Report from voice and tone seminar by Kate Kiefer Lee

Early last Friday morning (5:30am, to be precise) I attended a webinar presented by Kate Kiefer Lee (@katekiefer) on creating a voice and tone for your organisation. The presentation is titled “Voice and Tone: Creating Content for Humans”. Kate is Editor and Content Strategist at MailChimp.

With this post my aim is to whet your appetite for attending Kate’s session, if you get the chance.

Introduction by Kate

This is what we’re aiming for, when thinking about the voice and tone of our organisation:

  • A tone that stays pretty much the same over time.
  • A voice that changes all the time.

At MailChimp, Kate deals with plenty of different types of content: email, website, blogs, text in the app… It can seem overwhelming to think about making all those consistent.

The way to tackle it is to find the company’s voice. Our customers are people, just like us. They deserve our thoughtfulness and our respect. The right tone of voice can turn a frustrated customer into a loyal fan.

Finding your company’s voice

Where there’s a company, there’s already a voice. Sometimes you have to dig to find it. Start by asking questions. Talk to the founders and other key people in the company.

These are some questions to ask:

  • What does your company do?
  • Why did you start your company?
  • Why do people visit your website?
  • Who are your customers?
  • What other companies do you admire?
  • If your brand were a person, how would you describe him or her?

This one is Kate’s favourite:

How do you want people to feel when they visit your website?

There’s no need to spend too much extra time to ask these questions. You can slide them in when doing stakeholder interviews.

This is a key thing to note: You’re looking for emotional responses. You don’t want the technical or business response. You want those moments when people’s eyes light up.

Making a list of character traits for your organisation

A list of word oppositions is a useful tool. That’s a list with the structure “x but not y”. Adding the “not” part is really important.

This is MailChimp’s list:

MailChimp is

fun but not childish.

clever but not silly.

powerful but not complicated.

smart but not stodgy.

cool but not alienating.

informal but not sloppy.

helpful but not overbearing.

expert but not bossy.

This list of characteristics is the best place to start any voice and tone guide, and should be right at the front of the guide.


Personas are a valuable part of the voice and tone content. You’ll probably find that your designers, UX professionals or product managers work with personas. Those personas should be used right across the company.

Other things to include in the voice and tone guide

Kate walked us through a list of things to include in the voice guidelines:

  • company’s mission
  • content types
  • specific content examples
  • brand traits
  • personality explanation
  • reader/customer types
  • visual guidelines

Traditional style guides

There is definitely a place for the more traditional writing style guides. But the voice and tone guides are perhaps more suited to being a part of every organisation, and are a little more meaningful. Why?

  • There are existing, industry-wide style guides that we can use. We don’t need to write our own entire guide. Instead, we can defer to an existing one and add our own custom items.
  • We can edit for style and grammar. It’s really hard to edit for voice and tone, because those are at the heart of and form the very fibre of our content.

Kate gave the example of two writers. Let’s call them Bob and Jack. Bob is an excellent writer but isn’t too good at getting the voice and tone right. Jack is a bit of a sloppy writer, but is right on the button with the voice and tone. Kate finds it much easier to integrate Jack’s content. It’s basically a cleanup job. Whereas editing Bob’s copy isn’t possible. Kate would have to rewrite the content.

Speaking onto the page

Read your work out loud. This stops you from sounding like a robot. It makes you more empathetic, because it puts you into a conversation. When talking to someone, you want to make them feel good and make sure you answer their questions.

Another trick is to read the work as if you’re talking to someone you know. Think of a specific person. This helps you to communicate in a friendly way, and a way that people will understand.

Watching your tone

Voice and tone are different. Tone changes all the time, depending on the situation and the audience.

To help define what “tone” is, Kate showed a picture of her dog. The dog responds all the time to tone of voice. For example, “walk” versus “no”. He responds to the way we say those words, rather than their meaning.

Kate talked about how the MailChimp voice and tone guide evolved. She showed a section of the style guide called “content types”. She realised there’s a huge range of content types. For example:

  • There’s humour in the app. But it’s outside the main purpose of the app. You can even turn the jokes off.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, there are compliance alerts. This is an example of bad news that you’re delivering to customers. This kind of thing can really ruin someone’s day.

So the customers are dealing with a huge range of emotion when they’re dealing with the content. One tone doesn’t fit all, because that’s not being respectful to the customers.

