Kate Kiefer Lee – Voice and Tone Live!

Sean Carmichael

September 17th, 2013

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Kate Keifer Lee

This podcast is Kate Kiefer Lee’s full Keynote presentation from UX Thursday Detroit.

Given the amount of communications a user takes in on a daily basis, how you speak to them is incredibly important. The “voice” a company uses contributes to the establishment of the brand as well a creates a distinguishing identifier that sets it apart within the daily deluge of content users encounter. A consistent voice can help a user feel comfortable and familiar with your organization.

There are considerations for establishing voice and tone situationally. If you lean more toward a sarcastic voice in your marketing copy, you may want to vary your tone when it comes to things like error messages. You don’t want to rub people the wrong way.

Kate Kiefer Lee is the woman behind the voice and tone of MailChimp. She’s responsible for their interactive style guide at voiceandtone.com. Kate knows the importance of honest communication with users. Far too often, copy can be stale or technical. Kate approaches content with the user, a human, in mind. This, in turn, humanizes your organization in the user’s eyes making it far easier to make a meaningful connection between the two.

Kate shares her experiences, bumps in the road, and tips in this keynote from UX Thursday Detroit.

Recorded: June, 2013
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Full Transcript.


Kate: Hi, everyone! I’m Kate, but you probably already know me as the last thing standing between you and free drinks.

[laughter]

Kate: We’re almost done. It’s been a good day, and I’m so glad to be here with you all. Before we get started, I want you to take a second to think about all of the different types of content that you deal with every day.

Whether you are a designer, an engineer, an analyst, content strategist, anyone else who touches websites and works on products and websites. You probably have a lot of different kinds of communication come across your desk every day.

The same’s true for me. I work at MailChimp. Aside from our app itself, we have a website and a blog and a knowledge base. We have guides and articles. We have research and reports. We have support and compliance content, email newsletters, social media, the list goes on. It can be really overwhelming just to try to keep up with it all, much less to make it all sound like it came from the same place.

Part of my job is to guard MailChimp’s voice and personality and make sure that everything we say is consistent and useful and friendly across all of those departments and across all of those different types of content.

I think a lot about our voice and the way we communicate with our customers. I think a lot about tone of voice too. While our voice pretty much stays the same from day-to-day…Though it does adapt over time, and we’ll talk about that later…our tone of voice has to change all the time, depending on the situation and depending on the people at the other end of our content.

The reason this stuff is so important for all of us in this room right now is because we have a lot of power as people who work on websites and products. I say that because we get to use our words and visuals to make people do things. We use content to get them to our website in the first place.

Then, once they’re there, we tell them to buy our product or click this button or give us money or use our service or give us more money. It’s fun to make people do things, but here’s what we forget. Our content doesn’t just make people do things. It makes people feel things. That’s a different kind of responsibility because our users and our customers are human.

They have their own thoughts and opinions and preferences. They have their own senses of humor and touchy subjects. They have their own value systems and perspectives and expectations of us. They bring all of it to the table when they interact with our content because they’re people, just like us. They deserve our thoughtfulness and our respect.

One of the best ways to show them that respect that they really deserve is by having an honest and consistent voice and adapting our tone with their feelings in mind.

Let’s talk about feelings. We can’t even get into tone of voice without talking about voice itself and finding your company’s voice. I say “find” here and not “create” because I think that in most cases, where there is a company, where there is a product, there is already a voice.

Sometimes it’s deep down, buried under a big pile of corporate jargon and SEO garbage and you have to find it, but its there. I say that because behind every company, you find people…sometimes just one person, someone who started that company for a reason and someone with a perspective that is unique to that company. That’s what we’re trying to get to when we’re looking for a company’s voice, because the best brand voices are true reflections of the people behind the company.

I’m about to show you an email that came from one of the people behind the company where I work, MailChimp. It’s a memo to the whole staff from our CEO, Ben. Just so you have context, he sent this email when we were moving office spaces just across the parking lot, and we ended up with this big, empty space. People started knocking on his door asking for stuff, like a gym and all of these different things in there, but we already had a gym.

He sent us this email. It says, “We already have a gym in the basement. If you complain to me that the weight equipment is old, shut up. Rocky Balboa trained with rocks and dead animals in a meat locker.”

[laughter]

Kate: “Gravity is gravity, and heavy stuff weighs the same whether it’s old or new.”

[laughter]

Kate: That went to the whole staff from our CEO. I’m showing you this not to brag that I have a funny boss. I’m showing you this so you can see where our voice and our perspective and our playfulness comes from. It comes from the very people who started the company. Sure, it evolves over time, it already has, and it will some more. Sure, I take liberties with it all the time, but this is where it comes from. It’s real.

Some people don’t like our voice…I’m the one who hears it when they don’t, but that’s OK, because, love it or hate it, our voice is genuine, because this is where it begins, with our company’s founder.

