When your brand is known for having a very human voice — like, say, talking to a real, consistently toned voice — how do you keep that consistent as you grow a team (and grow it fast)? How do you make sure everything said in the voice sounds convincingly like The Voice, while allowing people to bring their talents and strength to the work — and not just sounding like a hollow impersonation? How do you create a voice that people can share?

 

Unedited Live Transcript

Chris Coyier:

Look at this, we naturally went quiet because you are all ready for some action. The next speaker is Anna, in the grand tradition of Clarity has a fascinating past, candle maker, script editor, worked on the game, Glitch. And it's like Slack, bringing is human approach to cool facts about the Slack. Talk about human beings.

Anna Pickard:

Thank you. Hello.

[Applause]

Anna:

I have a terrible habit of curtsying when I'm nervous, like I'm the Queen or something. I'm really intimidated right now. Not only do before me know what they are talking about but they are talking about thing which are completely over my head. But I have no idea that my slides would be quite so big. I'm not a designer. My slides are going to look like that. So just as long as that you know going on. We're good. "Hello" is one of my favorite pieces of microcopy. It's a very nice thing to say, it means you are here and I'm here and we are about to have a conversation. And that conversation is ready to begin so, hello. God, I curtsied again. So I'm Anna Pickard. I work at Slack. As the introduction said I have been with the company or been around the team for a long time because I used to work on it when I was game. And then I came back to write words for enterprise somewhere which is very much the same thing as writing dialogue for pigs and chickens and rocks. I've been back at Slack for two years. One of my main jobs, if you don't know what Slack is, it's a messaging app for teens, we can upload your files. Has everybody heard of Slack? Or we're good? One of the first things he was asked to do when I came in to Slack was to create a file guide because it was going to be a very important factor and growth. And we were always planning on growing very fast and one of the are important factors was going to be to maintain the same tone of voice, the same thing that got people talking about Slack and liking Slack was that it feels kind of human. It should feel like a member of your team, not something that is being imposed on your team. That is one of the things that people kept talking about when recommending it to their friends. So working out how to say all that. Because it's easy when there are eight of you and the C E O is writing all the tweets and people building the product are incredibly good with words. But how do you build that out and scale that? I was excited when Gina called, I was asked to speak here. And so I thought finally I'm going to get my style guide finished. This is the Slack style guide. I didn't get it finished. In fact, up to about half an hour ago there was some is words in the middle that said, "pile of papers." Because I was going to take a picture of the pile of papers, because that's what the Slack style guide is looking like right now. It's a work in progress. But it is not in a state where I want to bring it to a public place. I don't want to show you a thing is say this is so classy so I'll show you this instead. What I'm going to share with you is a bit of the thinking behind it, why it's taking to long, why it's where I am at this point in making this style guide. The style guide is split in two. We have the rules section, we have a lot of rules, rules about words we don't use. Rules dash. We have this side. That side is done. That side the glossary and grammar we are good with that. And we have started importing all that into a glossary bottom, which bottom which you if you created a glossary to explain something, it will tell you not only how spelled but how we refer to things internally. So that's useful. We have got rules, rules of good. And then we also have another section which is called, brand tone voice at Slack. Which is about breaking down the voice into the different sections because there is a voice. It's very much like butter field's voice. It's very much like my voice now. But that's no use to anyone else. If you try to ask people to do that, they end up doing a bad impression of you and that's not sounding human at all. It's how to scale that, and how to make it sound authentically human, but with the right voice, and whether it's in twitter, or in a help ticket or marketing material, or T R S. All those things have a different tone. So we set the voice and we ask for the voice in these particular places. And I'm going to kind of show some quick examples of how this voice manifests just in case people haven't heard of Slack and haven't used it. And then I'll come back to these later. Things like, loading messages. We say, things that some people find annoying. Like