Determining your tone:

  • Consider the content type. Sometimes it’s really simple, such as a joke.
  • Think about the reader’s emotional state. This is an exercise in basic empathy. How does the reader feel when she gets to this page, and how will she feel when she has read this content?

Kate listed a set of content types that require a specific tone. For example:

  • Financial content, health and medicine, fundraising. This type of content is sensitive.
  • Help content. People are usually trouble-shooting when they come here. Not a good place for jokes or marketing.
  • Forms are stressful and often involve private information.
  • Failure messages and alerts often deliver bad news.

Kate showed us a wheel of emotion, and how she mapped the content types and types of readers to the various emotions.

Types of readers:

  • Troubleshooters – people looking for a solution to a problem. Frustrated. Want a quick fix.
  • Explorers – people trying to find out about MailChimp. Excited and interested. The content can be more relaxed.

Examples of voice and tone guides

We took a look at some examples of good, effective voice and tone guides from various organisations. I’ve picked my two favourites here.

Kate walked us through some parts of MailChimp’s voice and tone guide:

Looking at the section on Freddie’s jokes:, we saw that the guide includes:

  • A couple of tips. For example, it explains that the jokes aren’t meant to contain information.
  • A list of the reader’s likely feelings at this point.
  • An example of the content – in this case, a joke.

At the other end of the spectrum is the compliance alert: The guide predicts the reader will be feeling stress, confusion, anger, fear at this point of time. With those feelings in mind, it tells writers to be straightforward, serious, and calm. Don’t use alarming words. Don’t joke. And again, the page contains an example of the content that works.

Macmillan Cancer Support

This is one of Kate’s favourite writing guides as well as mine, because it focuses on people, which is very important for a cancer support organisation:

They really think about the way people are feeling. They clearly have content people who “get it”, who are very concerned about the organisation’s voice and tone, not just a dry style guide.

Examples and mistakes

Kate showed us some examples of where MailChimp got it wrong. For example, a system outage message that started with:

“Happy Monday everyone!”

I liked the openness of MailChimp, in allowing Kate to publicise these times when their content struck the wrong tone.

In contrast, Kate showed some times where the tone is just right. Not too formal or too stressful, Even playful when appropriate. For example, when asking the user to confirm the submission of a document: “This is your moment of glory” instead of something like “Are you really sure you want to submit this now?

We also looked at some content from other companies where the tone is just right, or not right. I enjoyed these examples, and the way Kate kept the focus on people’s feelings when they come to the content, and how they’ll feel after they’ve read it.

Humour, and being honest

There was plenty more in Kate’s presentation, including two very interesting sections on humour and being honest, with examples of good and bad.


Kate stopped at a couple of points during the session to answer questions from participants. I’ve noted down the questions and her answers.

At MailChimp, who uses the voice and tone guide and who uses the style guide?

The voice and tone guide is externally available, and is required reading for everyone in the company. Everyone communicates with the external world.

The style guide is internal. It’s available to everyone in the company, but it’s required reading only for the professional writers. For people posting on the company blog, for example, the oice and tone guide is required but the style guide is not. People who don’t consider themselves professional writers are nervous about writing. The voice and tone guide really helps them.

Does every company need voice guidelines?

Every company has a voice. Every company needs to communicate that voice to their staff. They may not need a detailed guide, but they need to describe their personality and make the “this but not that” list.

How long should the voice and tone guide be?

MailChimp’s is pretty long, because they have many different types of content. They need many examples and scenarios. If the company is smaller and does not have so many content types, you can have a much simpler voice and tone guide.

Do you use feedback from users for your voice and tone?

MailChimp does, in a couple of different ways.

Firstly, they have started doing user testing on voice and tone. No data to share yet, because they’ve just started. Kate is really interested in the process a user goes through when navigating through the website. Consistency of personality is important, so Kate is testing people with different types of content. The survey asks questions such as, was this reassuring, or are we trustworthy (with graded answers). Kate wants to make sure the reader feels they are talking to the same person throughout.

Secondly, Kate monitors what people are saying about MailChimp in social media, especially Twitter. When people say they don’t like a particular phrase or part of the content, Kate changes it. She also talks to people at conferences and other meetings.

How do you make sure people are following the voice and tone guide?

