You might have heard this phrase before: “It’s not what you said that upset me, but the way you said it.”
If not, congratulations—you’ve done a far better job of not annoying your friends and family than I have.
Companies need to avoid this accusation at all costs. You might have offered a perfect step-by-step solution to a customer’s problem, or written a piece of content containing all the messages you set out to deliver.
But if your brand comes across as artificial or lacking empathy, you may still end up alienating your customers.
Remember: brands are like people—they need to have an identity. And the way your company talks defines its identity. Sançar, our Director of Marketing, put it like this:
“Typeform is a company, but also a collection of people with different personalities, experiences and opinions. That needs to translate into a culture and a voice, which make up our identity.”
Conversation is our bread and butter at Typeform. It’s at the heart of our product, so it logically follows that how we talk to people as a company is a pretty big deal.
But how did we decide what kind of voice Typeform should have?
Well, as Sançar said, Typeform is a “collection of people.” So we worked out that it mostly boils down to one thing: who we hire.
Mastering the art of conversation
Remember Windows XP? Chances are you wouldn’t want to go for a drink with it.
In response to observations like this, software startups began using quirky language to distinguish their brands as more personable and their products as more user-friendly.
Typeform’s founding idea—build online forms with more empathy for the person completing them—was a perfect fit for this new tone of voice, which aimed to treat users more like people. But according to Sançar, it wasn’t that simple:
“In the early days we maybe had a mindset of, ‘this is how cool startups do their copy, let’s do that.’ But the quirky tone some companies were using got tiring quite quickly. It began to feel obvious, even over friendly. Like it was forced.”
As the company’s vision developed into making online exchanges more conversational and ‘a little more human,’ our voice began to develop. We still wanted to be light-hearted, informal, and crack the odd joke here and there, but not at the expense of one key principle:
Whether it’s copy, editorial, customer success comms, or internal messages, we encourage people to do one thing above all: be themselves.
And how do we make sure Typeformers uphold the company’s conversational tone and vision, while also still being themselves?
We hire the right people and let them do the rest. Here’s some insight from our Director of People Operations, Georgina de Solà:
“We’ve always tried to hire empathetic people. They need to be friendly, humble, and not take themselves too seriously. The voice flows naturally and authentically after that—it’s about hiring people with those attributes so you don’t have to micromanage.”
You can’t demand people to ‘be funny’ or ‘sound more likeable.’ It’s like telling people to laugh at your jokes.
Sure, as the company’s grown we’ve written down proper guidelines about our voice. But once we’ve decided to hire someone, we trust that their tone will tie in with Typeform’s.
The guidelines get wheeled out during onboarding, and are then left to chill in a folder somewhere. Until someone digs them up to write a guest post on the company’s voice, at least.
And there’s a bonus to shaping our voice through hiring, too.
One voice, many vocal chords
As we encourage everyone to be themselves, new hires inject fresh personality and perspective into Typeform’s overall voice.
Paul Campillo, one of the early shapers of Typeform’s blog, was responsible for establishing Typeform’s initial voice.
“Overall voice and tone should come from the CEOs. So I observed Robert and David’s personalities to get a feel. They were informal, casual, even a little quirky. So some hybrid of that carried over to the blog.”
Since then, we’ve expanded massively as a company, and the scope of our voice has increased in turn.
For example, there are now quite a few Brits on the copywriting and marketing teams (spoiler alert: I’m one of them). This gives our content a healthy dose of dry humor and self-deprecation. It also drives our editors nuts when we use words like “whilst” and add extra “u’s” in “colours” and “flavours”—but we will never surrender.
Encouraging our writers to bring their own tone to the table is important to us, especially when it comes to blog posts. A balance has to be struck between the author’s tone of voice and Typeform’s—you’re still speaking for the company, but not as the company.
And if someone isn’t sure that their content is hitting the right notes, they just need to ask themself one question: does it SURF?
“Back in the early days we came up with a mantra: SURF, which stands for Simple, Useful, Remarkable, Friendly. It’s stuck ever since, everything follows that checklist.”
— Sançar Sahin, Director of Marketing at Typeform
In other words, when it SURFs, it works.
Is your budding company looking for its voice?
Here’s a few pointers:
- Try to avoid spending too much time defining every aspect of your voice from the beginning. Take your company’s vision or product as the starting point, then let it evolve naturally.
- Hire people who you like talking to. Of course, they also need to have the right skills. But if you get on well with someone and find them funny, chances are they’ll be a great addition to your company’s voice.
- Guidelines are fine, especially when your company is growing rapidly. But they should only be very brief, and shouldn’t be forced on people.
- Let your writers’ personalities shine through in their copy. This is key to nurturing an authentic brand voice.
- Consistently striking the right tone across all communications is vital to building a coherent voice. Tone needs to be aligned across the product and copy, but it should also extend to email newsletters, customer service exchanges, and even internal communications.
As you can see, there’s no tried and tested list you have to follow. But if you let your voice flow naturally and keep it authentic, people will engage with what your company has to say.