Tone It Down

Startups! Write for grown-ups

Researcher: Now tell me about your ideal email unsubscribe scenario.

User: That’s easy. I’d like a Kanye joke to get me in the mood. Then make me struggle to find the unsubscribe link … hide it in brackets perhaps? And finally, a goofy reference to the band Creed.

Kanye + Creed = stupid.

Who did this to you tilt? Did you hire a box of Sugar Smacks to write your copy?

“We’re giving you 40 hot dogs.”

Have I cheated somewhat? Yes — I’ve started with the worst possible example. But tilt isn’t alone in such linguistic shenanigans — they simply took an existing trend in startup tone and cranked the knob into self-parody.

The other possibility is that tilt doesn’t give a shit about me, since I’m a man over the age of 37. It’s those darn millennials, raised on shrieking commercials and brain-rotting soda pop, that they wish to woo. But even if true, many startups use a tone more appropriate for pre-schoolers:

Three scoops of ice cream? I wuv u soooooo much Patreon.

Ice cream is “hot” right now. Here’s a recent email from a medical supply company that sold me reusable gel packs:

“Eating ice cream for lunch.”

This email mixes grown-up with its opposite, leaving me feeling like a Grup. Having my call answered by a live person is a good thing. Ditto assigning a specific person to my order. But do I really need two exclamation points and an emoticon? I bought $12 worth of ice packs for my aching back.

My next example requires no setup:

I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

I’m not listening to a bot who was picked last in gym class. At its worst, Slack feels like a MMOG designed by Playmobil.

Become what you hate

Now that I’ve pointed out the flaws of others, I should admit some guilt. It’s easy to get seduced by tone. In the summer of 2014, I wrote the sentence in the grey box:

“Like true love, Stored Value does not diminish or expire.”

Writing that made me feel clever. And I was ecstatic when it finally went live last year. And then I waited, checking the site every few weeks for the inevitable to occur:

“Your Stored Value will not expire. Thank you for your cooperation.”

After reading this GOV.UK blog post about accessible and inclusive content I no longer felt clever. I felt like a tiny-stupid-man who frustrated users by not front-loading the Stored Value info they wanted. From now on, I’ll save my clever for Medium.

I should point out I was specifically asked to insert some sass into the FAQ. The original sentence met brand guidelines. But having had a chance to think it over, I think public sector institutions should convey a certain amount of gravitas. They don’t need to be boring, but they serve a diverse audience with varying levels of literacy. Which is why this new Metrolinx etiquette campaign makes leery:

Keep your feet off the seats in the American Apparel section of the train.
No loud talking in the 1970s cosplay section of the train.

How to write more goodly

After spending 450 words being Captain Bringdown, I’ll conclude by noting it’s possible to communicate clearly and still apply a dab of tone:

“Click here and we’ll forget this ever happened.”

Notice how the funny appears only after Trello has met all user needs? That’s smart. As is this:

“Sorry, that session had to depart.”

Nice work Porter Airlines! Although the subhead is wordy, the headline is extra wonderful because it’s in character. As a bonus, if you only read “Sorry” in the headline and click on “Resubmit research” you’d have sufficient information to continue.

It’s possible to have fun and speak to users like the adults they are. But that means no more ice cream. No more hot dogs. Which is fine, really. You’re a startup, not an elementary school Sports Day. As Vimeo said to me recently, “Let’s communicate better.”

“Have the chance to whisper sweet somethings into your inbox.”

Because if you can’t sustain an adult conversation with users, eventually they’ll do this: