skip any of your coworkers who may also be there).

Once everyone has their own stack of green cards, you can explain the rules.

Step 3: The Rules

Each card has four words on it: an overarching descriptive word, and three subsequent qualifying words. Looking at these words, participants should make three piles of cards:

  1. Words that can be associated with our company today, and that we want to continue to be associated with our company in the future. (Positive present state.)
  2. Words that don’t apply to our company today, but that we’d like to apply to our company in the future. (Aspirational.)
  3. Words we don’t want associated with our company at all. (Off-brand.)

This is done individually, and can take as long as it needs to (it usually depends on the number of cards each participant has to go through), but shouldn’t last much longer than 10 to 15 minutes.

Step 4: Grouping

Once everyone has their three piles, the next step is combining similar cards into groups. Maybe someone has “Charming,” “Charismatic” and “Suave” in their aspirational pile. These could be combined into a single group. A group can have as many or as few cards as makes sense. There can even be groups of only one card if participants feel a particular descriptor just doesn’t fit well into a group.

Again, this part of the exercise is done individually and should take about 10 minutes.

Step 5: Sharing Is Caring

Now it’s time to bring everyone back together. Each participant shares the cards that make up their off-brand pile, and their positive present state and aspirational groups.

This is the time for participants to ask questions (“Why did you include that word?”), pose challenges (“I think you should reconsider that off-brand word because …”) and offer feedback (“Yeah, I like that direction, I had similar words, too!”). It’s expected that some cards may shift based on these discussions — words may end up in the off-brand pile; other words may be pulled out of that same pile; groups can merge or separate. This is good! It means people are participating and thinking critically.

This can take some time, since it often sparks good conversations and debates. Allocate at least 20 to 30 minutes for this part of the exercise.

Step 6: Coming Together

Once everyone has shared, it’s time to start bringing everything together. At this point, you can collect and remove all the off-brand cards; they’re no longer needed.

This next part also gets people up and out of their chairs (because, at this point, everyone could use a good stretch, right?). Clear a large space on a desk or table and have everyone bring their groups of cards and gather around.

It may seem chaotic, but just go with it — and more importantly, see how it goes! The task is simple: Ask participants to reorganize their groups based on everyone’s cards, not just their own.

This is where good facilitation practices come into play. While you want to let the group take the reins, you’ll need to be tuned in, sense if they’re getting stumped or feeling frustrated. Hop in with a helpful “How about this?” or “Ok, explain why you did that” to keep the exercise going.

This should take about 15 minutes.

Step 7: Selecting a Representative

Now that you have your combined groups (again, you can have as many or as few as is necessary, but we typically recommend coming in between 10 to 15 groups), it’s time to select a descriptive card from within each group that best encapsulates the group’s essence.

For instance, you may have “Intelligent,” “Sharp,” “Brilliant” and “Bright” in a group. Based on participant consensus, “Sharp” could be selected as the group representative. It might not only best convey the meaning of the group’s other words, but also best articulate the concept that maps back to the brand’s content direction. Which is why we’re doing this exercise in the first place!

This step can sometimes take place during the discussions in Step 6. Either way, it shouldn’t take any longer than 10 to 15 minutes.

(PRO TIP: If none of the main card words seem to work as a group representative, any of the subsequent qualifying words can be used instead. Just be sure to make note of it, as you’ll need to come back to these representative words in the next step.)

Step 8: Recording and Qualifying

On a whiteboard or large easel notepad, record all the representative words from all your groups (as mentioned before, try to keep the list between 10 to 15).

Since cards and groups have gone through several rounds of shuffling and reshuffling since the initial individual three piles, identify which words are positive present state and which are aspirational.

(NOTE: This is an important distinction for content creators so they know which elements of voice should be used to support existing messaging and which ones are used to promote future branding efforts.)

Once the list is recorded, it’s time to add “but not” qualifiers. Essentially, these are additional words that, when paired with one of the recorded words via a “but not” connector, helps qualify and clarify the meaning of the original word.

Think of it this way: You give a writer on your team a list of adjectives that represent the “brand voice” for the company. Chances are, there are dozens, if not hundreds of other companies that have these same descriptors. Plus, everyone interprets things differently. For example, what one writer may consider “bold” content may differ greatly from another’s interpretation. All this leads to inconsistency and brand confusion.

Adding a “but not” qualifier gets rid of some of this ambiguity, giving writers and content creators a more explicit explanation for the meaning and intent behind your brand voice descriptors.

(NOTE: These “but not” qualifiers should not be antonyms. Saying something like “Courageous but not Timid” is obvious, and doesn’t help clarify anything for anyone. Think of ways people may misconstrue your interpretation of “Courageous,” and come up with a qualifier that helps avoid confusion: “Courageous but not Intimidating.”)

This part of the exercise can sometimes be very difficult. Don’t be surprised if you have to pull up a thesaurus to help keep the conversation moving. Using your knowledge of the brand, and keeping in mind the group’s conversations thus far, help them the best you can get to the heart of their descriptor words.

This final piece of the exercise can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

So Now What?

As we mentioned before, this is merely one piece of larger, more comprehensive brand guide books/style guides/voice and tone guides. And it’s only one of several exercises we conduct with clients during our two-day content workshops and discovery sessions.

But at the very least, now you can conduct a brand voice card sort that can:

  1. Get alignment between key stakeholders regarding brand voice.
  2. Provide writers and content creators clear, concise guidelines about brand voice and messaging direction.

There are obviously many other things required to create a comprehensive brand book, but those are topics and blog posts for another day.

So go out and play some cards with your clients — you’ll learn lots and have fun while you’re at it.

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About the Author

I get inspired by the smart people I work with. It's great to be challenged and encouraged by such a great group of fellow coworkers. It’s also amazing seeing our clients meet their goals and, ultimately, help their customers achieve success. I like to help my clients marry their brand goals with the needs of their customers. Together, they form the basis for brand content creation, messaging, auditing, editorial planning and more.


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