In the world of online, written language is one of the most important types of communication. Harry Ashbridge, Head of CX & Writing at Monzo, explains how businesses use language to communicate with their customers, going back to the origins of the English language, and giving tips on how to improve your writing to build customer trust.
The history of the English language.
In order to understand business language today, we need to go a thousand years back to Roman Britain, to look at the influence of Latin on modern English. Luckily, our guest Harry Ashbridge has a Master's degree in History and he walked us through the evolution of the English language.
When the Romans arrived in Britain, they brought the language Latin with them, which soon became the language of the people in charge. The State, the church, and all the social superiors communicated in Latin, meanwhile the plebs spoke in English. Latin was also the only language being written down, as the only documents that were transcribed were religious and legal texts. It soon became the language of authority, and English words coming from Latin roots, such as administration, ambiguous, require, etc., became the formal English language. For this reason, we associate serious topics with a more formal and complex language and tend to use more words with Latin roots, to elevate the message.
Building trust with language.
Nowadays, communicating with a more formal and complex language doesn't make you sound more intelligent, on the contrary, it makes you sound inaccessible and cold, and it's harder for people to know whether they can trust you or not. And for banks trust is everything.
Here are 4 tips to improve your writing and build customer trust:
- be clear and straightforward - people trust companies they understand, so you should break down complex information into smaller pieces that are easier to digest;
- check your readability - use readability checkers that score your writing on how easy it is to understand, the length of words, and your tone of voice. Don't rely completely on these tools as they don't tell you how compelling and interesting your writing is to your audience;
- know your audience - talk about what they care about and don't use language they don't use;
- be consistent - apply the same standards to all communications, at every touchpoint.
Internal and external communications.
Following on the last tip, it is essential to apply the same standard of communications both internally and externally.
"The way we communicate with customers is built on the way we talk to each other internally. It's completely inseparable".
If there's a difference between the two, something isn't quite true in your message and customers will notice. Your writing should be based on your values and be a reflection of what you care about, as it is where the customer experience is and where trust gets built from.
At Monzo, everyone internally is given writing training, to be able to communicate more clearly and be more confident in themselves. That speeds up the way they work and operate, building a shared cultural value on the things they care about as a company.
This article summarises podcast episode 70 ”The Power of Words" recorded by CX Insider. For more information, listen to the episode, or contact Harry on his LinkedIn profile.
Written by Alessia Trabucco
Full episode transcript
Harry: Things which are serious are somehow, in our minds tied up with necessarily being more formal. Serious and formal are very closely tied to being the same thing on our minds in terms of language. And there's no basis for that, there's no reason why something has to be much more ornate and complex to understand just because it's a more serious topic. But this is that kind of cultural history of the voice of authority, which a bank is able, the government is or a doctor is, talks down to you. And that Latin root language is the voice of authority. And so if you're being spoken to about your money or your life savings, there's an expectation there to some extent from the people speaking the bank that they have to assume the voice of authority, despite the fact that it's completely ineffectual and no one understands it and it doesn't build trust and it doesn't actually do the things that we want it to do. It doesn't make you sound more intelligent. In fact, there's plenty of research that says it makes you sound inaccessible and cold. And if I don't know what you're saying, how can I really know whether I can trust it or not?
Valentina: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of CX Insider. Today Greg and I talked to Harry Ashbridge, Head of CX and Writing at Monzo. This is the first episode we recorded in a studio since the pandemic started, so I hope you'll enjoy it. And if you do, please don't forget to let us know on our LinkedIn page. By the way, this podcast was brought to you by ACF Technologies, global leaders in Customer Experience Management Solutions.
Valentina: Has it ever happened to you that you were speaking to a bank and you were confused because you didn't understand what they were talking about? If the answer is yes, then you are not the only one. And if you work at a bank, this might be worth listening to. In the world of online, written language is one of the most important types of communication. In today's episode, we will talk about how businesses use language to communicate with their customers in the English-speaking world. Today's episode is going to be about the power of words, the power of language, and how we use business language in communication with customers. But before we dive into that, first of all, congratulations on winning the best British accent.
Harry: Oh yeah, you noticed that, did you?
Valentina: Yeah, we do our research. Yeah. So congratulations on that. And we usually start by doing a little introduction. So could you why don't you introduce yourself and tell us you're very passionate about writing and language and how what ignited your passion for writing?
