Photo by Natasha Kapur on Unsplash

No — your chirpy, chatty menu is not delightful

How conversational copy got annoying

Oh, hi there.

Look — you’re busy. We get it (we work, too. Honest.)

An avalanche of articles on Medium (run!) Constant noise on LinkedIn (where’s that volume switch?)

How you gonna decide what to read while you’re doing your thing in that toilet cubicle?

We got you.

We went and whipped something up for ya. Wrote some words that sound — you know — fun. Digestible (biscuit, anyone?) Down to earth. Academic-free zone. Short an’ sweet.

Sound good? It does to us.

So just sit back, pop in some headphones, and cast your eyeballs over these here thought splatterings.

Sorted.

How did it come to this?

If you made it this far without vomiting in your mouth a little, congratulations. This kind of writing has spread like chicken pox over the last decade or so. It’s on your smoothie labels. The back of your menus. Envelopes. Even your fridge’s instruction manual.

Where did it all start, and who can we blame for this contagious hot mess?

It can probably be traced back to old-school print copywriting.

Claude C. Hopkins is one of the grandfathers of direct marketing. In his book Scientific Advertising, he argues that the type of communication print advertising should aim for is that of a sales person. He urges advertisers to write imagining they had a prospective customer standing in front of them. No word limit. No academic jargon. Just a direct appeal to one person.

He goes on to talk about the importance of a consistent tone:

“In successful advertising great pains are taken to never change our tone. That which won so many is probably the best way to win others. Then people come to know us. We build on that acquaintance rather than introduce a stranger.”

As marketing practices developed, solidifying a brand’s “voice and tone” become essential to its recognition and growth. The proliferation of the internet gave us more exposure to brands and their individual “personalities”.

Just chattin’ with a prospect. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In her book Conversational Design, Erika Hall says that tech brought us back to the types of interactions we had before print existed — interactions that were immediate, socially aware, less formal, and collaborative.

And in Microcopy: The Complete Guide, Kinneret Yifrah says that we avoid trusting interfaces with an inconsistent voice and tone:

“We try to create a coherent picture of the personality communicating with us. If we cannot create such a picture, we become suspicious and feel a sense of rejection.”

Nowadays, every brand has a voice and tone guide that underpins all the words it publishes. Email marketing service MailChimp is often held up as the clearest example of a carefully crafted brand personality.

All this is great. It’s closed the gap between written language — with lexicon and sentence structures that often get in the way of immediate understanding — and spoken language. Which is, like, you know. More natural.

But some have taken it too far.

In their bid to cement their own friendly voice and tone, they’ve overcompensated. They sound less like “your mate”, and more like David Brent.

These companies forget that having a “personality” isn’t always considered positive. Ever called someone “a character”? Did you really mean that as a compliment?

These characters want to be your pals. They pop up on your mobile. They wave at you from the other side of the bus window. They turn up unannounced in your kitchen when all you want is to make a cheese toastie.

Let’s slice them open and take a closer look at what makes them so irritating.

They’re cheesy

Apparently, any company with “monkey” in the name has to sound cutesy by law. PicMonkey, an online photo editor, is no exception. Here are some messages that used to appear when you logged in to your account.

Hi you! Sign in like you’ve never signed in before. Type that password with passion and intent!

Hey, friend. Let’s use teamwork today. You make something cool and we’ll be like: Yesss!

Hey, friend. While you were gone we ate those chips you had on your desk. Hope that’s okay.

Fortunately, they’ve since removed the offensive language from their login screen. But these messages still make my guts quiver.

In general the vom-factor comes from the idea that this piece of software is a sort of cheerleader, pumping his or her fist and screaming as you nail the mammoth achievement of typing in your password. Yeeeaaaah!

The voice’s smug overconfidence also makes my toes curl. Who you calling friend, pal? Which leads us to the next point.

They’re presumptuous

This kind of conversational copy has the habit of defining the relationship between the “speaker” and reader, telling them exactly how they feel, what they think, and what their life is like.