That’s what we’re trying to get to. When I was looking to articulate MailChimp’s voice, I sat down with our company’s CEO and some other people to ask them some questions.

Now, depending on your situation, you might ask a founder or a CEO or some sort of stakeholder. If you have your own business, you ask yourself these questions, things like what does your company do? Why did you start your company in the first place? Why do people visit your website and who are these people? What other companies do you admire, and maybe even maybe what other companies don’t you admire?

If your brand were a person how would you describe that person? Show me a few examples of content that suits your brand and how about some content that doesn’t suit your brand? My favorite, how do you want people to feel when they visit your website?

I want to point out that when we’re at this stage of the process we’re looking for emotional responses. We’re not looking for technical answers. When we say, “Why did you start you company in the first place?” and someone says, “I started my company because I saw a need in the market for heated toilet seats,” that’s not the answer we’re looking for.

We’re looking for what comes after that, the moment when somebody’s eyes light up, the things that make them laugh, the things that they really, really seem to want to talk about, because that’s how you find someone’s personality.

The other great thing about this step is that I would imagine for many of you it’s already part of the process. We call them, “stakeholder interviews” in the content strategy world, and a lot of people do them so this is a great place where you can kind of slip voice and tone work into your existing processes without adding much to the scale of the project and without adding any extra resources.

Once you get some answers to these questions you can start getting it down on paper and making lists. I’m a writer so I love making lists. This is my favorite kind. I call it a, this, but not that,” list. A lot of people do it. It’s basically a list of word oppositions. You write down a bunch of words that describe your company’s personality, and then you go through and just kind of qualify each one.

We say MailChimp is helpful, but not overbearing. MailChimp is smart, but not stodgy, clever, but not silly, which that one might be debatable. But this kind of list is so useful, because that second word just really helps writers and people across organizations kind of zoom in on a where your company falls on the personality map. This is especially great if you work with nonprofessional writers who are helping you contribute content, which I think at this point most of us do.

From there you can mix and match. This is the design persona that our UX director, Aarron Walter, made for his team a long time ago, and when I got my hands on it I incorporated most of this into our voice and tone content. It gets into our voice, our engagement methods. It has a personality map.

The reason I did that was because this step should absolutely flow across departments. Of course, the user experience team should be on the same page as the marketing team who should be on the same page as the customer support team when it comes to the way we communicate with our customers.

Voice and tone teaching doesn’t always happen inside a guide. These are our user personas that we have hanging on the wall by our espresso machine at MailChimp. Our user experience director wanted to make these, and he wanted to make them in the form of a poster so that everyone around the office felt they could contribute to this and they could understand who our customers are and where they’re coming from.

Because if we can get someone from support, and someone from the creative team, and an engineer sitting around over a cappuccino talking about our users and their needs, then that’s great, and that I consider part of our voice and tone training.

Some other topics I’d include are the company’s mission, content types and specific content examples, brand and personality traits, reader and customer types. This could be as simple as a list that says like, “pro user, shopper, new customer,” or it could be something more involved like a set of user personas and visual guidelines, which probably applies to most of you.

Now all this talk about voice guidelines, I think we need to talk about where a traditional style guide fits into the mix. We use a traditional style guide at MailChimp. I said, “Yawn,” but I’m joking. I think they’re important, and we use one.

I’m not suggesting we replace our style guides with voice and tone guidelines. I am suggesting that we should be putting more time and more energy into our voice and tone guidelines and that they should work alongside our style guides. I say that for a couple of reasons.

One is that there are existing style guides out there that we can defer to. This is the Yahoo style guide. It’s the one we use at MailChimp, and it’s great.

I have wasted so much time in my career at MailChimp and for other companies rewriting style guides when I wish I would have just picked one, deferred to it, and then created our own style guide to include exceptions, additions, and things that are specific to our company. That’s one reason why I think voice and tone guidelines are more valuable to us as content creators.

The other reason is because you can teach traditional style and web style, and you can edit for it. You can’t really edit for voice and tone, and that’s because web style and grammar are on the surface of our content. As important as they are, they’re on the surface. Voice and tone are in the very fiber of our content. It’s in the very fiber of everything we publish.

I’ll illustrate that with a little example. Let’s say I have two people contributing a blog post for me. This first person is a technically great writer, really well trained, knows the style guide like the back of her hand, but doesn’t really understand our company’s perspective or voice and tone. Maybe it’s a new hire. Maybe it’s not a culture fit. Maybe we hired a third-party writer and gave her a tight deadline, and she really doesn’t get it.

Now we have this other person who’s the reverse of that. Not a great writer, little bit sloppy, but really understands our company’s perspective and sense of humor and voice and tone. Now that person, the sloppy writer who really gets it, turns in a blog post, and what I have is a cleanup job, right, because it’s written in the right perspective.