Harry: That's a very good question. Yes. I'm the Head of Writing and Customer Experience at Monzo Bank. I've been there for about four and a half years. I was the first writer, so I kind of set up the tone of voice and built out the writing team, and created the kind of processes and procedures that we have around language so that hopefully it survives and scales as we grow as a business, which we do very quickly. Something like 200 to 2000 in the time that I've been there. And before that, I spent about six years at a language agency called The Writer, which is actually just around the corner from where we're recording. But I wrote and I was brought in there as an editor, so I actually didn't start out my career as a writer. I never intended to be a writer. I just kind of fell into it as somebody who could spell. I'd got a Master's degree in History and I thought, Oh, well, the world is my oyster now, because there's a big demand for people who are masters of History. And it turns out no one actually cares if you're a master of History, especially in 2009, in the middle of a recession. So I essentially got a temp job proofreading, which led to an editing job. And then from there, I was in a company I didn't really enjoy and didn't really believe what they were doing and didn't really like the people too much.
Harry: I hope they're not listening. And it wasn't really going anywhere. And so basically I saw an ad one day for a company that said we're out to rid the world of the tyranny of linguistic mediocrity. And I said, Well, I don't know what that means, but it sounds amazing. And that was the writer. And what they do is help companies express themselves better in words, represent their values in the language they use, and improve their business metrics to improve the customer experience and the way they communicate. And so I went there as an editor and gradually found a love of writing and the impact that writing can have, the massively underestimated impact the writing could have. And became a writer and became a trainer and became an advocate for language. Basically, I was there for six years and had an amazing time, but then jumped ship to go to Monzo and kind of do it all over again, but from scratch, from in-house, to see if actually we could practice all the stuff I'd been trying to sell for six years. What would actually happen so far? It seems to be working.
Valentina: Yeah. The head of writing, this writing position, it's not very common. In fact, your position was the first one that I've seen. How did you land the job? Did you create a position or did Monzo know it like internally that they need this type of position? How was this created?
Harry: Yeah, it was kind of serendipity. They weren't hiring any writers. I was scouting around where I wanted to go after the writer. I wanted to go somewhere mission-driven, I wanted to stay in London, I wanted to go somewhere small enough where you could build out a writing team and a writing kind of practice from scratch. And I had an interest in fintech. I'd had a lot of financial clients, and I liked the complexity and the scale of it. And so I was talking to another company actually, but they were a bit too big and the scale wasn't right. And they already had someone who was kind of leading the writing team, but they said, Oh, you should talk to Monzo. And I kind of went, Oh, what's a Monzo? I wasn't really super aware of the market, but I had a look at them and I went on the website, and my test for does a company care about languages? I always go straight to the TS and CS and see how they read. And we'll talk a bit more about this later on, I'm sure. And I went and looked and they were about 1000 words long and they were super clear and really easy and they were human. And they reflected the rest of the language you could see on the website. And I went, Oh, these people, they get it.
Harry: They actually care about good writing and they care about good communication. So I basically sent them a letter with my introduction that I had from the person at this other company that said, you care about writing, obviously, and you have good standards at the moment, but you're small and it won't scale if someone doesn't own it and look after it. And I can do that. Here's what I think you need. And they went, Great, have a job. It was the Wild West days in terms of recruitment. I had two days of freelancing as my interview, which is amazing and completely unsustainable as a way to hire people. It would never work if you were trying to do it at any kind of scale, but it worked for me then and they said, What do you want to be called? And I said, Well, I'm a writer and I know that the industry now has moved in the direction of maybe content design, and sometimes you'd have brand writers or UX writers or content managers, all kinds of stuff. But the way that my team operates in the way that I've always operated is a merging of all of those things. So it's holistically writing. And so that's why it's the head of writing rather than the head of content design or lead copywriter.
Valentina: Of writing sounds very interesting, and it is definitely one of the uncommon positions in the industry. So what does it involve?
Harry: So we don't write every word that would be sustainable. I think we might lose our minds. But the idea is that our team is responsible for the overall standard of writing.
Valentina: And the guidelines.
Harry: Exactly. So we create the guidelines. And I firmly believe that how you communicate internally is therefore going to be replicated in how you communicate to customers. Why should there be a difference between the two? If there is, then something isn't quite true in what you're saying. And obviously, it's dialed up and dial down mildly for different cases and different audiences and different channels. But ultimately the way you communicate should be a reflection of what you care about. And so if you're talking to each other, that should be the same as with customers. So I've worked on what the company mission is, what our company values are, internal policies like people, policies, the way that we write board papers, the way that we present to each other internally, the amount of jargon that we use or try not to, all of those kinds of things. Because that then feeds into the way that we are writing to customers, because there are 2000 people at Monzo and everyone writes all day, every day, and so it's going to bleed out into the world. And like me and my team, we're mostly focused on the most kind of business impactful writing that we're doing for the products and the stuff that we're producing for customers. That's the most important. But if we only focused on that and didn't care about those other things and the discrepancy between the way we communicate in some places and others would be big. And that's where people start to lose trust in whether you really believe in what you're saying about language.
