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Inside Buffer

What Voice and Tone Sounds Like in Practice: Inside the Buffer Content Style Guide

Can you tell when you’re talking to someone from Buffer?

Absent any Twitter handle or an email “From” name or other identifying element, if you were essentially Internet-blindfolded, could you distinguish between a conversation with one brand versus another?

If so, what a powerful impact that brand must have!

We’d love to cultivate this type of unified voice and style at Buffer. As part of that journey, we created a company-wide content style guide as a resource on communication at Buffer: how we talk to customers, how we express ourselves online, and how we communicate about our product.

Keep reading to see what that guide looks like, and feel free to copy or borrow any elements that might make sense for a style guide of your own. Any questions? I’ll be around in the comments and on Twitter and would love to help.


content style guide for a brand
Our company style guide at Buffer. We wrote this document in Dropbox Paper, one of our collaborative remote work tools.

1. Voice and tone

We don’t want brands talking at us as if we are dollar signs. We want authentic communication.

We’ve written lots about the importance of social media voice and tone, so it felt quite important to spend some time articulating our company-wide voice and tone, too.  Here is what we laid down to help guide our team.

What do we mean when we say voice and tone?

Simply put: You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes. There is lots of nuance to the distinction between the two, but we choose to see it in broad strokes. The Buffer voice is a constant. The tone with which we write should vary based on the context, the medium, and the empathy we’re sharing with the other person.

Buffer’s voice is ..

Buffer’s voice is relatable, approachable, genuine, and inclusive. We speak with clarity. We strive for expertise. Our goal is to fully understand the needs of the other person (customer, user, reader, listener) and to deliver delight, assurance, direction, or love, as appropriate.

Buffer’s voice is ..

  • Relatable
  • Genuine
  • Inclusive
  • Approachable … but not smarmy
  • Clear … but not curt
  • Informed … but not certain

Buffer’s tone is ..

Buffer’s tone varies, based on the situation. We let empathy inform our tone.

By default — and whenever appropriate — Buffer’s tone is friendly and positive. The way we speak encourages people to tell us more, and it invites people to get to know us. Because of this, we take an conversational tone with our writing: no big, dictionary words, just everyday talk that is easy to understand. We seek to inform rather than entertain. We don’t want to be the center of attention; we feel like our customers deserve the spotlight.

Many specific elements of Buffer tone come from How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book was key to the early formation of the Buffer culture, and the book’s focus on empathy, understanding, and selflessness continues to make it relevant to the Buffer tone today. These are the specific elements we still borrow from How to Win Friends:

  • The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.
  • Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  • Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  • Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  • Let the other person save face.

How to become great at voice and tone

You already are!

We hire with voice in mind. If you have been hired by Buffer, you don’t have to worry about speaking with the wrong voice. Your voice came through in interviews and conversations during the hiring process, and we believe that the voice continues to get honed through working collaboratively with like-minded teammates who share the same values.

Same goes for Buffer tone. One of our company values is reflection and listening. By listening, you allow yourself to see someone else’s perspective, helping you to feel empathy for that person. The best advice for getting better with Buffer tone is to trust what you notice. Then put the good things you notice into practice.

Takeaways:

  • Voice is constant. Tone is fluid.
  • We choose our tone based on empathy and context.
  • Buffer would be the type of person you’d love to grab coffee with.
  • You are already great at Buffer voice and tone, just by being part of Buffer.
  • When in doubt, re-read How to Win Friends 🤼 👯

 

2. Diversity and inclusion

We place a lot of emphasis on diversity and inclusion at Buffer. And this very much extends to the way that we communicate.

We’ve learned a lot of lessons about internal communication: how we no longer use terms like “hacker” or the colloquial “guys.” We have a full guide to inclusive language that we aspire to follow.

Here are just a few of the other rules we’ve agreed to in our external communication with customers, users, visitors, and our audience. Many thanks to companies like MailChimp for helping inform some of these agreements.

Guiding principle: If it’s not relevant to the story you’re telling, it doesn’t need to be said.

