“Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans at MailChimp” – Kate Kiefer Lee at Confab

Confab Events logoI’m attending Confab 2013 in London today, and I’m trying to speed blog people’s talks into badly-composed and mistake-ridden 600 word blog posts as quickly as possible. Good luck with that. Anyway, here are my notes from today’s second talk, Kate Kiefer Lee from MailChimp talking about voice and tone.

“Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans at MailChimp” – Kate Kiefer Lee

I very much enjoyed Kate Kiefer Lee’s presentation about tone and voice. Over the years I’ve tended to write nearly everything, whether it is this blog or the Guardian’s Developer blog or the BBC Internet blog with the same sort of tone of voice. I’ve seldom had to write with a distinctively different personality in mind. Kate opened my eyes to some of the useful tools available to me if I ever have to.

She described part of her job as being “to guard MailChimp’s voice, and keep it consistent across a huge range of content.” She said that the voice stays the same, but the tone changes all the time. Emotions are key to her belief on how important this. The way we write copy on the web affects the way people feel. And, she said, if you get it right, you can “get people to do stuff” — visit websites, buy products, subscribe to services.

Kate said that for most companies it was about discovering or finding the voice, not creating it from scratch. Companies are made of people, and she suggested interviewing these people about the company as the first step. It wasn’t a purely technical exercise, she explained, but you were asking them questions about what content they liked and didn’t like, inorder to see the moment their eyes light up and they get passionate about what they do.

A “This, but not this” list is a good tool for helping define voice, and she showed MailChimp’s, which included statements like “helpful but not over-bearing”.

Kate spent some time talking about the difference between style guides and “voice and tone” guides, and why the latter were more important. There are plenty of established style guides that anyone can use, she reminded us. I attempt to stick to Guardian style on here, MailChimp use Yahoo!’s style guide. These are interchangeable — but voice and tone are unique to a company.

She praised the Gov.UK content style guide’s advice on tone, saying it was not dumbed down, and rooted in empathy, and also singled out the MacMillan cancer charity for having clear writing guidelines.

As part of her work at MailChimp Kate had mapped their different types of content to the different emotions they might generate. They shouldn’t be frivolous when the message they are delivering might be causing someone to worry that they were about to lose their job, or a mistake might cost their business a lot of money. MailChimp have made their voice and tone guide public. Green pages are at the happy end of the spectrum, red pages at the “angry-making” end.

MailChimp’s Voice & Tone - jokes

MailChimp’s Voice and Tone - compliance

Pages from the public MailChimp “Voice and Tone” guide

Kate gave a couple of examples of where a “funny” tone misfires because of the place it is being used. She showed a jaunty salutation from Mitt Romney when you unsubscribed from his campaign emails, and a customer service form from Woot whose call to action “We love to hear from our angry, disappointed and betrayed fans” doesn’t maybe have the effect they intended when they wrote it.

I’ve always been a fan of proofing things on paper — excepting this kind of speed-blogging of a conference of course — but Kate suggested a technique for getting tone right was reading your writing out loud before publishing. “If I’ve published it on MailChimp’s website,” she said, “I’ve read it out loud. It stops you sounding like a robot.” And, she said, reading out loud puts us in a conversational frame of mind, so makes us more empathetic. We don’t want to say the wrong thing to people face-to-face, and that empathy is so often missing from our writing.

I did immediately toy with the idea of building a newspaper comment system that forces you to listen out loud to what you’ve just written, to see if you really do want to post “All benefit thieves should be shot.”

Disclaimer: I am a MailChimp customer.
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Next on the agenda at Confab was Leisa Reichelt, and I’ll have a write-up of that along in a little while.

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