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Big Ideas

Anna Pickard: How to Make Brands Sound Human


In this insightful, funny 99U talk, Slack’s director of brand communications Anna Pickard explains her approach to giving the workplace chat app its voice, endearing it to millions of users. From finding unlikely places (like error messages) to show authenticity, to the significance of naming product features, Anna shows us why words matter in product design, and how to choose your moments to wield them.

About Anna Pickard: Anna Pickard makes up voices for a living, then teaches other people how to use them. As the first writer at Slack and holder of the voice and tone, she’s been in editorial, marketing, product, design, customer experience, brand, and communications. Because who knows where the gravitational center of writing belongs? Anyway. She now works across them all as Head of Brand Communications at Slack, working out how to create a community of practice across a distributed cross-functional writing team, in an industry and a time when people expect brands to deliver a consistent quality and voice … and to sound authentically human while doing it.

Before Slack, Anna worked in education and in games, writing dialog for pigs, trees, and evil prime numbers. Before that, she worked in advertising, where she gave voice to polydactyl cats and “the concept of butter” on social media; in journalism, where she live blogged cultural milestones for the Guardian newspaper. She trained as an actress and holds an MPhil in Dramaturgy, which everyone said could never turn into a successful career. Turns out they were only partially correct.

Full Transcript

Hello, my name’s Anna, I do words, Anna Pickard. I say I do words rather than I’m a writer because I don’t really get to write much anymore, I used to write, I used to write a lot. But now I just think about words and I talk about words. And I push words around, and I think about the story behind the words, and the narrative, and all those things, but I don’t really get to write very much, I do words. And this is also a caveat to say, my slides are terrible. I don’t do pictures. So, you know, just letting you know that.

So, I do words at Slack, I am the Voice and Tone Lady, so that’s what we’re gonna be talking about, voice and tone stuff, hopes that’s okay , it better be okay. But about what it can and can’t do. How it can and can’t make things feel more human, ’cause people put a lot of emphasis on the voice of the moment, to make things feel human and I wanna look at whether that’s actually possible. Because it can’t actually make, a voice can’t make a product human, I’m not a scientist, but I know that.

So, for anyone who needs a primer or ‘primmer’, if you’re American. Voice and tone are two different things, voice about knowing who you are, it’s your internal kind of sense of who you are as a company, your values, your brand, the motivations for why you sound how you sound, it’s the base you build on. And tone is about how you sound in the world. So, modulating that and making sure that you’re talking to your audience and you know who your audience is. Where you’re talking to them, how you’re talking to them: that’s tone. One’s more internal, one’s more external. You can’t do one without the other.

But it’s a really good line of business to be in at the moment, even if I do say so myself. Because, told you. Because it’s this weirdly the situation we’re in right now, the way that we communicate with our technology is this weirdly organic, growing, evolving space. ‘Cause as people get more and more used to talking to their technology in a human voice and hearing back from it in a human voice, they expect the same from every single thing, and it’s not just pieces of hardware like here, Alexas and you have other things, apologies if I’ve just set someone off, Siri? No, okay, um. But, it’s also about in writing, how does that work in writing? People expect that to be more conversational because as we get more and more into messaging and further and further away from the more formal email kind of, and kind of long-form things, it becomes more about the grammar changes and the vocabulary changes, and people start to expect things to be more conversational.

Basically, when I started in this business, which was in about 1953 when I went into this, the whole thing was more like cinema, it was more like, we were talking, and the audience were out there somewhere and we had no feedback, or if we did, it kind of took a long time to get through. And then suddenly moved into an area where it was more like theater, more like this, where I was talking and I could hear some kind of laughter and some kind of heckling and I could see comments and likes and there was some feedback loop, but now, the whole thing is more like immersive theater. It’s more like, we’re all actors and we’re walking among the audience and when we mumble, they can hear us, and when we shout, it’s too loud, and we’re all talking at once. And when they get bored, they walk off, but you know what, that’s alright because all of the other products and services and brands that all of these things are all around them talking, all the time. Like you know, in this point you may never have expected to hear what the voice of your bar of soap was unless it was in an advert before the main feature, but now your bar of soap is responding to you on Twitter. It’s posting cheeky memes at you on Instagram, it’s everywhere.