Writing about people (inclusivity)

We want our writing to be as open and accessible as possible. This means we emphasize and acknowledge the diversity and humanity of the people we talk with each day. Here’s how this looks in practice.

  • Labels are for boxes, not people.
  • We always emphasize someone’s personage first. Be mindful of what comes after your “is.”
    • THIS: She has a disability
    • NOT this: She is disabled
  • Don’t call groups of people “guys.”
  • Don’t call women “girls.”
  • Avoid gendered terms in favor of neutral alternatives, like “server” instead of “waitress” and “businessperson” instead of “businessman.”
  • It’s preferred to use “they” as a singular pronoun if you don’t know or haven’t confirmed the gender of the person you’re speaking about.
  • Use the following words as modifiers, but never as nouns:
    • lesbian
    • gay
    • bisexual
    • transgender (never “transgendered”)
    • trans
    • LGBT
  • Don’t use these words in reference to LGBT people or communities:
    • homosexual
    • lifestyle
    • preference
  • We capitalize Black and White when used as racial terms. That being said, unless race is mentioned in a direct quote or is essential to the story, we don’t feel a need to include it.
  • When using an emoji with a skin tone, we choose to vary the skin tone for each update/post so that we can better reflect the diversity in our team, our community, and the world.

For further resources on racial and ethnic identity terms, refer to the Conscious Style Guide.

Diversity and inclusion guidelines

(These are adapted from our inclusive language guide.)

Put people first.
Default to person-first constructions that put the person ahead of their characteristics, e.g., instead of “a blind man” or “a female engineer,” use “a man who is blind” or “a woman on our engineering team.” People-first language keeps the individual as the most essential element; there is more to each of us than our descriptors. Mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial group or ability only when relevant to the discussion.

Avoid idioms, jargons, and acronyms.
Jargon and acronyms can exclude people who may not have specialized knowledge of a particular subject and impede effective communication as a result. Many idioms don’t translate well from country to country, and some are rooted in negative connotations and stereotypes (“hold down the fort,” “call a spade a spade” are examples).

When speaking about disability, avoid phrases that suggest victimhood
e.g. “afflicted by,” “victim of,” “suffers from,” “confined to a wheelchair”. While you’re at it, steer clear of euphemisms like “challenged,” “differently abled,” or “specially-abled,” too.

Don’t underplay the impact of mental disabilities.
Terms like “bipolar,” “OCD” and “ADD” are descriptors of real psychiatric disabilities that people actually possess. They are not metaphors for everyday behaviors. Also, avoid derogatory terms that stem from the context of mental health, for example, “crazy,” “mad,“ “schizo,” or “psycho.”

“Guys” is not gender neutral.
“The ”universal male” (i.e., using “guys” to mean “people”) assumes that the normal, default human being is male. “Although “he” and “man” are said to be neutral, numerous studies show that these words cause people specifically to think of males.

If you aren’t sure, ask.
Strive to include language that reflects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves.

3. Advocacy

Our customer advocates (our name for customer support at Buffer) spend the bulk of their day in the world of written communication: the email inbox, our social media inboxes, live chat, and more.

We give a lot of thought to the words that we use with customers and the emotions we aim to convey. Advocacy is where a lot of of our guiding principles on voice and tone — not to mention the specific words and language — originated. We’re quite proud to know that the Buffer-wide voice and tone has its roots in advocacy. Here are a few of the guidelines we follow.

Voice, Tone & Personality

To the customer, our language and tone say: I am grateful for you. I have great respect for you. I am listening. I am open — to figuring this out with you, to being surprised, to being wrong. I have done the research. I know my stuff. I am capable of helping. You can trust me. I am here, prepared to be nowhere else.

Above all, be empathetic. Use your best judgment when interacting with customers to determine their preferred style of conversation.

When speaking as Buffer … use “we” instead of “I.”

When speaking as you … use “I” instead of “we.”

When in doubt, speak for yourself and not on behalf of the whole company, as it is more honest.

When giving instructions … invite the other person to take these steps.
Try not to tell them. And make it easy for them to say no. This doesn’t have to end in a question mark, as long as it’s an invitation instead of a command.

