Creating a voice

This spring, our team got the chance to do some technical writing through the Department of English Philology at the University of Oulu. We got to work with a real IT company and our task was to prepare some templates for them to use in case of technical difficulties. This sounded simple enough, but boy did we run into problems unscheduled, temporary difficulties.

We were asked to create a variety of templates for them to be used in case of service breaks, with separate templates for different points in time. For each one, there were three target audiences: organizations who use their services, their employees, and the end-users.

Who is the target audience?

As outsiders, we did not know who the actual end-users are. We checked the company’s social media posts and website for more info, and based our imaginary target audience on what we found. From our background research we deduced that the average customer is someone who is active or actively working towards a healthier lifestyle. This person is motivated and dedicated to achieving their goals, and probably either young or young at heart. Additionally, they are also likely to be quite tech-savvy and comfortable with using social media.

Who do you write for?

“If this website were a person, who would it be? Why?”

Nielsen Norman Group

 

We met up with the company at the beginning of this spring and got guidelines. We knew that our main goal would be to sound positive, apologetic, and of course professional. They also instructed us to keep the posts on social media very light-hearted, but to bear in mind that customers were likely to see the posts in a worried state of mind.

How should I put this…

The biggest challenge when writing the business-to-business (B2B) templates was avoiding any and all words with negative connotations, like problem. This proved to be rather tricky when the templates in question were about problem situations. Now that is a problem. All jokes and emojis were obviously left out of the customer support emails to reflect a more professional attitude, and the thesaurus became our best friend for finding as many neutral-sounding words as possible.

Tone it up!

Another tough nut to crack was deciding on the tone. We wanted to be fun and positive, but not annoyingly so. The company’s image on social media is very upbeat and positive, so we came to the conclusion that using puns and emojis was not out of line for those platforms. However, humour can be risky when used in problem situations, as customers might not be in a joking mood. The Nielsen Norman group characterises a company’s tone of voice by looking at four key aspects:

  • Funny vs. serious
  • Formal vs. casual
  • Respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

They found in their research that usually trustworthiness is the main characteristic that draws customers in, but humour can set a company apart from its competitors. Also, casual and moderately enthusiastic tones seem to work well with customers. Eeva Öörni has written about similar findings in Kielikello (linked site in Finnish).

We wanted to focus on positivity to make sure that even though the customers were reading these templates in their times of trouble, the customer service was positive and supportive. Social media is a great way for a company to really connect with its customers and create trustworthiness by not posting only marketing content. Though the initial task did not require it, we chose to keep social media posts uniform for different platforms (Facebook and Twitter) so that customers would not be confused in case they followed the company on both of them.

What did we learn?

It’s hard enough trying to sound like yourself and even harder to sound like someone else, especially when that someone is a business. Finding the right tone might seem straightforward at first glance, but it is a real skill that requires practice. Tone has a strong impact on customers and how a company is perceived and this is exactly why you need language experts to write for you.

 

More about the authors

Hello! We are students at the department of English Philology at the University of Oulu. Some of us will become teachers when we grow up, others will be whatever they want to be! This course was a great opportunity for us all to get work experience in our field and learn more about technical writing in practice.

Meet the team:

From left to right:

Wille Backman, technically writing about technical writing, hoping to turn that into factually.

Asta Lyytinen, hoping to become a teacher, open to other possibilities.

Magalie Richard, French-Canadian expat looking for exciting job experiences of all kinds in Finland.

Jonna Niemi, future teacher a.k.a. knowledge navigator.

Let’s get connected!