Innocent is known for their folksy brand voice, which can be found pretty much anywhere on their drink packaging and labelling.

Like the bottom of this smoothie carton.

There’s no denying this is a great piece of branding. They surprise the consumer with an amusing message in an unexpected place. But it’s still annoying.

Why must I be bored? Why do you, an inanimate piece of packaging, presume to know the motivation behind my eyes landing on this piece of copy?

They do it again on their website.

This kind of “conversation” — in which my answer is anticipated — doesn’t engage me. It does make me think something, but that something involves me sticking my fingers in my eyeballs to avoid reading any more.

They’re condescending

In an attempt to appear interesting, this kind of copy often casts the reader as an excitable, cartoonish toddler who gasps, giggles and drops their jaw at every third word.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Bristol, England with some friends and family. We went to a popular brunch spot, found a table outside, and, bleary-eyed, started scanning the menu.

Here, it’s presumed that I am quite simply beside myself at the thought of avocado in my milkshake, as if they were suggesting a handful of fingernails as an ingredient. Whaaaat?

Ironically, this has the opposite reaction of what they’re asking me to do. I can’t trust them. I definitely can’t trust them to not irritate me.

They’re threatening

Well, not in the usual sense of “threatening”. This type of conversational copy is about as threatening as a Christmas jumper.

But when, as readers, we sense that someone’s trying too hard to sell us something, we shut off any possibility of being persuaded to take action.

Copywriter Nick Usborne puts it like this:

“If you sell too hard, your reader’s amygdala lights up like a Christmas tree. That’s the fight or flight part of the brain. The oldest part. The part that kept us alive at a time when we were on the menu for saber-toothed tigers. When the amygdala lights up, all bets are off. You’re now perceived as a threat.”

Conversational copy avoids the hard sell. But it can still light up that amygdala once it swings too far the other way. Hey, I’m your buddy! It’s so friendly it becomes creepy.

Giffgaff, a UK mobile phone network, sends you a distinctive envelope when you order a SIM card. Instructions are printed on the envelope itself.

There’s no “sell” here, per se — you already bought the SIM card. What they are trying to sell is their brand image. In doing so, they ignore the age-old advice show don’t tell and — in a chummy, chilled out way — make a big spiel about how much they care about trees.

I feel threatened and violated.

Time to kill conversational copy?

Conversational copy is good. It’s much better than the stale language we once blindly persisted with because we were afraid to “dumb things down”. It’s clearer and therefore more useful. It helps us achieve our goals quickly.

Done well, it makes us smile as we move towards our goals. It builds trust. A shared cultural reference here, a small wink there. It’s the kind of detail that makes customers fall in love with brands.

Some companies, however, don’t stop a wink. They start with a wink, then go for the fist bump, high five, loud whoop, backflip, then double over with laughter.

I’m just as guilty. Here’s something I wrote for Typeform, an online tool for making forms and surveys. This message appeared when you tried to delete a question in your typeform that used special features.

Yuck.

The biggest problem here is that the “joke” gets in the way of the meaning, obstructing the user’s path to quick understanding so they can get on with what they need to do. Like a clown squirting water in your face as you try to drive.

Here’s Kinneret Yifrah again:

“Don’t be too clever with the microcopy of frequently performed tasks […] the first time they’ll laugh, but what about the second time? And the third? And the 30th?”

Sorted

That’s a wrap. Like that? Give us a clap. Or not. You probably have better things to do with your time. De-flea the dog. Get that crust off the back of the microwave. Fair enough.

You can even pop us a message. We’ll shoot one back, we swear. Pinky promise. Cross our hearts.

Annoyed yet? We’ll stop. There, see? Sorted.

My chirpy, chatty copy is not delightful. Cover your eyes before you catch it — and stop the spread.

Thanks for reading. There’s more on my website.

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Steve Howe

Steve Howe

Content designer, short fiction dabbler, foreign language flirt. I do words and that at Shopify.