It strikes the right tone. I might go in and move around a few commas. I might fix a few of those randomly capitalized words in the middle of sentences. I think you all know what I’m talking about, and it’s not a big deal. It’s part of my job as an editor.

Now that other person, the really excellent writer who really doesn’t get it, turns in a blog post. I can’t do anything with that. It’s not a cleanup job. It’s a do over. It’s a start from scratch, because when it’s not written from our company’s perspective, when it doesn’t strike the right tone I can’t work with it. That’s why I think we should be investing resources in creating voice and tone standards and teaching them across departments, not just to writers.

William Bernbach said it better than I could. He said, “It is insight into human nature that is key to the communicator’s skill for whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen.

We’re communicators here. We’re solving problems for specific people. We’re not writing microcopy because we want the world to behold the beauty of our prose. That’s not what we’re in it for, and sometimes we have to take a step back and think about what the user really needs to get out of it, not just what we want to tell the user.

A great way to hold ourselves accountable for that is to do what Peter Elbow calls, “speaking onto the page,” which for me means reading your work out loud. In his book, “Vernacular Eloquence,” he said, “A good teacher I know has a simple but effective technique for the writing classroom. When her students have blah, voiceless writing she makes them speak the following words to her before reading their text. “Listen to me. I have something to tell you.”

This might seem like a silly classroom exercise, but it’s not. It’s so valuable. I read everything out loud. In fact, if I’ve published it on MailChimp’s website, I have read it out loud, and I do that for a couple of reasons. One is because it keeps us from sounding like robots. When I read out loud I do what I call a, “human check,” just to make sure everything flows, I’m not saying anything awkward, there aren’t any construction issues.

The other reason reading out loud is so useful is because it makes us more empathetic, and this is really important. When we have face-to-face conversations with people we have this really wonderful built-in empathy, and that’s because we’re faced with someone’s reaction.

We’re getting immediate feedback. We know their name. We see their face. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t want to make them uncomfortable so we’re naturally more empathetic.

That empathy is so often missing from our writing, and a good way to kind of channel that empathy is just to read your work out loud because it puts you in a conversational frame of mind, and you can better channel it.

Sometimes it helps to read with a specific person in mind. I do that a lot depending on the type of content that I’m writing. I might have my husband or something else in mind, and that can be very helpful. Anne Lamott says you can write to her brother Stevo, because the world’s an untreated alcoholic, and Stevo is smart and kind.

When you do that exercise, when you start reading your work out loud for the first time, you will watch your tone of voice change before your eyes without even having to try and this is my favorite part. This is my dog, Leon. He has taught me a lot about tone of voice, because he really responds to my tone, and I think only my tone.

When I say, “Do you want to go on a walk?” he wags his tail and goes and stands by his leash, and I don’t think he knows what walk means. I don’t know about dog psychology and linguistics, but I’m pretty sure they don’t know that words mean things, right? They hear our tone of voice.

When I say, “No,” he sits down because of the way I say it. I think dogs and babies are really good daily reminders that it’s not just what we say that matters. Sometimes it’s how we say it.

I’m going to use MailChimp as a little bit of a case study, and I’m going to show you where we started with this tone of voice conversation and where we ended up with our voice and tone guide. It started with a style guide. Remember how I told you how much time I wasted rewriting style guides? That’s what I was doing.

I’d finished a section on our company’s voice. I included our, “this but not that,” list, I talked about our company’s personality traits, and I was feeling pretty good. I thought, “OK, people are going to understand our voice and how to write from our perspective.”

Then I got to this section about our content types where I basically just went through and listed each type of content and explained why we published that type of content. When I was doing that I realized, “We have a huge range in content types. We have this really silly stuff like our mascot’s jokes.”

When you logged into MailChimp our mascot, Freddie, would be up there in the corner making some ridiculous joke, or linking to a YouTube video, or telling you he likes your haircut or something. It’s purely an extra layer of humor. In fact, it was so extra that users could opt out of it. You have to check a box that says, “Enable Party Pooper Mode,” but you could opt out of it.

[laughter]

Kate: What we were trying to do here is what Jared talked about here this morning. We’re trying to go beyond meeting people’s basic expectations and surprise and delight them without too big of an investment unless you consider watching YouTube videos all day and making monkey butt jokes an investment. In that case we worked really hard, invested a lot of time and energy into that.

But these were an extra layer of humor, and, in fact, as a side note, we have since redesigned our app, and we took those jokes just last week out of the app, and now Freddie has his very own website instead. Here he is asking if anybody is looking to hire a primate comedian because he lost his comedy gig.

But at the time, I realized on one hand we have these really silly jokes. On the other hand, we have compliance alerts, which are bad news. This is a message that says “I’m sorry. We had to shut down your account because you were spamming.”

It’s important to know that not all spammers are evil. Sometimes people just didn’t know any better. They might have emailed an old list. They might have collected business cards at a trade show, thinking they could just send all those people marketing emails. Then you get in trouble for spamming. This could ruin someone’s day. In the case of an ecommerce daily deal sender, people are losing money every second their email doesn’t go out.

