When you start writing website copy, be it for a single page or an ongoing blog, a major consideration that often gets ignored is your voice. Do you write in first person (I), second person (you), or third person (he)? How formal or informal is your tone? Do you crack jokes, or use a lot of slang or swear words? Or do you use a lot of industry and technical speak?
Your voice matters. In written language, it’s often the only clue we have to your mood and intent. Hence the popularity of emoticons to show readers when the writer is joking or being sarcastic. When you’re writing on a platform where emoticons might be inappropriate—such as a business website—you have to use other tricks to make your meaning clear.
Pick a person
Occasionally businesses use third person. (“Royal Mail group delivers….”) This is particularly true if the business in question is particularly old or venerable. Only businesses centered around a single person’s identity will usually use first person, although the majority will use third person in that instance.
How you refer to your brand is the first step in how your brand is presented online. First person voice is approachable, and makes your brand seem approachable. Third person is distant, and makes your brand seem reserved. Depending on your industry and what your business is will depend which is the right choice for you.
If you run a prestigious company and want to convey status and exclusivity, third person is perfect for giving your brand gravitas. If you’re selling a product or service to the general public, you’ll probably benefit from a creating friendly, approachable brand image.
Formality doesn’t end at how you refer to your brand. The entire voice of your site rests in the words you use on it. Do you say book or tome? Punctual or on time? Careless or lackadaisical? The average American reads at a seventh or eighth grade level. If your writing is more complicated than something a 12-14 year old can easily understand, you’re going to lose readers, fans, and potentially sales.
There are instances when having a complex voice on your site will be useful. If you’re a lawyer, you’re selling your knowledge and expertise. Using a few choice ten-dollar words is probably a good idea in that context. But if you’re starting a cookery blog and want to attract hundreds of thousands of fans in order to max out ad revenue income, unless you’re talking about bain-maries and how to make a roux you’d be best using a voice anyone can understand.
Technicalities are often the exception to the general rule to keep your writing simple, but again it will depend on context. A building engineer might want or need to use some technical language to establish they know what they’re talking about. Developing trust is important, and often the quickest way to do that is to prove you’re an expert. Dropping jargon only an industry expert would know is a great way of creating the right voice.
Jargon can, however, be off-putting to people outside the industry. That’s not a problem if you want to attract experts. For example if you’re selling mathematical tools to engineers, leaving off an explanation will weed out anyone who isn’t a potential customer. However if you’re an expert trying to sell to a layperson—for example an architect looking for contracts to design houses—using too many technical terms can scare them away. Always remember who you’re trying to sell to, and ask yourself if they can reasonably understand what you’re saying.
Online writing tends to be very informal, and it can be tempting to make your business voice the same. However there’s a difference between how you’d write on Facebook, for example, and in your own space. Finding the appropriate voice in your area is daunting precisely because there are no preset rules. In general, however, some basics must always be observed. Spelling and grammar should be accurate, without using abbreviations. “Text speak” might work on Twitter, but usually not on your website.
Contractions such as don’t or won’t are trickier. Generally speaking, language on the internet is conversational. That means as you read you can imagine somebody talking to you and actually saying the words. If you’re trying to create a friendly, approachable voice, the more “voice-like” it is, the better. Contractions are useful for helping your writing seem less formal without actually being informal.
The final thing to consider when you’re creating your voice is how you structure your sentences. When people talk naturally they can go on for a long time, making a single sentence—if typed out—last lines and lines (rather like this one!). Written language is slower to process, and lots of long sentences will tire your readers. Remember the average reading level. Kids’ books have lots of short sentences, and so should your site.
Remember as well to vary your sentence lengths. While keeping the majority of your sentences under 20 words is advisable, if all your sentences have the same length and structure they start to sound repetitive. If sentence structure is something you struggle with, try reading your text out loud. You’ll soon hear where you’re going wrong.
Tools to help
If you still struggle, there are tools that can help. Plugins such as Yoast SEO and sites like the Hemingway App will evaluate your writing in terms of complexity and readability. While they can’t decide your voice for you, they can give you an idea how your writing flows, and how complex it is. Once you know who your target audience is, you can use those tools to help you tweak your writing to fit their needs.
Getting your voice right can be difficult, but it’s a skill worth learning. Not only is SEO often tied to a site’s readability, but your brand’s image and popularity depend on how accessible your site is. Defining your voice will help define your brand.
If you’re not sure how to start, or think your site’s copy needs improvement, pick a plan and let TechTe.am’s friendly experts help.