Valentina: In order to understand how businesses use language today, we need to look at the historical evolution of the English language, which takes us thousands of years back to Roman Britain.
Harry: So this is a very potted version of English language development and history. But basically what happens? There's a couple of thousand years ago, the Romans arrive in Britain and they bring with them the language Latin. And do they learn the languages of the local tribespeople and integrate with the culture? No, of course, they don't. The Romans, they're in charge, big, pointy sticks. And so over time, Latin becomes adopted as the language of the kind of people in charge, basically. It is the language of administration. It's the language of kind of the social superiors. And so that persists for 500 ish years or so while the Romans are here. But then they leave and that Latin sticks around. And that's why you get words like administration in English that come from Latin like English is still stuffed full of these Latin root words, and Latin is still the language of the church. It's the language, the only language. That kind of religious rights are read in English for a very, very long time, for well over 1000 years, and aren't really codified or written down in any real way. It's seen as the language of the plebs that's reinforced when we get invaded by the Normans. They bring with them French, which is a romance language that comes close to Latin. You have a whole round of kings of England who never speak a word of English. They are French. They barely come to England if they can avoid it. And so there's a long, long trend of over a millennium of the way that we think about language as being the written language that kind of matters comes from Latin because the only things are being written down are religious texts, and you don't even get a Bible in English until the 16th century or so.
Harry: And even then, that's kind of a revolutionary thing. There's a whole issue, the Reformation, I'm not going to go into that. But, you know, it's a big deal that we start to see the control of written communication being taken away from social elites and spread into the masses. But even then, you've still got to know, it would have only been a couple of hundred years ago that we weren't all probably illiterate. So for a long, long, long, long time, the only things that are written down are legal texts or religious texts, because you wouldn't bother writing anything down because it's time-consuming and expensive, and if you needed a record of it. So business contracts are the things that are being written down. And so the foundation of business writing is legal, writing just contracts. And similarly to our Latin roots of religious language and the Latin legal tradition is what we have. Roman law is the basis of a lot of like Western law still. And if anyone has ever studied any law or knows any law, as you'll know, it's still stuffed full of Latin terms and phrases. You know, the last president was impeached for a quid pro quo, which is Latin for I'll do something for you if you do something for me like Latin is still a big part of that language.
Harry: And so it's only really, really recently that business language has a purpose other than recording contracts like legal contracts. But the trend, the history that that comes from is this very long history of Latin language. And Latin is the language of people in charge, and English is the language of commoners. So there's this hierarchical divide that's really interesting. And if you think about the most formal business interactions that you can have with a lawyer or with a doctor, or if you look at like a contract, something that's serious, it gets more and more formal and more and more business sounding. But really what's happening there is that the words trend more and more towards words that have a Latin root and the words that we think of as common or dumbed down or colloquial. Those are the words that come from spoken English, like Anglo-Saxon English, what we all use when we talk to each other every day, but what somehow is seen as less professional because of these 2000 years of history, of what's been written down, sounding more formal, essentially. So it's words like require rather than need require. Is that a bit more formal? But you wouldn't say, I'm just going to the shops. Do you require anything? It's going forward. I require a Twix. It's just not the way we talk. Exactly. It's a bit formal, but that's seen as professional because of this deep-seated, long historical trend of like language that's business-like and professional being legal writing coming from this history of Latin language.
Valentina: Yeah, you're right. The legal language, even today, seems a bit too rigid, but I would say that the banking language goes right after it.
Harry: Yeah, there's definitely an element of that. I think banks are some of the oldest companies. Yeah. They've been around for a very, very long time. They were mostly just doing legal writing for a long, long time. As you say, it was just kind of something for people that had money. Like everybody having enough money that you would need. A bank account is a relatively recent invention. And so it's things which are serious are somehow, in our minds tied up with necessarily being more formal. Serious and formal are very closely tied as being the same thing in their mind in terms of language. And that's completely from there's no basis for that. There's no reason why something has to be much more ornate and complex to understand just because it's a more serious topic. But this is like. Kind of cultural history of the voice of authority, which a bank is how the government is or a doctor is, talks down to you. And that Latin root language is the voice of authority. And so if you're being spoken to about your money or your life savings, there's an expectation there to some extent from the people speaking the bank that they have to assume the voice of authority, despite the fact that it's completely ineffectual and no one understands it and it doesn't build trust and it doesn't actually do the things that we want it to do.