This is really serious business. When I was working on our style guide, I realized on one hand, we’ve got this really playful stuff. On the other hand, we’ve got this really not playful stuff. Our customers are dealing with a huge range of emotion when they interact with our content because we have so many different content types. They’re all over the map here. Suddenly one voice and tone fits all didn’t really make sense anymore. It didn’t really seem respectful of our customers.

James Randolph Adams said if advertising had a little more respect for the public, the public would have a lot more respect for advertising. I think that’s true for any companies, not just advertising. What do we do about it? How do we show them that respect that they deserve?

Well, we adapt our tone with our users’ feelings in mind. First, I consider the content type because sometimes that gets you all the way there. In the case of our mascot’s jokes that I showed you, all I need to know is that I’m writing a joke and I know what tone to strike.

But sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. We have to consider the reader’s emotional state. We have to ask ourselves questions, like what situation is the reader in that is bringing her to this content? What situation am I about to put her in with this message I am working on? How does the reader feel right now? How is she going to feel when I am done with her? What can I do to make her happy or keep her happy?

Then, we adjust our tone with the answers to those questions in mind. Of course, we have to keep in mind that everyone has got touchy subjects.

There are certain topics and industries that are sensitive by nature, stuff like health and medicine. If someone is on a website related to health and medicine they could be feeling scared or upset or nervous or vulnerable. Religion and politics are obvious ones. Money and banking, people are rightfully protective of their private information. Asking for money is another big one.

But then there are content types that most of us deal with every day that are sensitive by nature, like help documents, contact pages, frequently asked questions. These are places where people go when they have a problem, when we are already on thin ice with them. Those situations require a little extra empathy.

Forms are annoying to fill out and they often involve private information, people tend to get nervous about forms. Of course, terms of service, any sort of legal content is highly sensitive. Failure messages, any time we’re delivering bad news, that requires a little bit of extra empathy.

Back to my style guide. This is where I started. I pulled up that wheel of emotions and I started making a list of our content types. Beneath each content type I wrote the emotions I associated with that type. You’ll see where I crossed things out, I moved things around, I wrote the same word 12 times.

At this point in the process, I ended up breaking up our content types in ways that I didn’t expect. For example, I realized that our knowledge base has a couple of different types of readers, people looking at our help documents. We have troubleshooters who are in the middle of a task and they need answers fast and they’re frustrated and they don’t have time for our personality, really.

Then we had explorers who might be new to MailChimp. They want to learn new things. They’re reading these higher level getting started articles and they’re in a different frame of mind when they’re reading those articles. We have to treat those as two separate content types.

This was the beginning of our voice and tone guide and this is where we ended up. It’s a website. We made it public at voiceandtone.com because we wanted to share it with other companies and treat it like an experiment. It starts out green for the happy emotions and goes all the way to red for the angry emotions. I’m just going to walk you through a couple of these screens.

This is the one for our mascot’s jokes that we already talked about. We start out with a hypothetical quote from the user. Here, the user is saying “I never know what Freddie is going to say when I log in, but he cracks me up.” Then, we predict the user’s feelings, in this case, surprise, delight, curiosity hopefully.

Now, the other end of the spectrum, the compliance alert. The reader is thinking “Oh no, I hope I don’t get fired.” We predict the user’s feelings, confusion, stress, anger, helplessness and fear. I want to point out that when I got here it was almost startling for me to realize that we, as an email company, can make someone feel confused, stressed, angry, helpless and scared.

But we can, and that’s why this voice and tone stuff is so important. With those feelings in mind, we offer some tips. We say be straightforward. People who are upset need to know what is going on and they need to know right away. We say be calm. Don’t use alarming words like “alert” or “immediately.” Don’t use exclamation marks. Then we say be serious. Of course, this isn’t the place or jokes.

Now, those gray area, sort of in-between content types. Another one for us was social media. We have a couple of different types of people who follow us on social media. We have our loyal fans who follow us everywhere and they read our blog and they comment everywhere. They want to know about our giveaways. They want to see behind the scenes pictures from MailChimp. They love us and we love them.

We still have to get to the point; we’re talking about social media. But we can try to catch those people off guard and we can treat them more like friends and be a little more casual with those types of messages.

Then we have the email marketing experts who follow us because they feel like they have to. They might be competitors. They might have a blog about email and they need our news, but they don’t really care. They’re distracted and they’re frustrated. My only advice for those types of messages is get in and get out without pissing anybody off.

Our voice and tone guide is obviously elaborate. Like I said, we treated it like an experiment. We had a lot of people working on it. We had a lot of time to do it. We had all the resources we needed and asked for. That’s because we wanted to do it that way, but voice and tone guides don’t have to be elaborate.

