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Voice and tone: communicating for clarity

Your bot is a representation of you— that is, of your brand— and the way your bot communicates will become part of your brand voice. Now, you might just be two people in a room who have put together an amazingly useful bot and want to get it into the world (and into Slack), and you're thinking, "But we don't have a brand voice."

Well, you do now. Even if the only place it's used right now is this one bot.

So you need to be thoughtful about defining what you brand voice is. Unless you're bringing in a seasoned professional writer to give the thing a real personality, the best thing to do is think of this voice as an extension of your own voice.

Clear, concise and human. If you stick to those things, you can't go far wrong. Whatever you're trying to say, think about how you would explain it first. Don't leap into "what words would my bot choose." You'll probably end up picking bizarre ones.

You might find it helpful to jot down some attributes or characteristics of your brand voice (e.g. friendly, authoritative), once you've thought about it. MailChimp's Voice and Tone guide is a widely-admired example.

How much personality is too much?

Your bot's primary purpose is not to sound clever or to entertain your users, it's to help them accomplish a task— even if that task is inherently entertaining, like finding just the right cat GIF). However useful the service that your app is providing, it's all going to be for nothing if you annoy people so much they'd rather go through whatever laborious process they were using before than have to deal with your overly chipper bot one more time.

You want to be able to differentiate yourself from the crowd, for sure, but try adhering to these guidelines:

  • Don't construct a personality that means you have to add sentence upon sentence in order to get to a joke "in keeping" with your bot's sense of humor. No one cares. Get to the point.
  • Try to avoid torturous puns or wordplay if they distract from the meaning.
  • Informality is good, but getting over-friendly is going to be charming to a very small number of people. The rest will find it grating, or, culturally insensitive (particularly in a workplace).
  • If you decide to give gender to your bot (and it's very easy not to), then be appropriate with the kind of things they should and shouldn't say. Don't be tempted to use it as an excuse to get lazy about behaviors or phrases stereotypical to one gender or another (or to particular age groups, or anything else). You'll end up driving people away.
  • Using contractions and conversational cadence is a good way to lightly infuse your bot with human personality - "You'll be able to" rather than "You will" and that sort of thing.

A little goes a long way. We cannot say this enough.

OK, let's talk about the actual words

Be brief

Don't add a joke or aside just to add one—almost every word your bot says should facilitate an interaction (courteous parts of speech, such as greetings, are also useful).

Not like this

a wordy message example

More like this

a brief message example

The second example still has plenty of distinctive personality, but gets straight to the point, and doesn't risk users tuning out/not wanting to wade through unimportant content.

Be clear

Try to write copy for your interactions that someone who doesn't speak your language fluently could easily understand. That means:

  • Avoid over-relying on jargon and slang
  • Avoid culturally specific references, like jokes from movies
  • Stick to common, simple words
  • Don't replace words with emoji

No

a culturally specific message example

Yes

a non culturally specific message example

The first example includes a reference to an obscure film that's likely to confuse many more users than it delights. The emoji combination is also potentially confusing, and may stall some users as they try to decipher it ("Fire... meat? Firemeat?").

The message button copy is similarly difficult to understand, and, in the worst case, could prevent users from selecting a response at all. Try to use standard combinations on buttons (Attend/Decline, Confirm/Cancel) to help your users have a smooth, simple experience with your app.

Read over your copy and ask yourself, "Is there anywhere a user may pause in confusion?" If so, rewrite.

Be empathetic

Slack users are people of all ages, races, genders, and ability levels. They may have poor internet connections, use Slack only on mobile, or be forced to use Slack by their boss. We want them all to have a great experience on Slack.

That means bot makers should:

  • Consider using they/their instead of she/hers and he/his
  • Consider using a variety of emoji skin tones
  • Not use sexist, racist, or ableist language (We like this list of ableist terms, the APA's guidelines for non-sexist language and on inclusive language generally)
  • Make an effort to test their bots with users from a variety of backgrounds, in different settings (on mobile, with flaky wifi, etc.)
  • Not assume any level of technical fluency from your users

Writing for a broad audience takes a bit of practice if you're new to it, and it is usually easier if you have a team of people from diverse backgrounds working on your bot from the start.

Writing well is 90% rewriting

We spend a good amount of time at Slack writing, rewriting, agonizing over, and then rewriting just once more to get every sentence as good as we can make it. If you've worked with a professional writer before, you know that no one, not even the people who make a living at this, gets it right the first time.

Here are some techniques we find helpful in revising:

  • Read your work out loud to yourself. Ah, you found a typo, didn't you?
  • Find someone to read your bot script out loud with, to prototype the two-part interaction (Thanks to Erika Hall for this suggestion). Where does it sound unnatural? Forced?
  • Rewrite as though you're writing to a friend. Does that sound more natural or human?
  • Record yourself verbally explaining the concepts you're trying to convey. This may help you find a more casual way of expressing your bot's message.

After a few rounds of revision, your bot should be ready to help your users accomplish tasks in Slack, while avoiding confusion, frustration, and consternation. Congratulations!

Writing for Global Audiences

Words and copy used in your interactions should be easily understood even by someone who doesn't speak the same language fluently.

  • Avoid jargon and slang
  • For basic actions, stick to common, simple words
  • Be concise; carefully consider using more than a couple of words on a button
  • Buttons labels should be clear and specific
  • Avoid vague, non-actionable text like Click here or Settings
  • Make buttons active-voice and reflect the user's outcome (Save, Book Flight, Place Order)
  • Use title case

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