Our tone of voice

Our tone of voice guidance provides a single reference point for all departments, teams and individuals who write for the University.

On

Overview

This is your guide to sharing who we are with the world.

A single reference point for all departments, teams and individuals who write for the University. It expands on our current communications framework – expanding on the promise of ‘Powerful deeds, confidently delivered’.

Its purpose is not to restrict you… 

These are not rules. They’re general principles, so apply some or all of them depending on your knowledge of the audience, channel and context. 

… but to set you free.

Ultimately, this is to help you write about the same stuff, for the same audiences, day in and day out without drying up. To share information in a way that people will engage with. To make every department and faculty sound like part of the same brand. 

This is who we are. A brand woven together with a city.

The cool and the quirky, the creativity and the character, the green and the grey: it’s the unique Sheff-ness that keeps people here long after they graduate. It’s part of us, it defines us, and we embrace it.

In short, our brand voice is…

Heart and steel


Brand voice – in brief

Heart and steel

We are inspiring, ambitious and inclusive.

We speak with genuine emotion, and show people they belong.

We are confident and collaborative.

We know exactly who we are and the value of working together.

Raise people up

Our ‘powerful deeds’ are powerful because of the people behind them.

  • Let people speak for us wherever possible. 
  • Use real quotes, not made up or polished versions. 
  • Authentic emotions only. 
  • Try not to lead with facts alone. Include real-world human impact.

Bring people in

Our audiences should see themselves in our writing. 

  • Lead with what’s important to your audience. 
  • Show people they belong. Write inclusively.
  • Diversity means representation. Hand over the mic at every opportunity.

Be bold and be Sheffield to the core

Confidence is being comfortable with who we are. 

  • Don’t rely solely on adjectives. Back them up with proof.
  • Celebrate our achievements. And do it with confidence. 
  • Be proud of our differences. Instead of glossing over, embrace the rough edges. 
  • It’s ok to joke. Seriously.

Forge strong bonds

Build close relationships using words as well as actions.

  • Nothing is accomplished alone. Highlight everyone’s contribution. 
  • Be transparent about decision-making, and signpost a channel for feedback.
  • Own our actions. How we treat a negative situation speaks volumes about us. 
  • Speak as part of the University first, faculty or department second.

Brand voice – in detail

Heart means…

Speak with genuine emotion, and show people they belong.

1. Inspirational writing - Raise people up

Our ‘powerful deeds’ are powerful because of the passion and creativity of the people behind them – how they change their lives and the lives of others. 

Whether it’s the personal commitment of the team behind a piece of research, or the students who’ll enjoy activities, we bring them to the top of every communication.

Always remember, people are inspired by other people.

Let people speak for us

Our staff and students make the best ambassadors, so bring them to the fore wherever you can – including a quote, a name and appropriate pronoun.

Before and after example

Before

"Big Walk 2022 - Thank you to all involved in this year's fundraising event

From providing catering to volunteering and walking on the day, thank you to everyone who made this year’s event the biggest Big Walk yet.

Thank you to all of our colleagues and friends for helping organise and oversee the Big Walk event, and the inspiring walkers who took part in the 30km and 50km challenges on the day. 

With almost 400 walkers, of which over half were university staff, this year’s event has been the largest so far, helping us raise an amazing £73,000 for Genetic Disease Research.  

Thank you to everyone who has helped us accomplish this fundraising achievement through their donations and activities. The amount raised will allow our University to develop new gene therapy treatments for people with devastating genetic conditions, from rare diseases that affect children to MND and dementia.

Sarah Barnes, Fundraising Officer and Big Walk Event Lead, said: “After many months of planning and hard work, I feel so proud to have seen the Big Walk come to life! As the lead for this year's event, I've been overwhelmed by the support received from University staff, participants, volunteers and suppliers."

  • Focuses on the volunteers
  • Gets the message across
  • Supports with a quote
  • Feels like an external press release.

After

"Big Walk 2022: you did it!

This year’s Big Walk event in aid of Genetic Disease Research was the biggest ever – helping to raise an amazing £73,000. 

Fundraising Officer and Big Walk Event Lead, Sarah Barnes, said the team were overwhelmed with support.  

“To every colleague and friend who helped organise the Big Walk event, and the inspiring walkers who took part in the 30km and 50km challenges on the day: thank you!” 

“We’ve been inundated with offers of help from University staff, participants, volunteers and suppliers this year. It’s been months of planning and hard work, and every minute was worth it.”

The funds raised will help the University to develop new gene therapy treatments for people with genetic diseases…"

  • Focuses on the achievement 
  • Brings the quote in sooner to emphasise the contribution of volunteers  
  • Using a quote delivers the message and so reduces word count.

Keep it real

No polished quotes or highly edited testimony – it kind of misses the point. 

Before and after example

Before

“Being an AI and Computer Science student, I have been able to take full advantage of the cutting edge facilities at Sheffield that enable learning to be delivered efficiently and in an engaging manner by experts in the field.”

  • Very polished.
  • Delivers all key messages.
  • Too ‘perfect’ to be real.