Harry: It doesn't make you sound more intelligent. In fact, there's plenty of research that says it makes you sound inaccessible and cold. And if I don't know what you're saying, how can I really know whether I can trust it or not? And we definitely don't trust banks, right? That's a cultural trend because of reasons. And so there is currently, thankfully, the entirety of business writing and certainly in the West, certainly in the UK is trending towards we understand the language is important. We need to be more clear, we need to be more open with our communication and all banks are moving in that direction, every single one some more effectively and some quicker than others. But there is belatedly been a realization that that kind of well, it's serious. So now we must make it twice as hard to understand it is actually not doing the job that we thought it was doing. And it's actually a barrier to people understanding us and trusting us, which if you're a bank, trust is everything.
Valentina: Yeah. And I would say that Monzo is actually taking the lead at this because the other day we saw your Twitter and we found this hilarious tweet. Actually, I need to read it because it's so funny. So six days ago, Monzo posted a tweet saying, Monzo notification, you've spent £60 at Aldi. Translation, you went in for milk, then found the middle aisle and Aldi retweeted it, saying, we will not be blamed for the stress Monzo gives you. And Monzo retweeted it again, saying you're one to talk about stress. We've been through an Aldi checkout.
Harry: And can't take any credit for that. By the way, our social team looks after Twitter and they are excellent.
Valentina: Yeah, it does say something about the company culture because it means that you guys must be super, super cool. Otherwise, it's a catfish.
Harry: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, it's. It's a reflection of the fact that partly, you know, Twitter is that medium where the audience there is generally a bit self-deprecating to be relevant on Twitter. You have to be funny. Like there are no brands that are doing well on Twitter that are making jokes. And also it's a reflection of the audience that we serve. Like that's how they talk. They are human. They make jokes, they're self-deprecating. Their habits aren't always completely what they would want to be around money. And so we're just reflecting the people that we serve and the people that we are internal.
Valentina: Same. Companies invest millions into building six platforms, omnichannel touchpoints, and offering self-service options. Yet in fact, the cause of low customer satisfaction might be something you'd least expect. Why do you think that language is? Ironically, and it sounds like an oxymoron, but why do you think that language is such an underestimated element of communication in the customer experience?
Harry: Yeah, it's a really good question. I think mainly it's because it's just it's so ubiquitous and so deeply ingrained in us that we don't even necessarily realize it's a thing that could be acted on or improved. Like it's the main form of communication that we have in business. And the words that we use are seen as a reflection of ourselves in some way. You know, if you run writing training sessions, which I have many hundreds of times and you mentioned people about the way that they write, what they feel like is you're talking about them in their personal values like language is so completely core to who we are. There are plenty of much smarter people than me, like Yuval Noah Harari, who says, for example, like the thing that sets humans apart from animals. And the reason that we have a complex society is that we could share stories, we could communicate with language, and we could build common bonds around things beyond just who you are immediately biologically related to. And so we are so like completely inextricably connected to the language that we use that we don't see as an external factor in the way that we do with like visual design, for example, which is outside of our innate selves. But everyone is a writer, you know, everyone who works for a living. Maybe if you're a long-distance lorry driver or a baker, you don't do as much writing. But if you're working in an office every day, you write more than anything else. If you're an engineer for software, you don't write as many lines of code as you do words every day. And because it's so ubiquitous, we find it hard to kind of separate it as something that we could do differently.
Harry: And the impact of language, I think, is underappreciated. There's kind of a sense on the brand side that it's a fluffy thing, it's nice to have somehow improved our relationship with customers. But it's. We can't really measure it. And so in data-driven companies, you know, tech companies, especially finance companies who haven't historically been able to show the impact of better writing. So clearly, why would they think it matters? Because it doesn't immediately affect the bottom line, and it definitely does. And we've got, you know, tens, hundreds of examples of the way that better writing can measurably impact every metric you care about. But you have to be interested in measuring it in the first place and see that it's a thing that can make a difference. And so it is really the most underestimated part of the way that a business operates in terms of the difference it can make. And if you are a bank that lives on a phone screen like we are, it's most of your customer experience. It's words, and they have to do more heavy lifting because we only live on a phone screen and we're not in a branch. You can't come and talk to me if you want to talk to me face to face, but you can't come and talk to somebody who knows what they're talking about, about your money face to face. And so the language that we put on that screen has to work twice as hard to build that human connection. And so it's the most fundamental part of customer experience and the most kind of overlooked because it's everything. You can't see the wood for the trees, basically. I think for a lot of companies.
Valentina: In the banking industry, psychological safety and trust are essential factors for building long-term relationships with customers. However, as you've heard earlier, the way banks speak to the customer may sometimes give a different impression.
