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Tone and Voice, Again.

Tone and voice get talked about a lot. Maybe too much. And, for some reason, we like to complicate their roles.


I'm a human being. Though I sometimes learn new words or phrases, I have a set vocabulary I use by default. I have a personality that applies no matter the circumstance. I have a way of structuring and punctuating my writing. All this makes up my voice.


I'm not, however, a robot. I'll use different words around a 5 year old and a 50 year old. I'll change my volume based, sometimes, on emotion. I'll act and speak differently depending on whether I'm relaxed, overwhelmed, curious, etc. This circumstantial personality is my tone.


Pretty simple, yeah? Yet when we talk about tone and voice within the context of content design, the water starts getting murky. Our job is to make things simpler, so why do we love complicating tone and voice?


Witticism

As I've said before, being cute or witty isn't UX copy's first objective. It shouldn't even be its second or third. UX writing is all about communicating the right information in the right amount at the right time...and, let's add on, in the right voice and tone.


If you work for a product with a voice that is playful and snarky, go all out. Make puns, get a chuckle out of the user. Cool. But don't ever let it become your main focus, and, don't forget about tone. Even if your product is goofy, users won't feel like laughing during an error message or data breach.


💡Pro tip: If you're working on a portfolio, don't fall into the trap of showing a screenshot of a joke you wrote. You'll impress recruiters a lot more by showing a well thought-out flow.


Personas

There's a popular exercise that asks writers and designers to imagine their product as a famous person. What personality are we trying to convey? What are our main traits? It can be a fun exercise, especially for introducing stakeholders to voice.


But I've played this game at several companies, and talked to others who have done so in other spheres. And you know what? The same names keep popping up: Barack Obama. Oprah. George Clooney. Tom Hanks.


Nothing's necessarily wrong with any of these answers. All of those people are known to be hardworking but relatable, attractive but approachable, smart but understandable. All good things for your product to be. But if we want to stand out as a company, why do we all name the same people?


Don't waste time defining a super specific voice for your team until you get the basics down. First, tackle consistency and clarity. Be as crisp as Obama and helpful as Oprah. Use terminology that doesn't gatekeep and punctuation that is clear. Be personal but not overbearing, professional but not stiff, purposeful but not academic.


Once you reach that stage, sure: do a workshop. Think about how you can add in a few more smiles, be extra helpful, and stand out as a unique voice. But that narrow definition shouldn't be the main focus. Nail down the big voice stuff, and then make sure tone is appropriate in different places, before drilling down further.


💡Pro tip: For a quick tone exercise, put yourself in the user's shoes. How would you feel at the point you're writing for?


Gatekeeping

Look. It's easy to say no to a snip of copy because "it doesn't match our voice." But what does that mean? Sometimes, UX writers like to act as gatekeepers, to be seen as the ones with the magic touch. And don't get me wrong: we're an important component of the team. But our importance doesn't come from a treasure trove of secret knowledge; it comes from being a person who's always thinking about content, and how to make it better. That's it. Just being that person is often a huge win.


So if a designer or PM tries their hand at writing, first of all, great--jump up and down for joy that they care. Second, provide meaningful feedback. If the voice or tone doesn't match what you're looking for, fine, but explain why. Talk through how the user is feeling in that moment; show them the standard terminology within the feature.


Let's not pretend that tone and voice are these big, complicated concepts. Yeah, they take time to cultivate, but if we bring them back down to earth, they'll do a lot more good.


💡Pro tip: Delegation and trust are awesome things. I'd much rather someone else take a crack at writing, get 90% of the way there, and organically see the benefits...instead of doing it myself, "magically," and pretending it's perfection.

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