3 Takeaways from ‘Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose’

I stumbled upon “Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose” when I needed it most.

It called out to me from amazon.com, promising to help me write the way I talk and turn me into a copywriter who can better serve my website users. And, as a higher ed writer who laments the use empty marketing buzzwords (innovation! prestige! bleeding-edge technology!), I was yearning for a book that could back me up on that whole talking-like-a-real-human thing.

So when it came to this new web writing book by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee, I was sold.

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style & Purpose

Let’s flash back to early 2015 when I was tasked with helping redesign the OU.edu homepage and secondary pages. As someone whose career, up until roughly that point, had centered around following and covering news and then posting my stories to a website someone else created, I knew this new task would be a little bit challenging. And fun, in an I’m-growing-myself-professionally kind of way, you know?

I had never had a hand in creating copy for a website, aside from my story headlines and deks, or subheds, that appear on the homepage. That kind of stuff was usually left up to the news overlords at Gannett or AOL, and, much to our and our readers’ chagrin, the website editors didn’t have any say in the design or details of our super-templated sites.

But at the University of Oklahoma, anything and everything is on the table when it comes to content and design (as long as it’s within the parameters of our content management system, Adobe CQ5). So you could say, if OU.edu were a house, us WebCommies are the proprietors. We get to map out the blueprints, lay the foundation, hammer in the walls, and even get down to the details of picking out the drapes and paint colors for the interior. It’s a pretty exciting place to be.

To keep with the whole house metaphor … Every couple years, you’re ready for a re-design. You have a garage sale and get rid of the junk you don’t use anymore, the stuff that doesn’t serve a purpose in your life and just kind of gets in the way (some pages on OU.edu definitely come to mind here). You rearrange rooms; maybe you’ve been spending more time in the kitchen than the living room this past year, so now you want to make sure that most frequented room gets more of your love and attention (for us, this was our “About OU” page). You take stock, and you figure out what direction you’ll head from there.

But, as we learned from our former web designer Brian Brown, content comes first, then design. So in comes OU’s content manager — that’s me. (Hey, hi, hello.) You’ve got to figure out your content and your copy, and then you can design with those things in mind. And although we’ve put the website overhaul on hold for a sec while we interview for a new designer, we’re still making tweaks to our website copy, and reworking some design aspects, that we hope resonate with our audience. So far it’s been little things that include switching up our wording on the homepage. We’ve ditched wording like “OU students benefit from a diverse, vibrant campus and community and an exciting global heritage” and replaced it with friendlier, more relatable messaging.

The University of Oklahoma OU.edu homepage

In the meantime, “Nicely Said” has been a tremendous help in walking me through updating OU.edu, and I’d love to share some of the highlights I found most applicable to my role as OU’s content manager. The first …

1. ‘Your voice is what makes all of your communications sound like they came from the same place’

This book made me think about tone and voice in a whole new way. Some of you might be thinking: tone and voice … what’s the difference, anyway? Understandable. Kiefer Lee and Fenton write:

Your voice is in the fiber of your communications. It’s what makes people feel like they’re listening to someone they know when they visit your website. It should come from a real place.

People often use the words voice and tone interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Your voice is the company’s public personality. It doesn’t change much from day to day. Like your own individual personality, it comes through in all of your content and influences how people perceive you. On the other hand, your tone changes to fit the situation. While your voice is more about you, your tone is about your readers and how they feel. Together, your voice and tone make up your writing style.

The University of Oklahoma has dozens of departments across campus — from the College of Journalism, OU Law, College of Arts & Sciences, Sam Noble Museum, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, College of Engineering and on and on and on — and with each department comes a different communications director and team of writers and social media managers with different ideas on content, web writing, tone and voice.

As members of OU WebComm, we try to set the example of tone and voice through the OU.edu homepage and the content I create as well as what Candace Timmons posts on social media. And we’ve even gone a step further this year by hosting Editorial Calendar meetings (see page 168: “Host office hours”) in which we share what we’ve been promoting as well as shining examples of great content from around campus. Our hope is that we don’t have to say to campus communicators: “This is our tone and voice. Adhere to it.” We want to show them by example how consistent tone and voice can create a more unified message across campus.

How do we describe OU’s voice? It’s relatable to our young audience by being fun, approachable, conversational, personable, on trend and informative. Candace had already worked to set OU’s voice on social media before I was hired, so when I came on board in June 2014, I was happy to find we were both on the same page!

The University of Oklahoma Facebook page  - voice and tone

We try to write as if we’re talking to a friend face to face. No phony buzzwords or jargon. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I have to wonder “Who am I today? What voice am I writing in?” By writing honestly and authentically, you avoid getting into character, and your voice remains consistent.