This is Tufts University’s voice and tone guide. It’s one page within their website style guide, which is a wiki. It gets into their voice and their tone. It has specific examples of things to say and things not to say. It’s so simple. It probably didn’t require too much time, too many resources or any convincing to get this thing done.

Now, this is one of my favorite writing guides I’ve ever seen. It’s Macmillan Cancer Support’s Writing Guide. This is a cancer support organization in the UK. You can imagine they’re talking about sensitive stuff. A lot of the people visiting their website are feeling vulnerable and upset, maybe angry, maybe scared. They understand that we have to communicate with those people. We have to communicate about those things in a different kind of way.

They have whole section of their writing guide called “Putting People at the Heart of Our Work.” They say “Be positive, realistic and honest. Those are the words to keep in mind when you’re writing about cancer.” They say “If it is necessary to mention death, don’t shy away from it. Acknowledge the fear, pain and confusion that people can feel.

But never use language that would add to that fear.” They say “Speak in plain English and think about the reader.” They say “Before you even start writing, think about what the reader needs to get out of it, not just what you want to tell them.”

What I love about this is that these people obviously care primarily about the work that they do and the people they serve, not a bunch of writing rules and regulations. It comes through in their writing guidelines and it comes through in their content. I think this guide is just so rooted in empathy and I love it.

Gov.uk, a lot of you have probably seen their website and their style guide. It is so fantastic. If you think about people visiting the UK government’s website, it’s a broad range of people, people with different backgrounds, people with different needs, people at different reading levels. They have to somehow figure out how to write with all of those people in mind.

They say it’s for everyone in the UK and those outside the UK who have an interest. But they say to speak in plain English, to write in plain English, to write simply. They say everyone should understand our content, but we’re not dumbing anything down.

Again, these guidelines aren’t about commas and hyphens and em dashes. They’re not a list of writing rules and regulations. It’s a people guide. It’s a communication guide and everyone around the organization can understand what that means and understand how to let that play out in their content.

Now, I’m going to show you a few examples of empathetic content and not so empathetic content from out in the wild. I’ll break the ice by showing you a few places where we got it wrong at MailChimp.

This is a tweet from the MailChimp status account, which is where people look when they’re having a problem logging in. It says “Happy Monday everyone. Our engineers are working as quickly as possible to get things working properly. Thanks for your patience.”

Aside from the fact that it says working twice, the obvious problem here is that it is not a happy Monday for people who are trying to send an email and can’t log in because MailChimp is failing them. This just comes off as insensitive and kind of rude. We won’t do that again.

This is an unsubscribe notification from inside our app. When you login you get this little bit of a dashboard that shows you what’s going on with your campaign, including letting you know when somebody unsubscribes. Now here is the thing, unsubscribes are not a big deal. Any of you who have email newsletter lists, that the bigger your list is, the more people unsubscribe. It’s not a big deal.

We want to let people know you did have a couple, but we want to say “It’s OK, everything is going to be OK. It’s not a big deal.” This message used to say “You had a few people jump ship. Who needs them anyway?”

It was coming from a good place. We were trying to be nice. We were trying to say “Oh it’s OK, no big deal. Let’s all move on.” But we ended up sending message that we don’t value our customer’s subscribers. That’s not true. That’s not honest.

A few people actually wrote in about this because we are so public about our voice and tone that people do let us know when they think we’re missing the mark. They were absolutely right. I think we really were striking the wrong tone here.

Now this is what we changed it to. It says “These things happen for a number of reasons, but you might want to check out our tips for keeping a healthy list,” with a link to a help document with some more information. Now, this is a work in progress. It will probably change some more. But it’s a perfect example of these little tiny voice and tone problems that we spend so much time trying to solve very day at MailChimp.

This is a place where we’re playful on purpose. This is the send button when you are ready to send a campaign. I recently had a chance to feel our customers’ excitement and pain when they get to this point because I had to send an email to all of our three million plus customers. I had to send a system alert letting them know that we had changed all of our legal policies.

We were worked really hard on it. A lot of us collaborated on it. I had a lot of people look over the email. I had a couple of people standing over my computer when I went to click this button…

[laughter]

Kate: …and when it was time to click the button I was excited to share this with our customers. I was proud of the work that we had done. I was relieved to be finished with this stinking newsletter, and I was terrified. I was terrified. Three million people, that’s too many people. I don’t ever want to have to email three million people.

That’s how our customers feel when they click this button, and that’s why this little bit of interface copy is so meaningful to us, because we need to say, “OK, are you sure? Are you really ready to click, ‘Send,’ because an email is not like a blog post? Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t edit it.”

But at the same time we understand that they’re feeling maybe excited, maybe proud, maybe relieved, and we want to add to those happy feelings. We want to encourage them. We ended up with, “This is your moment of glory,” and these six little words I think they’re still my favorite part of the app, because, again, just so much thought goes into these little tiny things, and we worked so hard to just try to strike the right tone.