Greg: I guess how important or how you then structure language specifically to build trust is like the first part of the question and then ultimately is the knock-on effect that you're able to bring customers, therefore, closer is the aim to bring customers closer to the Monzo brand? And so they feel closer and they feel more a part of understanding how Monzo operates?
Harry: Yeah, excellent question. So I'll take that in two parts. So in terms of the aim of what we're trying to do, we're trying to help people have a better relationship with their money. We're trying to make it less stressful. We're trying to take the complexity out of it, needlessly complicated to manage money. People are stressed about it. It's a cause of like anxiety. It causes issues with mental health, especially at the moment. It's probably never been more front of mind for a lot of people how much money they have in their pocket at the end of the month. And so if on top of that worry that you have about how much there is, you have a worry of, am I going to be I'm going to be shouted at in capital letters by my bank. If I fall slightly behind on my overdraft payment this month, am I going to be able to understand the terms of this loan I'm taking out? If that's an added complexity and added stress, well, that's not helping anyone. So we're trying to take that away. The benefit of that, hopefully, is that people trust us, that we're on their side, and that we're there to help them and they come and bank with us. Good news for us.
Harry: But ultimately, what we're trying to do is, makes people's relationship with money better. And in terms of the relationship between trust and language, one of my favorite pieces of research about language is a guy called Daniel Oppenheimer, a fabulous name. He is interested in the question of how people judge intelligence and trustworthiness from the way they use language. So he did an experiment where he took this kind of explanation of a complicated topic, and he wrote it in a bunch of different ways from very complicated down to very simple language. And he showed it to loads of people and said to them, You've got these different authors explaining this one idea in their own way from very complicated to very simple. Who do you think is the smartest? Like, what does that say to you? And overwhelmingly, people from all different backgrounds, ages, and demographics found that the simple version was the one that they thought was the most intelligent. Because if you can take a complex idea and explain it really clearly so anyone can understand it, you have to really know what you're talking about. Anyone can waffle on for hours. That doesn't prove anything except that you've swallowed a thesaurus that doesn't actually show that you understand the topic. Yeah. And again, this is about that switch between what people think professional writing is with the formality.
Harry: It's doing the opposite of what we intend. And when trust comes into that, there's an element of, well, who's giving the message? And we're a bank and we like to think differently from the banks that have been before in the way that we operate and what we care about. But we're still part of that industry that isn't particularly trusted, it isn't particularly liked. And so the default position for a lot of people is what are you trying to pull here? And any time we don't make ourselves clear or we don't explain something in a way you can understand, people aren't going to go, Oh, it's probably for the best because they don't trust banks. So trust is built by being clear and straightforward. There's nowhere to hide. If you say things that are clear and straightforward and there's no kind of what could this mean? How could this be interpreted? No deliberate ambiguity in the kind of complexity of business language. So trust is inextricably connected to language. We trust people who we can understand. And that's really what we're trying to tap into by just being as clear and straightforward as we can because it's your money, you know, it's not ours.
Greg: I love that. And I think. With that. I think the ultimate place that you get to as a brand is thought I think you get trusted more longer-term because people see you actively trying to distill things down to a simpler, more understandable level. And I think people innately see that and know that and therefore think, thank you, Monzo. Like, thank you for making that effort to take what is normally, like you say, some long, complicated, you know, not understood set of terms and conditions. And you've actually taken the time to say no, we will put the effort in to distill the complex down into simple. And I think people innately do respect that and I think that will help longer-term with your brand as well, not just in the short term of people like saying I actually understood the TS and CS for the first time.
Harry: So yeah, exactly. And that's where the consistency point really comes in, like our tone of voice. If you're going to look at the guidelines like the writing advice there is basically good writing. 101 be clear, be straightforward. Talk about what your audience cares about. Don't waffle on too long. Don't use language they don't use. But the thing that I think sets us apart is the consistency of that. Like we really try our very best to apply that absolutely everywhere. And kind of one of the big things of business writing is writing really clearly a nicely in an enticing way and caring about language when we're trying to sell you something and then as soon as you're in, you feel very different or the contract feels very, very different. Or if you, God forbid, fall behind on repayment the way we treat you, then that's going to be different. Or the error messages in the app that no one's looked at, like how do they read? And so that that split between the marketing side and the rest, people then don't trust the marketing side. They think it's a fluffy thing. We're trying to say something because the split is there. It's very real and it's mostly in language, right? You might have applied the logo in the font for all of your stuff, but the language is where the customer experience is and where the trust gets built from.