After

“This is a time when concepts that used to feel like science fiction are all of sudden becoming part of our real lives. Things move fast, so I’m made up to be studying here because we’re at the very leading edge of that.”

  • Written verbatim, with minimal editing. 
  • Imperfect, human and so more relatable.
  • Conveys the same meaning.

Authentic emotions only.

People connect to people, so resist the urge to edit emotions out of stories.

Before and after example

Before

"Our excellent MA students launch their #OurKidsCount campaign in the @SheffieldStar today, shining a light on Sheffield’s growing child poverty crisis."

  • Focuses on student excellence
  • Subject of campaign is secondary

After

“"People are suffering in silence. We have to do something.” See how you can help children living in poverty – read about our MA students’ #OurKidsCount campaign in today’s @SheffieldStar"

  • Puts the focus on the impact, the human story
  • Still talks about the student excellence
  • Amplifies the campaign

Them not us

What matters is our audience’s emotional response, not how we feel. Focus on sharing the good news, and let people decide for themselves. 

Before and after example

Before

"The Department of Sociological Studies is delighted to announce a new annual lecture 'Big Ideas in Social Policy'. "

  • Our ‘feelings’ come first.
  • Focus is on the department.

After

"Join us this Thursday for the inaugural ‘Big Ideas in Social Policy’ lecture – delivered by four of the UK’s leading thinkers in the field."

  • A clear call to action.
  • Leads with the time/name of the event. 
  • Spells out the reason people should attend.

Try not to lead with facts alone.

Facts are the quickest way to show measurable achievement. However they can feel cold and cut off from human impact. Wherever possible, support your facts with information on the real world benefit, too.

Before and after example

Before

"92 per cent of research and its real-world impact at the University of Sheffield has been rated as world-leading or internationally excellent"

  • Leads with the fact.
  • Focuses on the score.

After

"Research that changes lives: see why 92% of our academic research has been rated ‘internationally excellent’ for its impact."

  • Leads with the impact.
  • Makes it active.
  • Builds the fact into context.

2. Inclusive writing - Bring people in

Championing an inclusive and diverse community means our audiences see themselves represented in our writing. 

When we write, we do so with a deliberate, conscious use of language that comes from truly considering your audience.

As a progressive university, it’s our responsibility to ensure that people feel they belong here

Make them the focus

Earn your audience’s trust, their time and their continued attention by leading with what’s important to them.

Before and after example

Before

"PhD study at the University of Sheffield

We're committed to supporting you throughout your entire research journey, to inspire and nurture you to do the research you want to do."

  • Leads with ‘we’.
  • The focus is on the university.

After

"Your PhD research

Studying for your PhD at Sheffield is a personal research journey – supported by a close community always ready to offer energy and inspiration when you need it."

  • Starts with them.
  • Talks about their experience. 
  • Key message about community.

Show us we all belong

Being inclusive of gender, background, beliefs, mental health challenges, abilities and ways of living… might sound like a lot. Like everything that improves our writing, it begins with learning about our audience.

Golden rules

  • Use only acronyms that have been adopted by the groups about which you’re writing, e.g LGBT+ or BIPOC. Do so sparingly.
  • Never make assumptions about your audience.
  • Check, check and check again.

These are only the basics.

Inclusivity comes from greater understanding. These guidelines are just some of the basics. For more information and guidance, please begin by exploring the following resources:

Being inclusive of gender, sex and sexuality

  • Stick to gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they’ unless told otherwise.
  • Avoid gendered nouns in general:
    • firefighter not fireman
    • partner not husband or wife
    • machine-or-handmade, not man-made.

Writing about culture, race, ethnicity and nationality

  • Avoid acronyms like ‘BAME’, they can ‘other’ people who are more properly referred to as British: e.g. “University of Sheffield welcomes applicants from all ethnic backgrounds,” rather than, “We welcome applicants from BAME backgrounds.”
  • As a rule, always use the preferred name of a group or nation. 

Writing for non-native speakers

  • Write in plain English, as much as possible. 
  • Use your experience to know whether a regional phrase will help connect or obscure. In longer pieces, include a glossary for local/regional terms.
  • Use information architecture that is scannable, with sub headers and bullet points.

Writing about disabilities

  • Never use ableist language e.g. dumb, lame, falls on deaf ears, they’re blind to the fact, etc.
  • Be detailed and add descriptions for hyperlinks for screen reader use, and accurate alt text for accessibility.
  • Learn or ask the preference for identity-first or person-first language. When you can’t ask, using person-first language, e.g. a person with epilepsy, instead of ‘epileptic person’.

Writing about mental health challenges

  • Mental health challenges aren’t metaphors for other challenges e.g. saying you’re depressed about something if you mean you’re upset.
  • Don’t use mental health challenges as synonyms e.g. when people say “I’m a bit OCD,” when they mean meticulous.
  • People-first language is most commonly preferred among individuals with mental health conditions, but always ask when possible.

Give everyone a platform

Diversity can’t happen if we only ever hear from – and so represent – the same groups or individuals.

Change looks like…

  • Giving everyone their chance at the mic, the Twitter takeover, the reins of the podcast.
  • Inviting different perspectives, creating channels for different groups to engage.
  • Tailoring content instead of assuming one size fits all.

