Writing with personality for serious subjects and complex systems
I recently came across an article that talks about how personality isn’t as important as clarity. While it’s true that we should never try too hard to inject personality, don’t write off this important element just yet. Brand persona determines personality, which in turn directs the voice and tone. It works in the subconscious mind and shapes our perception of the brand. Even if you’re working for government initiatives and financial institutions, your content doesn’t have to be bland and lifeless. Let’s explore how we can breathe new life into serious subjects and complex systems.
Voice vs. Tone
Your brand voice is driven by your personality and it usually doesn’t change much (unless you’re doing a rebrand). On the flip side, tone changes according to situation, mood, and the person you’re speaking to. That’s when you can be empathetic, reassuring, enthusiastic, and more. However, tone should always be aligned with voice - your personality doesn’t change even when your reaction does. If you profile your brand as a person with layers of personality, your voice and tone would naturally sound more distinct and consistent.
Creating your brand voice
To know what brand voice you should create, start by deciding what relationship you want with your users. This may not be the actual nature of your business, just the kind of connection you want to build. Here are a few examples:
Friends - you’re establishing closeness
Business x Client - you’re providing a service
Co-workers - you’re on the same side
Business Partners - you share mutual interests
Mentor x Pupil - you’re giving guidance
Now, think about what kind of (friend/co-worker/business partner…) you want to be. What are the personality traits that would help build this relationship? Then, identify the opposing traits like this:
Fun, but not over-friendly
Confident, but not arrogant
Charismatic, but doesn’t try too hard
Genuine, but doesn’t overshare
US Air Force did a great job in showing strong and inspirational without being overly assertive. And its brand personality stays consistent throughout the web experience.
Defining your tone
Tone is the emotions in our voice. It’s a highly contextual and delicate task to construct tone for varying situations - it requires sensitivity to users in micro-moments. Here’s a taste of the considerations:
What’s the goal of the interaction?
What’s the user’s mood when interacting with the product?
What’s the user’s mental model in this interaction?
How often does the user go through this flow?
How difficult is the task?
What might be the user’s reaction when faced with this error?
You can then decide if you should sound motivating, apologetic, empathetic, celebratory, or other emotion-driven angles.
In my last article How to Be Creative in UX Writing, I talked about how humor can engage users, and someone mentioned that humor is not applicable to serious subjects. I’d beg to differ. While it may not work in all situations, it is possible to add humor in subjects that are typically way too serious. The world’s most shared public service announcement is gold star proof.
This was a rail safety campaign launched by Metro Trains Melbourne and the first video now has over 170 million views on Youtube. It got so popular that the song went up to iTunes’ top 10 chart, multiple mobile games were made, and it’s still the most awarded campaign in the history of Cannes. Also, more than 127 million people across the world said they would be safer around trains because of this campaign.
Humor can be done on a smaller scale too.
According to research by Takeda Pharmaceuticals, people suffering from depression often use self-deprecating humor to deal with their situation. So the company joined in their brand of humor to provide support and raise awareness for depression.
Knowing when to draw the line
How much is too much personality? If your gut isn’t too calibrated to your user's needs just yet, try checking against this list.
Tone down on personality when:
It creates mental load and slows users down in getting things done.
It’s insensitive to user’s mood.
It creates confusion and potential for an undesired action.
It reflects badly on the company's character.
Ideally, get your content tested in a usability testing to validate these points. But if you don’t have the luxury of an in-house research team, check with people around you to make sure you’re not the only one that appreciates the personality.
Bigger is not always better when it comes to personality. And here’s the perfect example.
This is why it’s so important to write down the opposing traits of your personality. LifeLock’s CEO knows how to be bold and audacious, but not humble and well-informed, which quickly led to a failed campaign and getting his identity stolen by many people.
Beyond voice and tone
Personality goes beyond voice and tone. It also directs the content details and information architecture. If you want a healthy Business x Client relationship with your users, you’ll have to build trust with honesty. And that means providing transparent information and clearly putting it upfront even if it’s inconvenient for the company. Sometimes, this role requires us to bridge legal compliance with business interests, all while being an advocate for users.
Writing is, after all, a balancing act. And good content is often full of nuances that can only be felt, not seen.
If you have examples of well-crafted brand personality, do share!