Harry: And so where I think we do really, really well is not that we have a very distinctive or out there or quirky approach to language. It's that if you deal with us in any of the many different ways you can deal with us, hopefully, it should feel like you're dealing with the same people who care about the same stuff. And so the language we use is a reflection of our values. If we say that we're transparent, one of our core values is to default to transparency. We can't then give you a bunch of T's and C's that you can't read because it's not transparent, it's just objectively not transparent. If we say we're customer-centric and then we make you read a 90-page contract before you sign up for something, well, it's obviously not in your interest, is it? That's in our interest. So if you really believe in the values you talk about whatever you might have plastered on the walls of your office, then that has to be reflected in your language. And if not, customers will see it because there are plenty of companies that spend multi-millions on advertising campaigns in our industry and others and have customer satisfaction scores in the toilet. Because that language on its own isn't convincing anybody of what you care about because it isn't reflected in the experience that you actually have.
Valentina: Dealing with the things you've heard so far does not apply to external communications. Only today, when many of us work from home and rely on written communication, it's so easy to misunderstand or miscommunicate certain information.
Greg: Do you apply the same theories and methodologies internally? And if so, how? Why is that important? And, and what's then the knock-on effect if you do take such an approach?
Harry: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, pretty much the first thing that I did when I joined in my first week, we start running training sessions. We have a series that we call writing slightly better to reflect the fact that we're not trying to change the world overnight with language, but we're trying to help people understand that, first of all, they are all writers, all day, every day. And anyone who has a job that involves writing, if you're a bit more confident that you understand more about how writing works, you'll be better at your job if you have to write reports for a living, if you write proposals, if you have to write emails to convince people or persuade people or reassure people, you know, whatever it might be, you can be better at your job if you're better at writing. So doing that internally is about enabling the company to operate better. You know, we're mostly now remote or at least hybrid. In the last couple of years, no one's being face to face. Everyone's writing all the time in a kind of heightened sense of anxiety because of the state of the world anyway and we've all got an email that you can sort of what does that mean? .
Harry: Is that are they being rude or am I being rude or how's this going to be read? Language is so fundamental to human relationships. If you're trying to build a company that grows at the speed we do and operates at the speed we do, when you're trying to stay innovative and customer-centric, it's hard. It's really hard. And one of the ways that you can help people build this kind of shared understanding of our mission and our values is to help everybody communicate in the same way. And that's as much about what we care about in terms of our mission and telling that story as it is about just literally the technical language that we use. Engineers have a certain language set of jargon. They use data, scientists do, marketers do customer experience, and CX people do. Terrible. Why would we call it CX? It's not even CX. It would be CE, why would it be CX?
Harry: Of the like hundreds of thousands of data points about how people feel and what they're saying and their hopes and dreams and fears. And we call it VOC. Voice of the customer. It's just it couldn't be more esoteric and hard to understand. And so we're trying to break that down as much as possible because that is excluding it makes people feel left out. It slows us down because of a piece of jargon that you read and don't understand, saving the right time to use an acronym. But if five people have to spend a minute looking it up, we've actually cost 5 minutes. And so everybody internally is giving this hopefully given these skills, to be able to communicate a bit more clearly and writing be more confident in it themselves. And that just speeds up the way that we work, the way we operate, and it builds this kind of shared cultural value of these are the things that we care about. We care about transparency, we care about inclusivity. So we can't write in a way that everyone can't understand. We care about being empathetic to people's situations, so we can't have a policy about something incredibly sensitive like bereavement, for example, and that be really formal and difficult to understand. Because imagine being somebody in that situation and going to that policy and feeling like it's not really written by a person and it's not written for people. So it's really fundamental to the way we operate as a business. And as I said earlier, the more you do that internally because everybody is writing every day and words that we use internally bleed into the customer experience in a load of ways, some kind of formal because people write to customers and some informal because the language we use internally then kind of makes its way by osmosis into the product. The way we communicate with customers is built on the way we talk to each other internally. It's completely inseparable, I think.
Greg: The one thing that I liked there that I actually didn't think about was how efficient internal communications does and will lead to longer-term, greater efficiency in your operations. Because, as you say, people are able to communicate better and more effectively, which moves things along faster. So there's not even just this hypothetical benefit to the organization. If there's clearer or better communication internally, it's actually a bottom-line impact because people operating day to day are able to actually communicate in a more effective manner, which just moves the needle forward on every level. So actually it's going to impact not just relationships and those things that you say are hard to manage or how to justify or measure. It's actually going to impact the bottom line and the business because you will be able to move forward and innovate faster if people are like more effective with their communications. So yeah.
