“We’ve updated our terms”: How to make the mundane remarkable

Steve Howe
Oct 14 · 7 min read

Do you listen carefully to announcements at train stations?

Me neither. The familiar voices tend to blend into the usual hum of station noise — people chatting, train wheels screeching, escalators squeaking.

But London Underground had an idea: what if we used a child’s voice?

They recorded the daughter of a station employee who warned people to “take care on the escalator”. It worked. They reduced escalator injuries by a third at Victoria station.

“Hold on”: a child’s voice reduced escalator injuries. Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

So the novelty of something different rose above the familiar. For writers, designers and marketers that’s the ideal. So how do you create content that actually gets noticed?

Getting past the filter

We follow two simple steps when it comes to the messages we put out:

1) Imagine you’re on the receiving end of that message.

2) Ask: is it rubbish?

Or, if there are business types around: does it feel remarkable?

Merriam Webster defines remarkable as:

Worthy of being or likely to be noticed especially as being uncommon or extraordinary.

We’re interested in that first part. We’re not necessarily aiming for mind-blowing or unbelievable or jaw-dropping. Rather, we wonder whether we can make something that raises the corner of the mouth a little. Twitches an eyebrow. Maybe even prompts someone to share with a friend. We ask: is it worthy of being?

People tend to ignore the familiar — it drifts into the background. It’s the brain’s way of tidying up the barrage of information we’re constantly subjected to. In his book The Organised Mind, Daniel Levitin calls this the brain’s “attentional filter”.

“Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism. It determines which aspects of the environment we deal with, and most of the time, various automatic, subconscious processes make the correct choice about what gets passed through to our conscious awareness.”

It means we don’t get distracted by anything irrelevant. When you’re driving on the motorway, there’s tons of information you don’t ‘think’ about. The scenery whizzing by the window. How the car feels against the road’s surface. Sometimes even the entire journey (which can be pretty scary). This is the attentional filter at work.

But the attentional filter also has a “change detector”. When the road’s surface suddenly switches from smooth to rough asphalt, your brain recognises the importance of noticing — and immediately “pushes the new information up to your consciousness” so you can do something about it if needed.

Repeated messages become familiar, so they get blocked by the attentional filter. As writers, how do we get past the filter? How can we change the surface of the road?

Cue gasps of excitement

There’s a special time of year — a magical, heartwarming time — when people lovingly trample on each other’s backs to grab flat screen televisions at 40% off their regular retail price. I am, of course, talking about Black Friday.

The sad truth is we can’t ignore Black Friday. It’s a thing. It’s capitalised. If you’re like me, you’re probably on the mailing lists of at least twenty different companies. That means the week before you’re bound to receive at least twenty emails. They’ll scream things like BLACK FRIDAY! UP TO 75% OFF! and yell things like OMG DISCOVER MAD BLACK FRIDAY DEAL INSANITY!!!

When this is the norm, what’s remarkable?

One approach could be to completely ignore Black Friday. Not send any emails at all. Problem with that is, these emails work. They make money. Typeform users who want the advantages of a paid plan would welcome a discount. Who are we to deny them? The other obvious problem with ignoring Black Friday is that it wouldn’t be remarkable. There’d be nothing to remark upon.

So, back in 2018, we did this:

By ridiculing the Black Friday inbox intrusion, we created something worthy of remark. Of course, what we’re doing is no different from the rest (using a made-up holiday to intrude on your inbox and sell more stuff). Sometimes you have to make your peace with the reality you live in. But you don’t have to sacrifice authenticity as a result.

We took the same approach when the European Union brought in the thrillingly titled General Data Protection Regulation. GDPR (or ‘the GDPR’) was on the lips of every employee in the tech industry — normally accompanied by an eye-roll or violent facepalm. Legal bods frantically tried to interpret the law to establish what, exactly, this meant when it came to storing users’ data. Then we had to take that and communicate it to our users.

But GDPR is boring. Writing about GDPR is boring. Emails about GDPR are boring. Take a look at how these fun-suckers turn your inbox into a binbox:

Image credit: Michyl Culos from her article on GDPR

Doing something fun does two things:

  1. It gets past the attentional filter, because it’s different.
  2. It creates a connection between writer and reader. It says: we know, we’ve also received hundreds of emails in the last hour about GDPR. Crap, isn’t it?

So, for our GDPR email, we did this:

The sense of humour might not be for everyone. But we know it struck a chord with some:

Finally, there’s the mother of mundane emails — the policy update.

In a similar vein to the Black Friday email subject line, we chose to express, in a sarcastic way, what we believe most people feel:

People don’t really care about policy updates. One reason people feel that way, we realised, is that reading a policy with all its legal jargon is like trying to decipher an ancient language.

So we allow people to choose between two versions of our policies — the legal, jargon-stuffed version, and the plain English version.

While people enjoyed the subject line…

…what they really appreciated was the content:

Trumping Trump

Sometimes, to make a connection, you may need to draw less attention to yourself.

On the morning of May 16th, 2019, still picking the cereal out of our teeth, we booted up our computers and found this:

The White House’s tool of choice to collect responses? Typeform.

We knew this was a sensitive topic, so we sat down and discussed how to respond. The survey seemed to suggest people had been censored unfairly. What if we released a statement? Something that made it clear we’re against all forms of discrimination?

While true, we didn’t want to give the issue more attention than it deserved. A political statement may have added fuel to the (barely even ablaze) fire.

Instead, we opted for a subtle eye-roll for those who were expecting some sort of response. We looked for an angle, something we could riff off. We found it ironic that an administration that broadcasts its preference for American products would use Typeform — a company based in Barcelona. So we posted this:

No single response to something like this was going to please everyone. Some called for stronger action. A handful of people demanded we shut down the White House’s Typeform account. But we believed — by avoiding the obvious — we stayed true to our personality and connected with followers in a refreshing way (71 likes, while modest, represents one of our more popular tweets).

Oops

Remarkable might mean revealing your fallible side—despite a natural tendency to try and hide it. Psychologist Elliot Aronson showed that we find others more likeable when they make a mistake. He called this the pratfall effect.

Hans Brinker is a budget hostel in Amsterdam. How do they advertise? By talking about the worst aspects of staying there.

Credit to Richard Shotton for this example at Copywriting Conference 2019

Admitting a weakness is a tangible demonstration of honestly. Which, thanks to the pratfall effect, turns into a strength. That’s why we documented how painful it was to make a new version of our product.

Who cares?

Cheese alert: we care about the content we put out there.

I know that’s not a revolutionary concept. But the amount of garbage we trawl through online can get overwhelming. By asking ourselves if we’d enjoy the content we publish, we approach each project with ‘remarkable’ in mind.

That means doing more than just sticking aspirational values up on your website. It means demonstrating those values. To educate people on making every interaction count, we invited an academic to show us what real conversation sounds like.

That helped us communicate in a more natural way. Our login screen doesn’t say log in. It says hello.

Once you do this, your messages stop blending in to the hum of everyday noise — and starts getting heard.

Writing at Typeform

Stories from the writers at Typeform

Thanks to Simon Dumont and Tim Arlestig

Steve Howe

Written by

UX writer, copywriter, translator, language teacher. I do words and that at Shopify, Toronto.

Writing at Typeform

Stories from the writers at Typeform

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