This is another place where we’re playful on purpose for the same reason. After you click that button, you send the campaign, and then you’re like, “OK, I guess that’s over,” and we want to encourage people, and we want to pat them on the back. We want to tell them that we’re excited for them so we say, “High fives. Your campaign is in the send to and will go out shortly.”

That’s another example of a place where we’re intentionally playful where we don’t think it gets in the way, and we hope that it adds to the experience for our customers.

Now let’s talk about unsubscribe screens, the screen you get when you click to unsubscribe from somebody’s email. When I did that for the Obama campaign’s email in this last presidential election this is what I saw. It says, “I’m voting for the president in 2012. I just get too many emails. That’s what a lot of folks who end up on this page say. Here’s why we think you should stick around. If you want to see the president reelected…” and it goes on and says why you should stick around.

Then they say, “If you’re just looking to get fewer emails we can send you campaign updates only once a week or so. Select your preferred frequency below.” I love this, because I think it’s an example of where tone of voice is everything. It’s not just their voice. It’s the way they say what they say.

They tell us they know exactly how we feel. They validate those feelings, and then they offer a solution. It’s great. I just think it’s so nice, and I bet they retained a lot of subscribers this way. “High five, President Obama.”

Do you want to see what I saw when I clicked on unsubscribe from the Romney campaign’s emails?

[laughter]

Kate: Oh, gosh. I love showing this slide. OK, again. Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. You click unsubscribe to say, “Romney Campaign, I never want to hear from you again,” and you see, “Thank you! You have been unsubscribed from this publication.”

I don’t think I need to explain why when somebody says they never want to hear from you again emphatically thanking them is probably not the best way to go, but I should point out that I think this is probably automatically generated content. I think this probably came from their email service provider.

I don’t think someone from the Romney campaign sat down to write this message. I think someone from the Romney campaign should have sat down to write this message. Again, sometimes it’s just the little things that can really rub people the wrong way.

This is Photojojo’s unsubscribe form. It just says, “We’re sad to see you go,” and I love it. I think it’s so sort of disarmingly honest, and this might be the last thing people see when they interact with this company, and I think that’s kind of a nice note to end things on.

Now this is a tea newsletter called Tea News. You unsubscribe and they say, “We all know how sensitive your computer’s mouse can be so we’d like to make sure you really want to miss out on our Pulitzer Prize-winning articles. To go against your best interests and confirm anyway, please click, “unsubscribe.”

Again, we put ourselves in the reader’s shoes. Tea News is already on thin ice with anyone who’s seen this screen because they said they don’t want to get these emails anymore so treating them with sarcasm, greeting them with sarcasm probably isn’t the way to go. It’s probably not the place for that kind of thing. “The consumer isn’t a moron. She’s your wife.” David Ogilvy said that.

On that note I want to talk specifically about humor for just a minute, because I think it’s such an important part of this tone of voice conversation, because it’s where a lot of companies miss the mark. A lot of companies think, “Oh, we’re funny. We’re a funny company with a playful voice so we have to be funny all the time,” and that’s not true.

Think about the funniest person you know. That person isn’t funny all the time. That would be completely obnoxious. That would be worse than obnoxious. That would be sociopathic. Nobody’s funny all the time. We have to know when to keep a straight face and when it’s OK to crack a joke.

404 screens are popular places to be funny. It kind of goes against my rule about error messages, because technically it is an error message, but I think it’s totally OK to show off your personality there. I think people kind of have come to expect it, and it’s usually not a big deal. I’m going to show you Mint.com’s 404 screen.

It says, “We looked everywhere and couldn’t find that page, but we did find these under the couch cushions,” and then they have this picture, and I think it’s really cute, and then down here they also try to help us get where we’re looking to go so I think this is a great balance between humor and usefulness.

Now I’m about to show you a 404 screen that one of our designers made at MailChimp that we did not publish. I’m going to repeat that before I show it to you. We did not publish this page that I’m about to show you.

[laughter]

Kate: Yeah, that’s a pregnancy test. It says, “Oops.” This was a long time ago, and our designer at the time, Aarron, made this screen, and he showed it to me, and I laughed and laughed and laughed, and then we showed it to the rest of our team, and everybody laughed and laughed and laughed, and then we showed it to our boss, our company CEO, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. And then he was like, “Ha, ha, ha. No. No. You are not publishing that.”

[laughter]

Kate: In retrospect I think we really dodged a bullet because at the time I was obsessed with our humor in that I wanted us to be funny, but I wasn’t being really sensitive. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that something that’s really funny to me and my coworkers, who are a lot like me, might not work for all of our customers.

Obviously pregnancy is an emotional topic. It’s not something that we need to joke about at all, and we could have offended and isolated people just on a number of levels. We didn’t publish that.

This is a company called, “Woot.” It’s a daily deal company, and they’re known for having this really fun, playful, sarcastic voice, and this is a product description page for a desktop scanner. It says, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m just a document scanner. I can’t advise you on your theory that the IRS is unconstitutional.”