Harry: Exactly. You're a product manager. You're trying to get traction for a new feature you want to build. If the proposal that you write for that is really niche and hard to understand, you're less likely to get traction to make it move than if you wrote something really clear and concise in the language everybody can understand. It's just, you know, somebody, an engineer trying to, you know, put some code into GitHub, the repository that we have. And you're writing a commit message that says, this is what I've done and this is why I've done it. If that's easier to understand, the next ten engineers that come along to add to or change that, yeah, you know, it's everything. It's everything in terms of the way we operate, especially because most of our communication is through Slack. So it's a messaging platform. We don't really use email. Most people are dislocated physically at the moment. They're not together every day, face to face. You know, the language that we use is the way that we operate as a business in the same way that the language we use is, is the way that we interact with each other outside in the real world.
Greg: And this is not really a question I thought originally to even ask, but as you just said, a couple of bits there. How important is it for you than operating internally? Um, to use voice. So actually like jump on a call for example, because obviously there's written language and then there's spoken language and even the benefit of obviously using video, especially like you say, with everyone dotted around. Working from home. How, how have you found that? What are your thoughts on the use of written language versus spoken verses, even the addition of like video and seeing someone's face?
Harry: Yeah. I mean. It's often going to be easier to get buy-in for an idea or to convince somebody of something sitting across from them virtually or physically. Because how much of language sorry, how much of communication is nonverbal? It's the tics, it's the movements, it's the mirroring. It's all those things. But if you are trying to build a fast-growing company and you need documentation, you need to have stuff rent down. So if you've always defaulted too well, let's just jump on a call and talk about this and make a decision on the call. Who are you going to document that? You can document the discussion. Where is it going to be? What about the next ten people in a year's time who aren't you? You know, a lot of institutional knowledge gets held in people's heads. And that's not a great way to kind of build a business or have anything that works for the long term. But there's definitely no doubt that it's hard to substitute the impact of being in a room with somebody if you want to build a relationship and make a connection with them. But that's where it's even more important if you are not physically located together, you are using as many tools as you can in kind of the written toolbox to shortcut to that connection that otherwise would be there. So writing more like you speak, using the language you would use day to day if we're on a call together. Greg and I are saying, Oh, hey, how are you? Yeah, nice to see you. Take care of speech. You soon. And then it says in the next email that I send as previously discussed in the aforementioned meeting. Yeah, that's not how we spoke to each other. So why am I now building that distance in? It's that legacy of formality in business writing. Dear Sir or Madam, it's just completely the opposite of what's effective, and we need to kind of shake ourselves out of that. And that's what the training programs internally are built for, and that's what the guidance that we have internally is built for.
Greg: We love to try and give our audience practical advice. So if you're speaking to someone out there who is managing some sort of form of communication, whether it's internal and they're looking after the strategy of how colleagues talk amongst each other and how they can improve the efficiency that we've talked about that or it might be someone's responsibility to improve the quality or the simplification of external communications. What advice would you give to someone looking to go on that sort of transformation of how they use language practical advice would be amazing.
Harry: Yeah. Yeah. I think there are universal principles that will definitely make your writing more effective. Whether you can measure it or not, it's definitely got to make your writing more effective. And those are the things that we've spoken about in terms of swapping out the more formal language for everyday language. It's going to be more effective. The way that we kind of read we skim read everything the way that our eyes even move our eyes don't read every word on a page. They bounce from point to point and what's called six heads. And so the language, which is easy to understand, is more easily absorbed and our brains are happier to absorb it because we're just trying to burn this few calories as possible to live as long as we can. And so if you are writing in a most simple way, people are going to be more literary. What you've got to say, you don't need to measure that to prove it to be true. It's proven. But then on the other hand, if you do have the ability to measure what you're doing, then you definitely should. So we're really fortunate to have really effective research and data so we can split test pretty much every email. And we will do messaging tests and we will be able to see the impact of the language that we use.
Harry: And if you can test some stuff, I definitely would. And generally, I find, you know, if you're the person or the team internally who's trying to make the case for the language you're trying to make people see the sense of it. I would be looking for what's the thing that we can test. And it doesn't have to be necessarily the most high-profile thing. It's just something you can get a major on really quickly. Can you send two versions of an email, one with what you were doing now, and one with something that's a bit shorter and more natural sounding, with simpler language? And can you switch the order of content on a web page and see what happens there and see the impact of it changing? Nothing else, just the language to see if you can isolate that test. But even if you can't measure the impact, there are a couple of other things you can do to give you kind of a blunt force read on how effective your writing is. And probably the main one is to look at readability. So there are readability checkers out there in the world that look at the kind of straightforwardly, how easy is your writing to absorb? And I think the first one is the flesh Kincaid readability checker.
