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Striking the right tone – why conversational is best when writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

The social web is supposed to be just that – social. So be sociable. Which, tonally, means writing in a conversational style. The best web copy is, in most circumstances, both chatty and purposeful.

In the old days when the majority of our social interactions were face-to-face our impression of an individual (or an organisation for that matter) was built up from these literal meetings. Rightly or wrongly we judged people from how they spoke, the words they used, the way they dressed. We even judged people instinctively. As I write this I can almost hear my granny saying “ooh don’t trust him his eyes are too close together.”

Well nowadays many transactions are happening online solely in a virtual sense and as a consequence our impression of the individuals and organisations we’re transacting with are derived to a significant extent (in some cases almost entirely) from the impression created by the website where those transactions are taking place.

So the big question is this: are your words creating the right impression?

Here’s a fun way of checking whether your website is creating the right impression. Look at the tone of your website from a user perspective and try to build up a mental picture of the person or people who’ve written the words. Now if you bumped into your organisation in the street what would he/ she be wearing? Suited and booted? Smart but casual? Or scruffy as hell? And how old would they be? Young or old?

We have a lot of delegates from local authorities attending our writing for the web workshops and after doing this exercise they realise that their tone is far too starchy and may well be putting off the very people they’re trying to help. “Male, middle-aged and wearing a grey suit,” they say. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that especially as I score two out of three on that count…

Work out the tone that you need to project to achieve your aims and objectives and then make sure the words on your website help do just that.

Of course it’s about a whole lot more than just words – things like the graphics and for those organisations with actual contact with their clients (whether by phone or face-to-face) how those interactions are handled. But all that’s for another day and another workshop. For example, our popular dealing with difficult people workshop.

Here are some examples of overly formal, downright pompous or simply stupid writing from the on and offline worlds.

“This item of gym equipment is currently out of service. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to our customers for any inconvenience this might cause.”

We can see it’s broken. It’s covered with more hazard tape than a crime scene. Words that tell us what is plain to see are superfluous. Tell us something we don’t know. And I bet if we asked you face-to-face what was going on you wouldn’t speak in such a formal way: “I would like to take this opportunity…”

So make sure your words are chatty in tone, add value and get to the point quickly.

“We’ve called the engineer. Sorry!”

But shorter isn’t always better. Take the rather stark warning: “Do not litter!”

So commonplace a sign that we eventually become so used to seeing it that, in effect, we don’t see it at all. And, in any case, even if it adds “£50 penalty for offenders” we know the chances of getting caught are remote. So if the stick is ineffective enter the carrot…

“It costs you money to pick up litter.”

Or the softer version appealing to the heart instead of the head…

“Our workers risk their lives picking up your litter.”

Ask yourself what combination of words and tone is most likely to achieve your purpose. And make sure your words convey meaning clearly and concisely.

Here’s an exercise you can play when you’re stuck in a traffic jam or driving along a motorway…

Look at the signwriting on the sides of commercial vehicles, lorries and vans. During a recent trip to London down the M40 I saw “Sam’s Fried Chicken” and “Interior Contracting Solutions” within the space of a mile. I knew instantly what business Sam is in. He does exactly what it says on the van. But I’m still not sure what the other business is advertising. Both signs are three words long. One is clear. The other obtuse. Is your website a Sam or do you need the services of Website Clarification Solutions?

We’re all guilty of showing off in our use of language. Or at least I am. Trying to appear ever so erudite when it’d be a whole lot clearer if I used the word clever instead. Accidentally obfuscating – sorry I mean clouding/blurring/muddying/complicating/fogging – the issue when I’d be better off using one of the many more widely understood and/or shorter alternatives.

The beauty of English is that it has two roots – one Germanic the other Latin – and, therefore, an extraordinary lexicon/vocabulary to choose/select from. But it’s also a beast in that, confronted with a dazzling array of words (more than a million according to some studies) we can, if we’re not careful, end up choosing the wrong word and look silly instead of smart. I’m sure I’ve done exactly that somewhere in this article and that you’re just itching to tell me. I’ll make it easy for you just click here to send a fulminatory email.


This is an extract from Richard’s book Writing for the Web – why reading differently means writing differently. It’s available as a pdf, an e-reader and, coming soon, as a paperback. To order your sample copy please fill in and submit the form below.

“We don’t read like we used to. In a linear fashion. Line by line. Page by page. Chapter by chapter. These days many of us view words more on screen than on paper. The web has turned us into skimmers and dippers – skimming online content until we see something interesting and only then dipping deeper. Which presents writers with a huge challenge. Because reading differently means writing differently.”

Richard Uridge in his intro to Writing for the Web.