I think this is a great place for humor. I love this, because when people are on a product page they’re usually in a pretty good mood. They’re looking to spend some money. In this case they’re going to save some money. They’re looking at their options, and it’s a great place to kind of show off your personality as long as you get the important details across, which they do.

Then when you’re looking for their email address they call it the, “stinking email address,” and they say they’d love to hear from their angry, disappointed, and betrayed fans. I hesitate to use Woot as an example because I think they do such a great job a lot of the time, but this is what happens when your voice stays exactly the same across content types and your tone stays exactly the same across content types.

This sort of sarcastic, funny tone of voice that really works on a product page isn’t going to come across the same way on a frequently asked questions or content page because people are in a different frame of mind, because they’re not happy with the company when they’re on this page, and they probably don’t want to be treated with sarcasm.

What I think happened here is some nice well meaning writers tried to force humor in a place where it just didn’t belong, and to me that comes across as a little off putting, a little rude, and just not very honest.

I want to talk about honesty to wrap things up because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. We already talked about how the best brand voices are true reflections of the people behind the company, but there’s more to it than that. Honesty is also about knowing our place, knowing our place in our customers’ lives and our customers’ stories.

I have to realize, for example, that I work for an email company. I’m glad that so many smart and creative people use MailChimp to send their newsletters, but I also have to realize that for them using MailChimp is a task. It’s a chore. It’s just another part of their day. They don’t sit around thinking about MailChimp all day like I do because that’s exactly what I’m paid to do, right?

The more I think that way, the more I have that perspective, the better and the more genuine our content becomes, because our customers deserve better than these vague superlatives and cheap comparisons that we all see all over the place. These are real. I pulled them from the real Internet.

Copywriters are taught to say, “We’re the best and the most powerful and the fastest, and our product is life changing,” and our customers and our users see right through this stuff. Our users know when we’re lying to them, and if they don’t know now, they’ll find out later.

It makes a lot more sense for us to create content that comes from a place of honesty. It makes more sense for us to sell people on our true strengths, because we’ve probably got them, or else our companies wouldn’t have survived this long.

Warby Parker is a company that I think is really good at being honest. They named their company after two of Jack Kerouac’s early characters – Zagg Parker and Warby Pepper. They love literature. They love reading. They love books and words. They have a library in their office for their staff because they love that stuff so much.

Their writing guidelines are great. They have a section called, “Striking the Right Tone.” They say to write like Warby Parker is the person you’d want seated next to you at a dinner party, and I just love that image. You can tell from their writing guidelines, this is just a little bit of them…how much they do care about words, and it comes through in their content.

Their content is interesting. It’s engaging. These are absolutely conversations I would have at a dinner party. To me, this is what it looks like when a company writes from a place of honesty.

Their content isn’t perfect. There are things that I would definitely change here if had the chance. Your content probably isn’t perfect, either, and mine certainly isn’t, but we’re working on it, and our users don’t expect perfection. They want to know we’re human. Maya Angelou said this…”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Thank you so much.

[applause]

Jared: Awesome. We’ll start with some questions here. Here we go.

Audience Member: Yeah, hi. I’m a content writer as well. First of all, great presentation. Loved it. Can we give her another round of applause?

[applause]

Kate: I love you.

Audience Member: For the company that I work for we have a service where clients can leave feedback, and we get a daily email with their feedback and stuff like that, and we’ll get some clients who are like, “You know what? We don’t like your tone. We don’t like your tone.”

A lot of the HiPPOs in our organization that were referred to earlier say, “We’ve got to change it. Just change it and be done with it.” How do you handle that type of stuff based on one comment from a client?

Kate: Based on a comment from a client?

Audience Member: Yes, just like one comment, just boom, and then they say. “Set off the alarms. Let’s change it.

Kate: Well, first I would roll my eyes, and then I would remind that person that our voice is a true reflection of who we are and those, just what we talked about in the beginning…those people behind the company, and you can’t just change it otherwise it’s going to be false, and it’s going to rub people the wrong way.

As for tone of voice that is something that you can get wrong and the great thing about tone of voice is that it’s always changing anyway so it’s something you can play around with a little bit. If you have that sort of flexibility to say, “OK, let’s tweak it just a little bit and see if that helps,” that is something you could do.

But one great way just to get these people on board is to ask them those questions that we talked about early in the presentation and make them feel a part of this whole voice and tone conversation and make them feel invested in it.

Of course, not everybody is going to like it, and I think we have to know who our users are, and we have to know who they’re not, and understand that not everybody is going to like how we say everything, and that’s just part of it.

Audience Member: Kate. Hi.

Kate: Hey.