you look nice today. Drink lots of water. Things that are reassuring while it loading. We have famously long release notes for every single release. Don't read these. That's always my attempt to stop people from reading. It doesn't work. Our release notes are long there are reasons for this, we are proud of the work our developers do. We do things that are nice and reassuring. It all good, you've got this. And people tweet back and say, we thought so. This is my favorite message, we are having some problem with your web socket connection, we greatly regret this with self loathing. Is it all about being human. It's all that's tiger. I don't really, I don't have the properly diverse set of emogi on my computer. And coming to that place, and how do we scale that out. And when I started, my boss set me down and said, here are the style rule. We don't sound like this. This is what he sent me. The most complete social business platform on the planet. It enables people to connect collaborate communicate from anywhere to get things done far more efficiently than and I just can't. This is what we don't sound like. He sent me a couple of or things. We don't sound like this. So I was given a list of what we do not sound like. That's a regular thing, when you start off in a small company. Let's narrow down what we don't sound like, and what we don't do. That's okay if you are comfortable with the personalities of the people you are working with. And you have a voice already. So narrowing down by saying, we do not sound like this or like that. That's okay. But it kind of like saying, I've hidden a diamond the size of your fist somewhere in the world. It's not in your laundry room, it's not it Bhutan, and it's not a Buckingham Palace. That's what it's like for someone new. It's you are giving them a few arbitrary rules. And it's there having a stab at things, going is this it? And if you have someone who says, I'll know it with I see it. It's empowering for that person but not for anyone else. So I looked at the mail chimp platform. I started turning the notes. Into this, but not that. We are confident, wittily, informal, intelligent, friendly, but not ingratiating. Helpful but never overbearing, we are clear, concise and human. That was a good place to start, but since then I realize that actually there is more to it than that. When I gave people that list, they were still kind of reaching and trying and trying to sound like me or try to sound like someone else. And they are not sounding like themselves. What we should be doing as a company, as a product and all these things, is trying to empower people to use their own skills. We have incredibly talented people, because I wasn't getting them to empower themselves. So I started to break down the voice into characteristics that I wanted us all to share. So that we can say, okay, it's just you, it's just your voice, it's your talented write, we all communicate by write every day, we ever a skill for this, it about using that skill, but doing so through the lens of shared characteristics. Empathy being one of the main ones. So a solution which we suggest to you now with great regret and self loathing. When your self worth has fallen over, it's because I believe in this moment, people see the person behind the product. They see the person who built this. They see the person who poked their head out around the corner saying, hi sorry. And we are emphasizing with them. So we see that they are frustrated too. And it's a human exchange the magical moment that unlocks a lot of other stuff. So when I ask people to write with empathy, I'm asking them to ask a few questions, who are you talked to. A new user? What emotional state on are in. Are they mad, excited? Where do with find them. What is the context that we find them in? It's fine being cutesy, but if you find that error message eight times a day, no one wants to hear that. And what do I want to take away from that, for that error message it's something we have control over, but this is the only solution we have. We want them to come away with a clear idea of how to act. So writing with empathy, when I say to people, that's simple. Courtesy is not peppering people with thank yous and pleases. It's about getting out of people's way. It's about saying what you need to say only when you need to say it, and then getting out of way and letting them get to work. So you ask yourself these questions, am I providing the information people need? What can I do to simplify the message? How does it help the user? Is this actually intuitive. Do I need to speak at all? If I don't need to speak, I won't speak. It's like when people are talking about you on twitter. When they are talking about you, getting out of the way. One of the jobs I had, was being the butter god on twitter. So I would barge in on people's conversation, and say, you know what you should eat? An omelet with butter. The courteous thing is to know when to speak and when not to speak. My boss sent me this the other day.