Steel means…

Speak with a confidence that comes from knowing exactly who we are, what we stand for and what we can achieve when we work together.

3. Writing with confidence - Be Sheffield to the core

We define confidence as being comfortable with who we are: our strengths and our differences.

When we write, we do it with our values in mind. We stand up for what we believe in, and we are not shy about our achievements. We’re proud of our ambition, of striving for excellence – and achieving it.

We are, and always will be, guided by our values:

We are ambitious and strive for excellence in all that we do.
We believe in collaborative working.
We champion an inclusive and diverse community.
We are responsible  - for our people and the wider world.
We are open and transparent about the decisions we make.

Our home city defines us. We are the University of Sheffield. One of the original Russell Group universities. Seek out, highlight, and embrace the qualities that make us different.

Say it and show it, too.

Being confident in our offer means using bold language. However, adjective-packed copy can feel empty if it’s not backed up with proof. Remember to substantiate your messages.

Before and after example

Before

"Our innovative degrees are taught by world-class experts from across the social sciences faculty. Our research addresses the major challenges facing society which enhances our teaching."

  • Delivers core messages clearly.
  • Starts with us, not them.
  • Multiple adjectives.
  • Uses the passive voice. 

After

"Join us on the front line of society’s major challenges. From the UK’s housing crisis to global climate change – you’ll spend your time exploring solutions with internationally-recognised academics."

  • Phrased as an active call to participate.
  • Focuses on the experience.
  • Hints at the innovative course content.
  • Injects a sense of energy/‘nowness’.

Celebrate our achievements.

Get comfortable with sharing our achievements. Tell the world how amazing we are. And be bold about it. 

Example

Option 1

"We’re Whatuni Student Choice Awards Best SU 2022!"

  • Exclamation point feels like excitable shouting.
  • Focuses on the award ‘title’.

Option 2

"Voted #1 by the people who matter. You."

  • Shorter, matter of fact.
  • Brings in the importance of the reader.

Be proud of our differences.

We warm to brands and people who are authentically imperfect. Embrace the rough edges, distinctive places, names, characters, customs. They’re what make us, us.

Example

Perfect

"We're honoured to host a heritage plaque, unveiled today, to commemorate Ethel Haythornthwaite. Ethel was born in a house where our Endcliffe student village now stands and went on to become a key figure in establishing the Peak District as the UK’s first national park. (1/4)"

  • Starts with us.
  • Focuses on our heritage.
  • Feels very polished.

Authentic

"Haythornthwaite believed everyone deserves access to nature. Thanks to her work, Sheffield has gone from grime to green in 100 years. We hope this heritage plaque helps inspire a new generation of environmental campaigners."

  • Acknowledges the imperfect history of the city.
  • Focuses on local heritage.
  • Makes it relevant to today.

It’s ok to joke

Humour is a powerful method of delivering a message. Gentle, wry, sometimes irreverent – think of it as a smile running through your work, another expression of our confidence.

How to be funny (an incomplete guide)

  • Trust your instincts for what’s funny and appropriate for your audience.
  • If jokes aren’t your thing, that’s ok – it’s not compulsory.
  • Jokes that ‘punch down’ are never ok (see section 2).
  • Puns, wordplay, contractions and slang are all fine, providing they don’t obscure the message for your audience.
  • If you’re not certain, run it past your team.

Here’s an example from our Twitter. Not LOL, just a cheeky little reference to the work that’s funny and makes us want to read more. 

A twitter screenshot from the University linking to an article that reads: A small study from @sheffieldGeog's Anna Zuurmond bursting with insight on how students see #organic. Also, aubergine lifestyles.

4. Collaborative writing - Forge strong bonds

We speak as one community. Everything we achieve, we achieve together. Our successes and failures are shared.

We’re an institution that thrives on collaboration. So we build close relationships with words as well as actions.

Credit where it’s due

Whether talking about an event, a piece of research or international collaboration, we talk about everyone’s contribution.

Dos and don'ts

Do

  • Remember innovations, awards, discoveries and events are rarely the work of one person.
  • Namecheck the whole team, our partners, and their contribution.
  • Talk about the process as well as the results. 
  • Find the human story behind the collaboration. 

Don't

  • Just talk about results and facts.
  • Mention only the spokesperson or lead researcher.
  • Focus solely on the University’s achievements when talking about collaboration.

Invite a dialogue

The purpose of our brand comms is to build a long term relationship with our audiences. Not to broadcast, so try to:

  • Be transparent about decision-making. 
  • If you don’t know something, say so. 
  • Invite feedback whenever possible. 
  • Give people a way to respond, a time to check back, a way to communicate with you.

Own our actions

How we treat a negative situation speaks volumes about us. Every interaction is an opportunity for us to build our brand, and live our values. 

Remember: 

  • Succeed or fail, we take responsibility for our actions. 
  • We share the details, and what we’ve learned.
  • We don’t hide behind vague language.

Speak as one

Finally: whatever department or event you’re writing for, remember to write as University first, department second. 

A world top-100 university

We're a world top-100 university renowned for the excellence, impact and distinctiveness of our research-led learning and teaching.