Audience Member: Thanks for a great energy-producing talk at the end. When you brought up Obama’s email campaign I had done some reading about how they tested a lot of email messages, and I know that your voice comes from who you are, but do you guys do any kind of testing, because even within that voice I’m sure there’s a lot of variation, a lot of paths you can take? How do you decide what’s going to work with your users?

Kate: That’s a good question. We didn’t do any of the kind of testing that the Obama campaign did. Like they did a ton of AV testing on their emails, and we don’t do that for voice and tone, partly because I don’t want to change our voice and tone based on those kinds of metrics.

What we do is use our testing, and while we can’t just do a very basic test and say, “We’re going to find out if our voice and tone are good,” we do test specific things like humor in certain spots to find out if it’s getting in the way of the way someone is interacting with some bit of content.

We’ll test different headlines and things like that, and things that kind of get at our voice and tone without trying to kind of assign numbers to our voice and tone, which is something that I’m just not there yet with it. We might try more stuff like that down the road, but we have been doing some user interviews that have been really helpful for us, and we have made small changes along the way based on the feedback that we get from users for sure.

Audience Member: Hi. Great talk. Somewhat related to the previous question here. I was a little bit curious about your process when you were mapping kind of content types in the gray area that people have been encountering to emotions that they might be feeling at that moment.

I was curious. Were you using user interviews to kind of come up with what kind of emotions people might be feeling? Was it more comments that people were leaving that gave you some insights into that?

Kate: Sure. To be honest, most of it was just the first round. The list that you saw that was me guessing, me putting myself in their shoes and trying to guess at what emotions they were feeling. But we did have existing research that I could kind of lean on to confirm stuff.

But for the most part it really was a matter of looking at the way people use our website, looking at the way people use our application and understanding what position they’re in, and then from there saying, “All right. What frame of mind are they in?”

It was a combination. I didn’t lean too heavily on research. It was more about kind of gut feelings at that stage of the process. But that’s a really good question, and it’s especially tricky with the gray areas, for sure. Like I said, I let those emotions guide me, and that’s how I ended up breaking up our content types.

Audience Member: How do you approach identifying a voice for a company that goes through lots of acquisitions and mergers and is almost kind of changing every year, two years? Have you had an experience with that?

Kate: No, I’ve had no experience with that.

Audience Member: Nice.

[laughter]

Kate: That’s a really good question. I think that my answer should probably be, “I don’t know,” but, again, a company exists to serve a purpose, or solve a problem, or fulfill a need, and you can always trace back a company to its roots and to why it exists, and the kind of spirit behind it.

Voices do evolve and adapt over time, and I think that’s OK. MailChimp’s voice has changed a lot over time as we’ve gotten bigger. When I started I think I was employee number 30, and we could take lot more risks. I think that’s probably true for a lot of companies that get acquired.

When you’re small and you don’t have as big a user base you can be a little more daring in different ways and just try things and see how they work out. I think it is OK to say, “OK, we’re in a different stage now, and our voice can evolve,” but it’s just important to kind of do that gut check and make sure is this real?

Is this sort of a collective voice that is truly reflective of the people and the culture and the spirit behind the company? I think that kind of gets you there. It can kind of guide you through how to evolve and adapt your voice. That’s a really good question and a tricky problem. Hi.

Audience Member: Hi. At my job I deal with a legal team that is very prescriptive and very certain about the exact words that they want on the page, right? You ever have to deal with that, and how do you?

Kate: Yes. We recently actually redid our terms of service and privacy policy, and that is exactly what I was dealing with. I was working alongside our lawyer who’s great, but she did have specific things that we had to say at specific times, and we had to say, “deem,” instead of, “is,” things like that.

[laughter]

Kate: I don’t remember, but I think that…a couple of things. One, I think it’s important to remember that especially when you’re talking about lawyers and legal teams, they have a job to do, and their job is to cover your company’s butt, and you have a job to do, and you’re looking out for the customers, and your looking out for their needs.

You really do have to meet in the middle on that type of content, and the fact of the matter is there are certain words that you have to say, and there are certain constructions that you can’t get around or else you might get sued, and it won’t be worth changing the word, “deem.”

I think that’s important to think about, and you just meet in the middle. Again, the great thing about adapting your tone based on the content type is that it means that legal content is really serious business, and it’s OK to be a little more formal there as long as you’re being clear.

What we tried to do was write that stuff from scratch. I worked alongside our lawyer instead of editing an existing legal document and just get as close to the middle as we could, and we ended up with a terms of service that I think the policy is clear. I think that anyone would understand it.

But yes, it’s a little more formal than the rest of our content. I would suggest working alongside a lawyer or legal team and starting from scratch, instead of trying to go back and fix something that is absolutely incoherent.

Jared: OK. Thank you, Kate.

Kate: Thank you.

[applause]

One Response to “Kate Kiefer Lee – Voice and Tone Live!

  1. Sean Carmichael Says:

    Hi there,

    A PDF of Kate’s slide deck is hosted on the UX Thursday site and you can get at it here.

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