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Hi there – Let’s get casual… Guest post by Lavanya Krishnamurthy

by Tom Johnson on Mar 21, 2016
categories: technical-writing

In this guest post, Lavanya Krishnamurthy explores the use of a casual tone in documentation as a way to give users a sense of having a conversation with the author. She presents several easy techniques for implementing a casual tone, and also notes the potential tradeoffs this approach can have.

We use the latest technology and modern software products in our daily lives. Have you observed the tone in which these products communicate with us? It’s no longer the boring, formal tone. It’s the casual, conversational tone that invites you when you go to their websites, interact with their UI, and so forth. So, is the casual style something that we should adapt for technical documentation as well? Read on…

Content with a causal tone makes you feel like you are having a conversation with the author. It creates empathy and makes you feel secure, comfortable, and encourages you to read more.

Technical communication has been delivered with a formal tone for years. However, modern products are breaking traditional protocols for communication. They want their customers to feel at home and not be alienated by technical jargon.

As an example of a more casual approach, have you seen these kinds of error messages?

“Oops… something went wrong… Please try again later.”

“Oops… This is embarrassing… We’re unable to find what you’re looking for.”

As a user, I feel less annoyed to see these messages. Enterprises too are experimenting with this new style of writing. Take a look at this Confluence tutorial:

Confluence is pretty simple to use, once you get to know it. This tutorial aims to get you acquainted with the Confluence user interface, and show you how and where to perform some common tasks.

Now that you’ve met your team, let’s take a look at your mission.

Notice the casual, conversational tone. It seems like the author is with you through this journey.

Where do I start?

Like the approach? Experiment with a casual tone when writing content for a brand new product or feature. Or, you could try it with a new type of content, for example, a tutorial as you saw in the Confluence example. Take a sample to your product manager and see what they think about this approach. Survey the customers and ask them if they liked it and then take it forward from there.

How Casual Can You Get?

To start off with, try these basic techniques:

Technique Reason Examples
Use contracted forms It’s simple! Using contracted forms alone can give your writing a casual feel. For example, using let’s, it’s, isn’t, you’re, etc. Let’s see how this works. / Let’s get started. / It’s pretty simple! / You’re all set!
Use shorter, incomplete phrases Want to see how? Use this form primarily for questions. Users love to see the author ask a question that they have in mind too. Come here often? Make google your home page. / Want to see the alerts? Click here. / First time user? Register here.
Start with a conjunction Because this is how we speak. And, we’re done. / But, you would love this. /
Use auxiliary verbs Wouldn’t you love using those? Using would, should, and could add to the flavor too. You should see the dashboard now. / You could check the alerts at this point or look at the visualizations in the dashboard.
Use frill words (sparingly) Pretty awesome, isn’t it? These words are just frills, and adds to the conversation style. Sounds good? / That’s awesome. Isn’t it? / Oops.. this is embarrassing…

Don’t go overboard

Avoid using slang, metaphors, and idioms. If your product is being localized, don’t even try to attempt those.

Side Effects of Using Casual Tone

  • Increased Word Count – Casual tone definitely adds more words, and most often it’s against the lean content principles. For example, “Term not found” is fewer words than “Oops… This is embarrassing… We’re unable to find what you’re looking for.”
  • Acrocheck Scores – Your Acrocheck scores are going to be way above the mark as contracted forms and incomplete phrases cannot be handled by Acrocheck at this point.
  • Localization hurdles – If the content is being localized, you’ll get push back from localization, as most of the above techniques are not machine-transition-friendly.

There are certainly trade-offs in this approach. Use caution, discuss the idea with your manager and product manager.

Casual Tone in UI

User interface (UI) text is already ahead of the curve in terms of using a casual tone. Most modern UIs use an informal tone to keep the users engaged. Get involved in the UI reviews and suggest using an informal tone. Again, if your product uses a formal tone throughout, talk to your product managers and see if you can experiment using a casual tone for a new feature.

About Lavanya Krishnamurthy

Lavanya KrishnamurthyLavanya Krishnamurthy is a Principal Information Services Engineer with CA Technologies, based out of Bangalore, India (looking forward to her move to the pearl city, Hyderabad). She has 13+ years of experience in technical writing. During her career, she expanded her horizon into information management, information architecture, and embedded user assistance. She loves the autonomy that she gets with her job. Currently, she is experimenting with casual styles of writing for one of the incubation products in CA. That’s the source and inspiration for this blog post as well. Her interests are completely vested in her kids and family. When she is not writing, she is reviewing her kids’ homework, reports, and other writing projects to give them feedback.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect CA’s official policy or position.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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