I'm not going to read it out loud. And it's in French. But the basic translation is, I'm sorry this letter is to long. I would have written a shorter one but I didn't have the time. It's about taking the time to write the shorter letter. I'm not going to dash this off when it's a ream of text. This is about craftsmanship. To me it is caring about the details. We do this every day, and I do this specifically by trying to work as transparently as possible. It's making sure people know how and why we makes decisions we do. What you can see here, the engineer is putting out release notes. He is checking with me whether they are all right. Whether they need to be more apologetic, or less. Whether they should be more funny or less so. The important thing to me here is there a hundred people there having that conversation. There are only four people on my team. It's where are it's okay to debate. We say, this tweet or that tweet? The job of my team is to present only two things, it's to say, how can I make sure I'm not asking people to do lots of work. Let's bring two and have them vote on one. We open that space up for debate. It's about giving up your ego and taking the comment on board. Being prepared to explain the reasoning behind the decision. People say, why wasn't my Youtube pun any good for the tweet? And I say, because we don't pun. And they say why not? And I say, because punning relies on a certainly cultural understanding. It makes sense to some people, and they will get it and laugh. And a bunch of people will not get it and they will feel excluded. So when people ask me that question, that's what I say. Also I don't like Youtube. So is there a way to make them better. Playfulness is important to me. And in general, what we mean by playfulness at Slack, is not being silly, it's not whimsy, or childishness. It's not just goats on slides, it's being in the spirit of play. It's being open to the past, and saying, what are we doing now, and how can I help, and how can I get more involved, and what can I do next? It's having an open mind. It's part of the release notes here. Playfulness, is about. Doing sorry that's some are a mono it's doing what's expected of you, it's saying, what else can I do? How go to the next step? What can I do to push this one step beyond? So you ask yourself what does this usually sound like? What do release notes usually sound like? You ask yourself, how can I do it differently, how can I do it better? How can I use this to make someone's day a little better? Someone tweeted about us. Protip, change your Slack H Q avatar and name to viper from top gun. Conversations are instantly more awesome. And I wanted to respond, yeah we tried it, but it was confusing. Because there are 300 of us or so that thought it was better display. And we tweeted that. And half the people in the challenge changed their name to "viper." And all of other channels our names were changed to "viper" as well. And it was very confusing. And that's an example of what is the next thing? What beyond that, what can we do? And the next thing, it's all good. You have got this. And I could not understand this for a while. I didn't quite get it. And I realize that if you spent any time in San Francisco, sometimes people walk past you in the street and say, your hair looks great today. Or, nice dress. And obviously, moving here from the U K, I was terrified. And I realized they were saying something nice because they can, because they can have that moment, because you are there and they're there, and they have no real motivate beyond that, other than that they can. There is no great emogis beyond that. Is this is just true? Being truthful, and authentically yourself. Being open honesty and fair for your users. That's what it's about for me. Is this really what I want to say? Is this really how I would say it? I ask people to read it out loud. If it sounds silly out loud then it's not true to their voice. So these shared characteristics, look at it through the lens of empathy, courtesy, and see if that still feels true, if it's the best piece the writing you can do. It's not magic, it's hard work. It's an emogi, for hard work. It's a lot of hard work. And when I say, our style guide is really just about all the loose concepts and how you put those to anything you write. It is. But it's also a lot of this. I'm not going to read this all out. But this is a small section of our tweeters guide. We are peaceful, and humble, we use useful sentences, we don't use slang unless it's funny or appropriate. We don't cut corners, we read everything twice before we post it. The main thing is we are ourself, we are human, we are is a strong team who are brilliant at this stuff, we are not robots, we use we because there are a lot of us tweeting, but we are all one voice. It's all coming from a sense of being human. That's it. I still don't have a style guide to show you, I wish I did. I have a clear sense now of how I want to go back laying it out. It's not about saying what we are not. And it's not about the precise words. It about creating system that helps people find a unity of intention and through that unity of intention to find that voice and to speak to people kindly and build it up together from there. That's it really. Thanks.

[Applause]

Anna:

What do I do now?

Chris:

You hang out with you?

Anna:

Sure, do I get wine?

Chris:

You should still R S V P for the party this evening if you haven't done that.

Anna: And the party this evening is just upstairs from Slack, so I forgot to bring some stickers with me.

