Bellbird : Sue Bell's blog

How to avoid work voice when writing to customers

What is your work voice?

Work voice is one of the main reasons why users do not read content. When users see content written in work voice they will skim read; understand less than they read, and feel confused about your brand.

What is your work voice?

Work voice is the writing style you use when you are writing formally to colleagues, your boss, or the regulator. It  is not the one that you would normally use with your friends and family, or your neighbour.  It should not be the voice you use when writing to your users.

A good example - I recently came across something that was written for the general public about COVID that used the phrase ‘resumption of recreational activities’. I think what they meant was: ‘when you can get back to doing exercise or sport’. I say Í think' because 'resumption of recreational activities' is the work voice of someone who works in government who probably has a formal definition of 'recreational activities' that I do not have access to.

Readers disengage when they see work voice

When they read work voice, users feel disengaged. They feel that your content has been written for someone else. They feel that you do not understand them, because you are not using the style of language they use.

Work voice creates misunderstanding

Our user testing shows that many people do not read content that is written in work voice. They skim over it and miss the key message, or when filling in forms just guess what information you might need from them. In Australia, new legislation makes it compulsory for financial services organisations to communicate clearly so that their customers do not make inadvertent errors.

Work voice may not be your 'brand voice'.

Work voice often shows up in the letters that people in organisations write to their customers. The more difficult the message - ''we are denying your claim'' for example  - the more likely it is that they will hear your work voice, even from brands who pride themselves on their customer-centricity. 

"Each time we speak, the voice we use is heavily influenced by our audience and our purpose: whom we are talking to and why. For example, we use different voices to talk to our pet, to our mother, to our boss and—if we are a lawyer in private practice—to our clients."  Christpopher Balmford in the Journal Clarity

How can you avoid writing in your work voice? 

The truth is, only your users can tell you how they feel when they read your words. That is why I designed a user testing method specifically for written communications  - User Testing for Style and Content  - a  unique language-based user testing method for CX, Compliance and Brand Voice. My bachelor degree is in Linguistics and English,  I have post-grad qualifications in Psychology, and I continue to study and observe how people use language. 

How do our clients react?

Clients have told us that they feel more confident knowing that their content is creating a positive customer experience, and that their content is compliant with regulations.  They have also discovered an additional benefit -  that users use their call centres less because they have fewer questions about their content. 


If you would like to feel confident that your content is creating a positive customer experience, please visit our User Testing for Style and Content page where I explain the benefits of independent user testing, and give you more details abut how our testing works, or email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I also have a newsletter call Bellbird that comes out about 4 times a year. You can subscribe here.


How user testing of written content helps to remove jargon

The term jargon refers to the specialist language used within an industry or organisation that people outside that industry do not understand.

There is nothing wrong with jargon per se. If you need to communicate a precise message to someone in your industry or organisation who knows as much as you do about a topic, jargon is a great shorthand way to convey that message. 

What does the psychology of language tell us about jargon?

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User testing for content: when users skim read and when they don't

For at least two decades, I have been conducting think-aloud interviews with users to test their understanding of content.  

I have tested - and continue to test  - a diverse range of topics, for example: cycling safety, exchange-traded funds, denied insurance claims, superannuation fees and charges, and many others.  I have watched how people read letters, landing pages, statements and brochures. 

As part of this experience, I have learned how people actually read.

It is a myth that all users skim read information

Content creators are often advised to write for skim readers who navigate via headings.

My experience is that this is a false assumption. In the user tests I have conducted, I have seen many times that while some users do skim read, others users read carefully, while some don't read at all.

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What do people want when they ask for sustainable products or investments? 

If you are a researcher, marketer, communications specialist or product developer you may be wondering how to make sense of what seem to be competing trends in sustainability.

The first step is to realise that what people mean by sustainability is probably different from what you mean.

This is what it means at your workplace

  • If you work in an organisation that specialises in (say) vegan foods, it is likely that you will think about sustainability within the context of agriculture and perhaps the ethics of killing animals. If you work in investment, sustainability for you might  equate to socially-responsible investing so you may avoid investing in gambling for example. If you work in fashion, you may be working on creating substitutes for leather, perhaps. There are many other examples where what sustainability means to you depends on where you work.

  • Brands that offer sustainable products and the competing brands that don't 'take sides', and argue against each other in simple black versus white terms. Some of those brands then take that black versus white discourse to the public. 

This is what it means to everyone else

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The neuroscience of making sense of each other

The drive to make sense

One of my current preoccupations is sense-making, the drive that people have to make sense of things, so  I am always on the look-out for more information about it.  I was therefore delighted to find this piece from Leonhard Schilbach about how human beings make sense of each other, especially how we do that during social interaction.

Two neural networks

It seems that we have two distinct neural networks which help us make sense of other people:

  1. Mirror neurons which we use to make sense of other people based on our own understanding of ourselves; and
  2. A Mentalising Network where we have a ‘third person’ grasp of other people’s mental states.

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User testing of content: how to write so users read your words

You want users to read your words don't you?

The thing is - reading is harder than many writers realise.

I recently came across an article about long sentences in government advice about COVID 19.  The article was in The Conversation. The authors argued that 'Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand.'  The authors correctly identified complex sentences like this: 

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