I thought the authors’ advice of creating a This But Not That list was a great idea, and it’s something I think we should practice at OU. They show this example for MailChimp:

MailChimp is …
Fun but not childish
Clever but not silly
Confident but not cocky
Smart but not stodgy
Cool but not alienating
Informal but not sloppy
Helpful but not overbearing
Expert but not bossy
Weird but not inappropriate

They suggest adding your list to your brand guidelines, style guide or new employee handbook and sharing that with those who communicate about your brand. Sounds like we might have a new exercise to do at an upcoming Editorial Calendar meeting!

2. Map your content > Show your empathy > Help users in their journey

One of the most eye-opening tips from Kiefer Lee and Fenton was to take into account your readers’ emotional state when you’re creating web content. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine what they might be feeling when they land on your homepage — what task are they trying to complete there and what emotion might that elicit? When they are on the “Apply to OU” page, are they in a joyous mood as they are trying to navigate the process, or are they a little on edge? (Hint: It’s probably the latter.)

Before you figure out their emotional state, though, you should figure out what types of content you create on your website. “Each one addresses a specific goal, audience or problem,” they write. Those might be error messages, help documents, blog posts, email newsletters, etc.

Then match those pieces of content up with how the reader might be feeling, and change your tone (not your voice) across every content type. Before you create the content, ask yourself these three things: Is it useful? Is it true? Is it nice? And try using this variation of Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to determine how your readers might feel at any given point on your website.

Wheel of Emotions

The writers give this example of mapping out content in Table 6.1 (page 73):

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 5.02.26 PM

It was in this portion of the book that I disagreed slightly. Clever 404 error pages are my jam. I wrote about Hillary Clinton’s “Oops, that link wasn’t all it was quacked up to be” page in this blog post, and I stand by my word: I think there’s a real opportunity to show your personality and lighten the mood with funny 404 pages.

Keifer Lee and Fenton are in the other camp: “If you’re writing bad news like an error message or out-of-stock notification, then err on the serious side.”

It’s probably time to update our OU 404 page as well, and we will heed the writers’ words of warning, but will we follow them? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

3. ‘Sell it without selling out’

Some people cringe at the idea of marketing. Many companies say and do obnoxious things to sell their products. But marketing doesn’t have to spin the truth, and it doesn’t have to be smarmy. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of selling, read on. We’ll help you write to sell without those cringe-inducing moments. (page 99)

In my copy of the book, I actually underlined that line: “write to sell without cringe-inducing moments” because I’ve been through some of those cringe-inducing moments and have certainly seen some marketing copy online that makes me squirm a little.

Instead of being in constant Glengarry Glen Ross mode (“Always Be Closing,” anyone?), the authors encourage brands to tell their stories. People relate to stories. This part made me think of TOMS, which has a one-for-one concept (buy one product and another product goes to someone in need). For years I’ve been a supporter of this brand because I love the story behind it. (Side note: This is why I own four pairs of TOMS shoes, have read TOMS’ CEO and founder Blake Mycoskie’s book, went to see Mycoskie speak live, and snuck into a Chipotle without wearing any shoes for TOMS’ “One Day Without Shoes” campaign. Yeah, SUPER FAN over here …)

That leads me to ask, what stories does your brand have to tell? Maybe it’s about how the company was formed, or maybe one of the most interesting stories is a real-life example of a customer and his life-changing experience with your brand. When you start telling real stories about real people and real events, it brings an authenticity to your marketing that makes it feel like you’re not marketing at all.

Back in Chapter 4, “Writing Basics,” the authors remind us to be honest:

For web writers: honesty means two things: presenting the facts and being true to your company. It’s a combination of accuracy and sincerity. Tell the truth and be nice. Don’t brag about how great you are. Focus on your strengths and present them carefully. People will know when you’re lying to them.

I see some claims floating around the Internet of brands being “the best” or “the No. 1 company providing X, Y and Z,” but it always leaves me wondering “Who is saying this … I mean, besides you!?” The claims aren’t tethered to reality; they’re the work of a marketer who couldn’t find a fact or concrete example to back them up.

Why not show your readers why you’re great at something? Tell them a story or give them an example of your brand made a difference to a customer.

Make sure your writing speaks the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even if you have the best intentions, little white lies can sometimes sneak in. Be especially aware of this when you’re writing marketing copy. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, it’s tempting to say things that sound nice but aren’t exactly true. As Anne Lamott says, take out the lies and the boring parts.

This book taught me so much about web writing. As I wrote this review and looked up excerpts to include, I found myself reading full pages over and over again and wishing I could make this blog post four times as long. The book really was that good.

I feel much more equipped to tackle the upcoming website redesign for OU.edu, and I’m looking forward to putting the information in “Nicely Said” to the test!

Have any of you guys ever read the book? If so, what was your biggest takeaway?

Or maybe you’ve got a recommendation for another web writing book? I would love to hear about it in the comments!


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