How to make your words sing

Nielsen Norman wrote up an interesting test this week to show that ‘tone of voice’ on websites made a difference to how companies were perceived. Not surprising, but it’s nice to get proof that what should be true is true. It started me thinking about tone of voice on corporate sites – something we monitor constantly in our work, but rarely attempt to analyse.

When it comes to navigation, we always insist that corporate sites are different – if you apply the same rules to them as you would to a brand, or a news, or a social media site, you will run into trouble (evidence in plenty from so many modern sites).

With tone of voice, the opposite is true. That is not say that it should be the same across all types of sites, but the same basic rules apply. I’m not convinced that there is such a thing as ‘web writing’ – or at least no more than there is ‘book writing’, ‘news writing’ or ‘legal document writing’. Each needs a form of expression that is appropriate to the medium, but anyone who knows how to produce good written English (or any other language) will be able produce words that work in their context.

Words please, or perhaps copy, or editorial – but not ‘content’, that killer label that drains the magic out of an art. ‘That Shakespeare, he did great content’. Yeah, right.

That said, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind when you are writing for a corporate site (or editing words produced by others).

  • You need a basic understanding of how to please search engines. Not difficult to learn, but it can take skill to ensure that what you are writing are both ‘good SEO words’ and ‘good words’.
  • Many of your readers will not be native speakers. The chances are your main site is in English (perhaps in parallel with your local language), but you can be sure that a good proportion of your readers will not be anglophone.

But even this last point is not really a differentiator from other forms of writing – it’s just a matter of being aware of your audience, as any good writer will be. Journalists know to keep language simpler when they are writing for popular papers than when they are writing for more serious publications. Same if they are writing for people who do not share their native language. Only a very few novelists have the luxury of using the words that they want without thinking about their readers.

So any good writer of English should be able to produce words that are engaging, clear, suitable for the medium and the audience, and transmit the messages you want in the correct tone of voice.

Easy, so why do so many websites fail to do all or any of those things? Because there is an acute shortage of ‘good writers of English’ employed to do the job.

Using someone simply because their first language is English is not good enough. Most English speakers do not write well. I was talking to the manager of a continental multinational and pointed out that some of the English on his site, while not grammatically wrong, was inelegant and sounded unnatural to my (anglophone) ears. ‘But our agency uses a British guy to do that,’ he said. He clearly was not a British guy with a good feel for his language – you need an experienced journalist, editor or copywriter. And even then be careful: I used to edit features on a London daily and some of the words handed in by professional journalists were poor indeed.

The good news of course is that there is ample supply of good writers who are short of work – put out of work by the internet. Hire them now – they’re lovely and cheap.

David Bowen