Does your content “resonate” with users? Does it empathise?
If your help articles, system emails, or website copy are lacking the spark of true engagement, your language choice could well be to blame. So, here’s a 3 second way to test your copy.
In my experience, the best way to address users through text is by writing like you’re talking with them.
The one place where a little more formality may be called for is in cases where your user is upset with you. Then, being super-respectful is the way to go, and the obvious way to do that is to alter the tone of your communications.
In pretty much all other cases, a tone of respectful approachability — call it friendliness if you will — is, I think, the best option for fostering empathy.
Let’s look at some real, live, still-kicking cases where a little more friendliness could go a long way — and the techniques that would make that possible.
Technique 1: Choose friendlier words
This first example comes from a video script. Scripts are one place where the written and spoken worlds collide, and we’ll often hear clumsy phrasing that could be a whole lot better.
The brand is Snagit, a little screencapture tool I use, and the case is this Snagit intro video.
In the first minute, I found three spots where the script contained phrases you probably wouldn’t say.
“So, what do you really need to know in order to capture an image or record a video or from your screen?”
I don’t know about you, but I practically never speak the words “in order”, and rarely have them spoken to me. When you have all the flex and tone of an actual voice speaking your words, you don’t really need “in order”.
Simpler options here hinge on word choice.
- “So, what do you really need to know to capture an image or record a video or from your screen?”
- “So, what do you really need to know if you want to capture an image or record a video or from your screen?”
- “So, what do you really need to know if you’re going to to capture an image or record a video or from your screen?”
“In fact, there are only three buttons you need to know. If you want to capture an image, select this one.”
This video really is very friendly-sounding. So why would they use a formal word like “select” when there are so many other options?
- “In fact, there are only three buttons you need to know. If you want to capture an image, use this one.”
- “In fact, there are only three buttons you need to know. If you want to capture an image, choose this one.”
- “In fact, there are only three buttons you need to know. If you want to capture an image, pick this one.”
Fewer syllables, less high-falutin’, more direct. Simple!
“Click and drag the orange guides to select a portion of your screen.”
I can’t remember the last time I was in a conversation that included the word “portion”. Again, a simple word switch does so much for the tone of this sentence:
- “Click and drag the orange guides to select part of your screen.”
- “Click and drag the orange guides to select an area of your screen.”
- “Click and drag the orange guides to select just some of your screen.”
As you can see, the individual words — often verbs or nouns — we choose can make a huge difference to the way our messages come across. As one word can change the whole tone of a sentence, so those words add up — in this case, through the first minute of a video — to put a distance between the brand and the viewer.
That distance needn’t be there.
Technique 2: Stop talking down
The authorities we like the most are the ones who treat us as equals.
Still, many brands like to use big words to try to inject value into their high-end offerings. Like Google, with its Premium Analytics service. Here’s how the Big G sells it:
“Robust and comprehensive tools
Google Analytics Premium is loaded with groundbreaking tools. Like our data-driven attribution model, which gives value to marketing touch points across a customer’s journey. So you get a full and actionable view of the digital channels, devices, and keywords that perform best.”
There are a zillion cringe-worthy moments in this short paragraph (if I’m paying a truckload for Premium, I want it more than “loaded with” groundbreaking tools–it should be 100% groundbreaking if you ask me) but let’s stick with the issue of friendliness for now.
Let’s assume Google needs, for branding purposes, to use the words “data-driven attribution model”. Let’s tell ourselves the users are literally lapping up words like “value”, “touch points”, and “customer’s journey.”
Even if all that were true, I’d still take issue with “full and actionable.” Have you ever said “actionable”? Me neither. Is it even a word? That text sounds like a mean boss, not a skilled friend who’s helping you get ahead. To rework it, we need to stop talking down to users.
“– which gives value to marketing touch points across a customer’s journey. So you get a complete, usable view of the digital channels, devices, and keywords that perform best.”
This version’s not bad, and it leaves the sentence’s emphasis where it is.
This time, let’s try bringing more focus to the action. After all, that seems to be what this product’s ultimately delivering, right?
” — which gives value to marketing touch points across a customer’s journey. So you get a full view of the digital channels, devices, and keywords that perform best — and one you can act on.”
It’s more friendly, but there’s another benefit to this last example: it decreases the reading level of the text by an entire high school year level.
Seems that if you write like you talk, people probably will be able to understand you more easily. Who knew? (Hint: not Google.)
Technique 3: See your text as part of the user experience
I know that sounds elementary, but I think often, if not usually, even writers see content as an entity unto itself, rather than part of an experience.
In fact I’d go a step further and say we often see text as the goal, the user’s reward for all that clicking. In some lights, that may hold some truth, but let’s not forget the larger context in which the content sits.
To be clear, when I say “user experience”, I’m not just talking about their navigating your website. I’m talking about the context in which they’ve come to your site.
Help content is a great case example. I’m not searching Facebook’s help because I want to read some great help content. The broader context for my search could include the fact that I don’t know how to use the site, but also, that I received a friend request from someone I don’t want to offend — my new boss, say — so listen, Zuckerberg, I need a crash course in Friending, and I need it yesterday.
Let’s say I happen upon this piece of content, titled, Who should I send friend requests to?
“You should send friend requests to people you have a real-life connection to, like your friends, family, coworkers or classmates.
If you’re interested in receiving updates from people you find interesting, but don’t know personally (ex: journalists, celebrities, political figures), try following them instead of sending them friend requests.”
The first paragraph sounds normal enough, but somewhere around the second, things get slightly out of hand. Am I interested in people I find interesting?! And how do I “receive updates”? I’m a new user here (I don’t even know who to friend). What’s with the fuzzy language?
We can leave aside the issue of “update” terminology (which could cover email, push notifications, and/or actually seeing things in my Facebook feed when I log in). Instead, let’s focus on rewriting this more like we’d say it. How about:
“If you want to see updates from people you find interesting but you don’t know personally (e.g. journalists, celebrities, political figures), you can follow them rather than sending them friend requests.”
But what about the user experience? This is a social networking site, after all. I’m here to find friends, I want to have fun, and I want to do it a.s.a.p. Let’s make Facebook friendlier–and more direct–this time:
“Want to see updates from interesting people you don’t know personally (like journalists, celebrities, or political figures)? You don’t need to send them a friend request. Follow them instead to see their public updates.”
The Facebook version of this content has a reading level of Grade 12. That last revised version, which includes shorter sentences and uses the active voice, has a reading level of Grade 8.4. All thanks to friendlier phrasing–and our taking the user experience into consideration when we write the text.
If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it
I really do stand by this mantra for most online text I write. The exceptions come about usually when you’re using brand-specific terms that need to be couched carefully if they are to make sense to users.
I’m not saying, “don’t ever write the word ‘portion’ again!” What I’m advocating here is that whether you’re writing button text or long-form prose, you consider word choice carefully, and, where possible, make it as natural as you can.
Do you already do this with the text in your app or site? Let us know how it works for you in the comments.
Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.
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