Harry: Basically in the 70s, the US Navy were looking for a way to make sure that they are like sailors could read technical documentation, because if you've got depleted uranium flooding up and down the poop deck, you need to be able to know that somebody can open a book at page 44 and understand what they need to understand. So they've got these two academics to go away and come up with an algorithm that would read a bit of writing and say, This is easy to understand or know, this is hard to understand. And so it looks at things like the length of sentences, the length of words. Are you using the active or the passive voice? So is it really straightforward to see who's responsible for what? And you can feed a bit of writing through this checkout and it will spit out a score of roughly 0 to 100. And the higher the score these are, the writing is to understand, and that's going to be true for anybody. What it doesn't tell you is, is it convincing, is compelling? Is it interesting? Is it correct? So it's not actually that a high score for readability tells you a piece of writing is good. It just tells you it'll be easier to understand. And at the very, very high scores like to get above like a 90, you have to have all words of one syllable, which is not going to work for a technical manual on a warship or piece of banking regulation.
Harry: So what readability is really good for is telling you if you're writing is hard to understand. So a low score tells you you've got work to do and the things to improve are all the things that you'll find in our tone of voice guidelines. You know, simpler language use the active voice, shorter sentences like really the basics of good writing, plus you can get readability. Checker is built into every copy of Microsoft Word. There are a bunch of free ones online. I would say that's good. Like a crutch to lean on. If you're first starting out to see, how can I make my writing more effective? Put your writing in there. See what the score is. If you're scoring less than 60, you've got work to do. But once you get above 70, you're good. Because any kind of incremental improvements there are just probably potentially oversimplifying. People can rely on it a bit too much. Just go, Oh, how can I optimize my readability score? But really it's a case of if the score is low, you've got work to do. If the score is decent, great, you're in a good place.
Greg: I think we've got some work to do at ACF. Let's call us out on it. But I think I think that's really good advice. Like there are some practical things there that anyone can do, regardless of whether you look after an entire organization's communication or just a team or like a small department. I think that's some really, really good advice. Yeah. Thanks.
Harry: Yeah, we've got like our TCs have a minimum score. We have to reach 65. We won't launch them unless they do. And like if you have a look at like a cross-section of stuff in our app or on the website, we'll be scoring in that kind of area. Like it's not official for the whole business, but certainly, it's like a score that we aim for because that's a good space to be able to communicate really clearly with everyone.
Valentina: I hope you enjoyed listening to the podcast. If you did, please don't forget to like share, comment, or subscribe to the podcast on your preferred channel. If you have any questions, feel free to ask Harry and join the community on our LinkedIn page. Lastly, shout out to our sponsor AC Technologies. Thanks to whom we can continue doing this great content, enjoy rapid-fire questions and I will see you next time. The first question is, what's your favorite book?
Harry: My favorite book is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I think it won the Man Booker Prize a couple of years ago. It's completely off the wall, it's kind of a magical realist story about Abraham Lincoln, a true story of the fact that his son died. And apparently, he used to go off to the cemetery to be with the body. But George Saunders, his vision, like the bodies in the cemetery, all in kind of this weird purgatory, and it's this beautiful humanist moving, very sad, very funny book. And I recommend it to everyone. It's very weird and I encourage everyone.
Valentina: If you could go back in time, which time period would you choose to visit?
Harry: Oh no. I was thinking about this the other day. I'm a bit obsessed with Roman history, but if I went back there, I'd probably be stoned to death and also wouldn't understand anything. So probably have to go back to a period when people could understand English the way it is now. So that kind of narrows it down a little bit. And I don't know, go back to Wembley in 1966, maybe.
Greg: What was happening then?
Harry: I'm going to find out. Yeah.
Greg: That's cool. That's cool.
Valentina: If you could interview anyone, who would it be?
Harry: Living or dead? Anyone, I know? I said George Saunders, but Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author. I'd love to have a conversation with him. He seemed like a very nice man.
Valentina: Cool. Last question. Who is your favorite character? Favorite character or books?
Harry: Oh, my God. That's a very good question. The first one that came to my mind is Lyra from his dark materials books, the Philip Pullman books. And I remember reading Northern Lights is the first one of those. And I remember reading it when I was about. Nine or ten, and she was very cool and fearless and clever and all the things that I didn't feel like I was at nine or ten years old. And yeah, those are books that are really close to my heart. And yeah, she was the first person that came to mind.
Greg: Cool. Yeah. Thank you, Harry. That's been great thanks. This is really fun.
Valentina: Thanks for coming. Thanks.