Many businesses want to nail their tone of voice because they’re trying to capture something that’s distinctive and interesting about their brand. And when I talk to people about the 11 Primary Voices – the 11 ‘archetypal’ tones of voice – it’s noticeable how many people are drawn to the ‘loud’ ones: the Firestarter, the Straight-talker, the Energizer. It can sometimes take people a while to see the power of the ‘quieter’ voices like Warm Friend and Simplifier.
There’s one voice, though, that nearly everybody ignores: the Neutralizer.
Which in one respect, is just as it should be. The Neutralizer voice is, after all, the ‘invisible’ one. The voice that doesn’t draw attention to itself. The voice that deliberately gets out of the way. The ‘un-tone’.
Some people might just call this ‘Plain English’. I think there’s much more going on than just trying to be ‘plain’.
I thought it’d be interesting to talk to someone who has deep experience of the Neutralizer voice. So I Skyped Sarah Richards at Content Design London.
Sarah was head of content design for the Government Digital Service – the team who were responsible for the content design of Gov.uk. The website has been rightly lauded as the gold standard for radically simple, user-centric, evidence-based design. (It won Design of the Year in 2013, and Deyan Sudjic, head of the Design museum called it ‘the Paul Smith of websites’.)
But while Gov.uk often gets applauded for its elegant simplicity of design, it’s less often recognised for its language. And yet it is, I think, the absolute gold standard example of the Neutralizer voice. It is meticulously ‘clean’, there’s not a superfluous word anywhere, and it’s super consistent across thousands of pages.
Anyway, Sarah and I spoke for a good hour or so on Skype. But in the spirit of Gov.uk’s radical simplicity, I’ve trimmed out all my rambling, not mentioned the bit where the screen went black for apparently no reason at all, and give you just Sarah’s wisdom about user-centric writing and tone of voice . Sarah, over to you:
Neutralizer is a good way of summing up the Gov.uk style. It’s all too easy for governments to sound condescending or patronising – to come across as either nanny state or Big Brother. We knew we had to avoid that. Nobody goes to a government website to be inspired: it’s mostly an annoyance, it often involves paying money, or sorting out something you just have to get done. We needed to get out of the way and let people do that as easily as possible – not to try and make it a nice time, or even give advice.
You’re never writing for ‘everybody’. Even though Gov.uk’s potential audience is millions, you actually know a lot about what your audience wants and needs at that specific time and in that specific section. If you think your audience is everyone, then you don’t know your audience.
We didn’t really consciously think about the site having a ‘tone of voice’. If you look at the online style guide, there’s probably four lines about tone. The entire process was completely evidence based, and the ‘tone’ came naturally from the choices we made based on the evidence: from only giving the facts, from the way we structured the content, and from writing for how people read online and most easily consume information.
When you’re writing really short, there is always a danger of coming across as too blunt. We’d often read something back and realise it needed softening. Often, it’s not about changing the words, actually. You can change the tone a lot by varying the sentence length, the rhythm of the writing.
The test we’d use was the ‘stillbirth’ page. You just cannot get a page like that wrong. You can’t make any assumptions, you can’t make any generalisations, you just have to get it spot on. So we knew that if something worked on the most difficult and sensitive page, then it would work across the rest of the site.
Her book all about what Content Design is and how to do it should be on your shelf.