Our Tone of voice

Hello! 👋

Welcome to Team VC’s tone of voice guide.

This is a (fairly) brief overview of how we write. It’s for everyone in every team, and it applies to all the writing we do, inside and out.

We’ve opened this up to the world as well (hello world! 🌍), because we want to be held up to the lofty standards we set ourselves here. We believe in everything we’ve said, so if you see us falling short then please let us know.

Every word matters 📖

The words we put on screen and paper are one of the most important ways we have of showing people what we stand for. Not just our marketing, but all our terms and conditions, every chat with us, all the nooks and crannies in our app or site, and how we communicate with each other on the inside. Every word adds up to people’s perception of who we are.

And if the way we communicate confuses, frustrates or scares them, we can lose their hard-earned trust in seconds. It’s especially important when we’re dealing with sensitive subjects, difficult topics or technical stuff. Those are the moments of truth when people will decide if we’re really transparent, and if we really have their best interests at heart.

So every word matters. Every word is a chance for us to make a connection with someone, go beyond what they’d expect from a production company and brighten their day (If that sounds unrealistic, check out some of the customer feedback we get to see the difference we make when we get it right).

This isn’t a set of rules 📜

Good writing is empathetic. Thinking carefully about the people you’re writing to, and understanding how they feel and what they need from us, shouldn’t feel like a tick-box exercise – it should be something you put thought into every time. So if you’ve got a really good reason to veer off the path we’ve put here, go for it.

Plus, we don’t want everyone to write like a bunch of drones. Our writing should have a family feel, like you can tell it’s come from people with the same values, but it shouldn’t feel like one person. Because it’s not, and that’s a bit weird.

You’re here because you’re smart, caring, thoughtful people. We trust you to do the right thing to help our users (and each other).

In a nutshell:

We use the language our audience uses, and make technical stuff as clear as we can

We’re ambitious, positive and always focused on what matters to people

We’re transparent about what we’re doing and why, and we don’t hide behind ambiguity

We’re open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone

We use the language our audience uses, and make technical stuff as clear as we can

Swap formal words for normal ones

We’re friendly people, and we don’t want to come across like a cold, faceless organisation. So use the kind of language you’d use if you were talking with the person you’re writing to, and avoid business-speak.

The best test for this is to read what you’ve written out loud. Does it sound like the kind of thing you’d actually say? If not, some of the words below might be the culprit.

Speak your audience’s language

The psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has an idea called ‘the curse of knowledge’.

He says that the more expert you are in something technical, and the more you’re surrounded by experts in the same thing, the harder it is to bridge the gap to what non-expert people can understand. You know it inside out, so you assume too much knowledge on behalf of other people. That’s something we can all fall victim to — so watch out!

Keep an eye out for terminology that we use all the time, but which might not quite be clear to people outside VC (or even new people just starting out here).

We can’t get around the fact that sometimes we have to use technical language, and that some terms have nuanced meanings (like ‘refund’ versus ‘reversal’). But we can always be precise about exactly what we mean, and help out people who aren’t familiar with the subject.

SERIOUS ISN’T THE SAME AS FORMAL

Sometimes we worry that writing clearly and simply can mean we lose authority, especially when we’re dealing with serious topics. That’s largely because of how business English has developed, and it’s just what we’re used to. When companies get serious, their language gets formal. It’s how you know this is A Big Deal.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Being serious isn’t the same as being formal. That’s the crucial difference between content (what we say) and tone (how we say it).

In 2010, US attorney Sean Flammer ran an experiment. He asked 800 circuit court judges to side with either a traditional ‘legalese’ argument, or one in what he called ‘plain English’.

The judges overwhelmingly preferred the plain English version (66% to 34%), and that preference held no matter their age or background. Here’s an interesting extract from Flammer’s findings:

The results indicate that the participants found the Legalese passage to be less persuasive than the Plain English version. The respondents also believed the Plain English author was more believable, better educated, and worked for a prestigious law firm.

So it’s not just about credibility. Explaining yourself clearly makes you look smart, too 💅

We’re ambitious, positive and always focused on what matters to people

Start with what matters to readers

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes when you’re writing; what are they going to be most interested in? We’re often tempted to explain why we’ve done something before we tell people what the thing actually is — especially if it’s bad news or an uncomfortable message. But if your first question is what does my reader really need to know, then you can’t go wrong. Are they more interested in the process we took to decide something, or how that decision affects them? (Hint: it’s almost always the latter.) That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explain our reasons, it just means we should explain what the impact is first. (And once you’ve decided what your key messages are? Subheadings are your best friend.)

Sprinkle a little magic dust

Let positivity ring through in your writing. The odd exclamation mark or confetti emoji is great! 🎉 But if we use them in every other sentence, they start to feel a bit forced and insincere.

The same goes for superlative words like ‘great’, ‘lovely’ and ‘awesome’. Sprinkled over our words they brighten everything up. But if we use them all the time, they start to lose their power. (If everything’s awesome, then is anything really awesome? 🤔)

We love emoji 💌

Emojis set us apart and reflect what we’re like as people: colourful, friendly and open to new ideas. So feel free to use them, but please bear a couple of things in mind.

Use emojis to add context, not replace words

Emojis are best when they add a little extra flavour to what we’re saying. They help clarify what we mean, and let our personality shine through. (And research suggests they make for more effective communication.)

But not everyone will know what they mean, so please don’t use them to replace words. We risk confusing people if they pop up in the middle of a sentence. Some screen readers also struggle with emojis, which means we might make things tougher for visually impaired people if we’re not careful.

Think about the situation you’re using them in

Lots of people are using emojis, but they’re still by no means universal. And they can provoke a strong reaction if we’re not sensitive to our audience.

The best rule of thumb if you’re speaking directly to someone is to reflect what they’re doing. If their writing is emoji-tastic, then feel free to be the same. But if they’re not using any, or if you’re talking about a particularly sensitive subject or giving bad news, it might not be the best place for emojis.

If you’re writing something for a more general audience, the same rule applies: think about how people will feel getting this news, and which emojis (if any) will help get the right message across.

As with all of these guidelines, use your own judgement. If you’re always thinking carefully about how people will feel, you’re on the right track. 👍