Speaking Human

Robert Mills

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what makes some content better than other content.

On one hand this is a  hard question to answer because copy has a specific purpose. It exists to inform, engage and help people complete a certain action such as buying a service or product. Without knowing the context of why that copy is written the way it is, perhaps we can’t judge. Maybe we aren’t the target audience or we lack an understanding of a sector or organisation to appreciate the copy in the context it exists in. Copy is often dictated by business goals, brand guidelines, an existing tone of voice and a target audience.

On the other hand though I think there is one clear distinction that can be made between good copy and bad copy, regardless of its purpose and audience. Aral Balkan nailed this answer in his talk that I saw him give this week, it’s about ‘speaking human’.

It’s frustrating when we are faced with an error online that says something as generic and impersonal as ‘error, please try again later’. Copy like that hardly diffuses the situation, or helps in any way especially if it arises when we interact with a site through signing in, leaving comments and buying goods. If we did the latter in a physical shop and there was an issue with the till and the shop staff said ‘error, please try again later’ we would be livid.

Ok, not the best example, but the point is that there is now an expectation for our online experiences to be more personable, more friendly, more human. We expect sites to have personality, and manners!

This is hard to achieve for some because their business or sector might dictate that there is a lot of jargon to include, technical information that cannot be excluded. The solution here is in the attention to detail, the nuances of the content. Every site can be human with their content to some degree. To further explain where I am coming from I’ve found a few examples.


I logged onto Amazon this morning and was greeted with the following:

Those five words, get yourself a little something, almost converted my browsing into a purchase. They could have said ‘items recently viewed’ or ‘on your wishlist’ and I would have ignored it. When I saw ‘get yourself a little something’ I did genuinely think, heck, I deserve it, I’m going to!

I never but that’s only because I know what my bank balance currently is.

It’s a shame another Amazon company haven’t quite nailed the little details, cue example two.


It’s no secret I have major issues with LOVEFiLM. I am an existing customer of theirs but I truly think they are missing a trick when it comes to their content, tone and general manner in which they speak to users. If I want to sign in to check my rental list, I am presented with this:


How woefully robotic, general and un-human. This is so bog standard I am on the cusp of cancelling my monthly subscription with them, that’s how much content and tone means to me. Their formal and unfriendly approach also extends to email communications, an issue my buddy Tom blogged about earlier this week.

There is however, a company that offers a similar service but has a totally different approach, That’s Entertainment. If you want to buy films from their site and need to register/sign in, you will see:


Hello friendliness and manners. Hats off to That’s Entertainment for speaking to their users like people. They are asking users to complete the same tasks as LOVEFiLM but you can clearly see how much more human this tone and copy is. Words are never just words, they are powerful and important and the words we use online will have a direct impact on the user experience.

These examples are all for companies where entertainment is at the core of their service. I checked my local Council website to see if they were very corporate and formal as I’d expect. Local Government aren’t exactly held in high regard for creativity. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across this:

There is one word here which I think makes a massive difference. Handy. Read that sentence and ignore the word handy. It is still ok and makes it clear what users need to do but read it again with the word handy. Sounds more friendly doesn’t it? More human.

These examples will hopefully show how the content you write (or your client writes) will dictate how human you sound online. Next time you are working with content ask yourself if you can add a word or two to change the tone to be more personable but retain the professionalism. Perhaps you can find a way to say the same thing but in a more friendly way, without compromising any brand guidelines or business goals.

Add some personality, add some manners, be human.