When diagnosing a problem … we always try to take blame for any confusion or problem.
In general, if you can avoid “you” or “your” when diagnosing the problem, stick with that. This applies also for third party troubles.

When something has gone wrong … don’t hesitate to use the word “sorry” (even when it’s not your fault).

When eliminating pronouns … be careful not to overdo it.
Use this style only when you’re intending to be very conversational, e.g. to meet the tone of the person you’re talking to or when speaking with close partners or teammates. For instance, you would say, “I would love to help.” rather than “Would love to help.”

When composing a salutation … be warm, friendly, and approachable.
Use names whenever possible. Try to invite a reply without demanding one.

When apologizing … say sorry, and say thank you.
Address the end result for the customer, not the end result for Buffer, if possible. Show gratitude for their taking the time to reach out and help us improve.

4. Product

Just recently we begin laying down some more explicit guidelines for how the messaging should sound and appear within our product. Previously, this all happened implicitly. Product managers and designers used their intuition.

We’re eager to flesh out the product portion of our style guide more fully. In the meantime, here are a few small rules that we’re being explicit about with our team.

When writing copy within the product, we maintain the Buffer voice, and we adjust the tone based on the context of the copy. For instance, tone for an upgrade CTA will be more peppy and inviting than the tone for an error message, which will be contrite and empathetic. These are the guiding principles that we try to follow:

  • Invite the customer to take an action. Never command.
  • Use simple and clear copy. Don’t use two words when one will do.
  • Never blame others. Take responsibility for what happened.

Practically, this means:

  • No imperative sentences. (An imperative sentence is one that does not have a subject, which turns the sentence into a command or instruction. Example: Take out the trash.)
    • Exception: Call-to-action buttons can be imperatives. Example: Click to learn more →
  • Never start your copy with “you.” It puts the reader on the defensive.
  • If you want “you” to be the subject of your sentence, begin with a prepositional phrase.
    • Example: “To gain access to Buffer Analyze, you can sign up to our free beta list.”
  • Use the active voice, not passive voice.
    • Example of passive voice: “The limit on your Buffer account has been reached.”
    • Example of active voice: “This Buffer is full. Would you like to increase your space?”

5. Marketing

Much of the marketing content style guide follows the rules laid out in the above sections: We have the same voice and tone, we aspire to the same level of empathy with our audience, etc.

We have found that there are a few areas where marketing has evolved its own set of rules. Email marketing is one of them.

Here are our guidelines for the marketing emails we write and send at Buffer:

Email marketing

Consider your audience

One of the great things about email is that you can communicate with specific segments of people. As a general rule, it’s great to make the email feel personal, while being mindful of any assumptions you might be inadvertently applying across the recipient list. Use the Buffer voice and tone guide as a baseline (let empathy inform how you communicate) and feel free to tweak your message based on your understanding of the recipients’ shared characteristics.

  • – Be open and forthcoming about why the recipient is receiving the email and what is in it for them.
  • “We noticed you have quite a few Instagram accounts connected to Buffer, so we thought you might like some inspiration from some other top Instagram marketers”.
  • Where appropriate, it’s great to acknowledge that people receive a lot of marketing emails and encourage recipients to change their preferences or unsubscribe if they wish. A small, engaged email list is better than a large, disinterested list.
  • “If these emails ever feel a bit much, you can adjust your email preferences in your Buffer account over here.”
  • “I’d love to know how we can help you get the most out of our emails to you. Feel free to hit reply and let us know! Or if your inbox is feeling a little clogged, you can unsubscribe here.”

How we write subject lines

There is no such thing as a subject line that is too long. Ideally, you’d test a long subject line with a short subject line and see which one performs best. For subject lines, as with headlines, we want to honestly communicate what’s in the email without being too “gotcha!”

Over to you

  • What does the content style guide look like at your company?
  • Is there anything here that we might be missing? Anything that you’d add?

We hope there are some useful resources in this blog post. Feel free to copy, paste, and iterate on any of the above at your own company, and let us know in the comments about any questions that come up!