Chris:

Was that a bad call making those?

Anna:

No, that was good call.

Chris:

No puns really? You explained well.

Anna:

We applied an exception because we can't stop them.

Chris:

Would the web be good products, be better if 90 percent of them in the world do exactly what you do. Is there reusability? It's friendly, it seems like a great idea.

Anna:

It would be grating if everybody did it. It's appropriate for us because of what we do. It appropriate for us because we are about connecting people. And we are being more human at work and allowing yourselves to do that. It's grating when it's your bank. When your bank says, you look nice today, really? There is a case for empathy, and courtesy, and making sure you only speak when you need to, and you absolutely meet people where you are. And sometimes that means being more formal. So on the basic level, you want your bank to be empathetic, you don't want them to be playful when your over drawn. So yes I think there are basic components, empathy and courtesy, this we can all bring to our work, but I think beyond that, that's for different places.

Chris:

But it would be really great if it was everyone. What if I started to be, would you evolve? Everyone is tweeting, you look nice today now. And it's a thing everyone does.

Anna:

We evolve constantly. We tweet tips nowhere as much as we should. We tweet less than we should and tip less than we should. You don't want annoy people.

Chris:

Like posts are really cool but very few people know about them.

Anna:

We need to work out how to do that better. I used to tip a lot on twitter. And every one had an amazing and ridiculous emogi that summed up the entire tweet. And someone brought up a challenge

[Wine is given to Anna]

Anna:

I was so delighted what I walked in and saw the booze there. So bring an integration would be to bring all these tips together. And I had to leave it after three weeks. Because I could not stand all the emogi, it's like having an out of tune band marching through my house every day. And I put out a tweet that only every 3rd tweet needs one. In our team we don't use them.

Chris:

I want to just collapse them.

Anna:

You can collapse everything. It's in the settings. You can autocollapse things by default. There will be a tip about that former want.

Chris:

Seems there are hard rules. Like individuality. It's not at a firm voice, it's rules and nuance within that. There are some hard words, like don't use the word whatever. Is there a tooling behind that. Is there a thing that goes through your website?

Anna:

We try explain every single one. We don't use the word chat because chat is cheap. Not in any of our

Chris:

That's interesting because it's kind of a chat app.

Anna:

The road is littered with the bodies of dead collaboration.

Chris:

You got one more?

Anna:

Anything like rock stars or ninjas. We have hard rules about inclusive language. What other words? I'm trying to cut down on people saying "awesome". It's really easy to get in the world. After a while it kind of sounds tinny.

Chris:

How do you feel about "rad?"

Anna:

I'd use rad in the tweet tomorrow.

Chris:

I had a really good one lined up too that I got frigging excited about. "We" is interesting too.

Anna:

Because we are a team. We are about being a team. And coming to these decisions and presenting outwardly we. So people it means that we are all accountable. I watch every tweet come and and come out, I'm kind of obsessive. We have a channel through which they all come. And I want to ensure that we are consistent. Like oh that's a good tweet.

Chris:

How about reply. How would you answer this tweet? At HG, you smell like a fart?

Anna:

I would tweet back, yes, because I just farted.

Chris:

What if it was ruder than that, like if someone is venting at you?

Anna:

The only one we let go, we never tweet back, when people mention competitors. Everybody is trying to change the way people communicate at work, and there is a lot of that out there, and we think of them as partners and people doing a really hard job are trying to change the way people work. We don't mention, and we don't reply to those. If it was really offensive. You can kill anyone with niceness. It will take a few tweets, but I can get anyone to apologize.

Chris:

Do you get competitive about it?

Anna:

No. To be honest, if someone is tweeting you and they are that the angry, you need to respond to them. You should down right, apologize first. I suggest some other things. You are live tweeting out of your mouth. That's the way to handle it, if someone is really mad at you, you need to deal with that.

Chris:

Thanks very much for a look at Slack.

 

Sketch Notes by Susan Lin