Kate looks at all the content regularly, once a month, to check that everyone is on the same page. If you notice patterns in the problems that keep coming up, find the writers and talk to them about the “why” behind the voice and tone.

She also recommends teaching people from the get-go. Share the voice and tone guide. Conduct training sessions. Writers and non-writers alike can “get” the guide, because it focuses on people and emotions.

What do you do if stakeholders don’t agree with the voice and tone guidelines?

The best voice and tone guidelines are true reflections of the people behind the company.

  • Make sure that the voice is honest – that it’s a true reflection of why people started the company and what they’re trying to do.
  • Probe to see if they’re advocating for a voice that’s not real.
  • Talk to the stakeholders about how people connect with a voice that is a true reflection of the company. This can earn you a lot of trust amongst the stakeholders, and will help them realise you’re on the same team. You’re not trying to invent a voice and tone out of thin air.
  • Show the stakeholders results. How you would change content, how it changes situations, and a before and after example

Do you localise or translate your content?

Kate acknowledged the challenges of translating slang content into other languages. A lot gets lost in translation.

Kate recommends taking a look at the voice and tone, and humour specifically, and make notes about things that may not work. In some cases, make a choice to let things be. In other cases, you may have to sacrifice some content.

Kate has just started working with their translators on this, and will have more to share soon.

Is there research available for this kind of stuff?

The thing is that the requirements and results are different for each company. There’s not a lot of specific research. But look at companies that you like, and the jokes they make. There are a number of publications that talk about voice and tone, and brand personalities, and honest tones. For example, A list Apart:

In closing, from Kate

Kate recommended that we take a step back and look at the people side of communication. This can solve a number of problems, especially those at the very core of our content. And it can change the result when people read our content.

I loved the quotation from Maya Angelou that Kate closed with:

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.

In closing, from me

The beauty of this presentation, and of Kate’s style, is that it makes this stuff look easy. Just follow these guidelines, and you’ll be right mate. I’m convinced that Kate is right, and I’m fired up to try this out in practice. 🙂

The presentation has excellent content, well delivered, and Kate’s style is authoritative, lively and friendly. Thank you Kate, and thanks too to Adam Churchill of UIE for hosting the seminar.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 16 March 2013, in technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Sarah

    We cover a lot of this now in our advanced technical writing course (excuse the blatant plug), and we’ve found delegates need a few goes to get used to it, especially if you’re used to spending your time “trim,trim, trimming” content.

    In researching this new trend and developing the course material, we looked at the tone of voice used by a range of companies within their documentation (there are others who also mix and match the tone of voice in addition to MailChimp). We noticed there were some differences between MailChimp’s approach (as defined in and some of the other organisations. So MailChimp may not have got it right for every type of document (there’s one in particular we think they’ve got wrong).

    Translation is an issue, so you need to adopt a tone of voice that doesn’t lead to you writing text containing idioms. A list of stock sentences can help avoid this.

    A good place to experiment and get started with applying a different tone is with a Getting started guide. If you have time, you can offer two versions – formal and friendly – and see which customers like best.

    It’s a lot easier to do this with Web-based content, as you can track and measure user reaction and behaviour more easily. That is, if you know what it is you want your users to do after they’ve read your Help content!


    • Hallo Ellis

      Great comment! I’m interested to know the type of document for which you think MailChimp has got it wrong. I guess so much depends on the image the company wants to promote for itself, and the target market segment too. Perhaps MailChimp thinks that it can rely on its target market to react in a certain way? Or perhaps they have, as you say, just plain got it wrong. Kate emphasised throughout her presentation that they’re continually measuring and assessing reactions and adjusting accordingly.

      It’s a great idea to try this out on getting-started guides as a first stepl

      One problem I see, as a technical communicator, is that this approach would work best if we could apply it to the company as a whole, and to all content the company produces. If you’re a content strategist for the entire organisation, that’s great. But many of us have limited scope. Still, I’m keen to get going with it! It was such a great seminar. I’d visited MailChimp’s before, but without the background it hadn’t made as much sense to me.

      Cheers, Sarah

  2. I’ll email you.

    Context is important. A man shouting and pointing in the street if he’s wearing a uniform and there’s a fire nearby. A man shouting and pointing in the street if he’s on top of a soapbox, and you’re doing some window shopping, is likely to receive a different reception.

    You’re right to say the company needs to have a shared identity, a vision, that’s consistently communicated by staff.

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