Everyone is talking all the time. And everyone wants to be human. I did make this myself. Everything is trying to sound human. Everything wants to sound or feel more deeply human or to have human qualities. So how do we do ‘being human’ as a brand? People ask me this literally all the time, “How can I make my product sound human?”

But do you really want to? Is that even possible? Like even if it was possible, do we want to do it? Because, being a human is hard. It shouldn’t be, it should come completely naturally, but it’s hard for us, it’s hard for us as humans, I’m gonna make this go away. But to ask our software to do that, to do that lift, our products to do ‘being human’ on their own that’s an incredibly hard thing to do. And we often, yes, literally fall flat on our faces.

So, this is where I am right now, this is where I’ve come to at this point in my career: I think it’s about choosing your moments. It’s not about making your product into a human, it’s about choosing the moments where we, as humans, can recognize other humans in the world. The moments where we can identify and acknowledge humanity in others, and in doing so, connect. It’s about finding the spaces and the gaps and how you utilize those because, essentially humans want to be seen and they want to be acknowledged and they want to be valued and, working that out is where I’ve come to at this point.

I’m gonna give you a little potted history of where I come from, just so that you can kind of get a sense of where all this is coming out of. And it’s not because I’m massively interesting, it’s because I think we have to acknowledge as creatives in this space that every single thing we’ve done, everything we’ve failed at, or everything that we took as a minor in college, we can probably be using that. And using every single tool in our toolbox to be better at our jobs, to be better at being creative. Because it’s a bit of a Wild West situation right now, where you really can use all of these skills that we didn’t think we could use. So, I’m gonna take you through my story in order to get there, so, we’ll start at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start. Thank you. Some old people, I love it.

So I grew up in the church, which, my dad was a minister, my mom was a liturgist, that will teach you something about how to interpret things for people, how to build an experience for people, how to take different facts and make them into a point for people. I’ve been trained as an actress, I then failed to become an actress because I was too shy. I know, I’m on stage, but try and talk to me afterwards. LOL, no. I then went, I studied dramaturgy, which is the study of scripts and script-writing, where scripts come from, how the stories get told. And how they get perceived by modern audiences or by the audiences at the time.

Then I went into journalism. I failed at being a dramaturg because it’s a really hard career to get into if you’re not independently wealthy. And so I went into journalism which is not a career to get into if you want to be independently wealthy. I live-blogged for a long time that I had to write really fast. And then turned to copywriting, advertising agencies, and games.

And but these things have threads. Two threads, one is that I learned how to engage people. How people want to be engaged, when you can connect with people and when you can’t, what works and what doesn’t. But I also gave things voices. I gave voices to a cat with thumbs, Bertram Thumbcat. I gave voices to numbers, this was a big bad called The Ultimate Crime in a game for fifth graders about math. I wrote all the dialogue, I created the world, I could not do the equations, I’m that kind of cliche. I gave a voice to butter on Twitter in the worst year ever.

And then I moved onto this game which was a massively multi-player online role-playing game called Glitch. And I created a world in which you could talk to the pigs and the chickens and the trees and the rocks and it was a beautiful game, there was no winning, no losing, it was a large sandbox and there was no war and no fighting. And then suddenly it failed. Not only because of that, because people do like war and fighting. But also because it was built on Flash so that was bad. But the people who were making that game, while they were making that game, in order to make the game ’cause it was a distributed company, they had started hacking together a new collaboration tool, something that would allow them to bring all of their people and all of their data and all of their apps into one place. And that thing became Slack.

Has anyone used Slack? Is anyone familiar? Okay good ’cause I’m, that’s good. I’m gonna talk about it a lot. And when I got a call saying, “Do you want to come back and do the same thing you were doing for pigs and chickens and rocks and trees, but for enterprise software?” I was like, “Sure, how different can that be?” Turns out, it’s quite different but it’s also very similar. What you’re doing is you’re taking an inanimate object, you’re taking an ignorable thing and you’re making people want to connect to it, want to interact with it, want to have some kind of affinity with it. So I came in and I took over the Twitter account and all of their release notes and blogs and all that stuff and I started building style guides and I thought that was how I was gonna scale a voice.

And then I realized that to scale a voice, no, I had to put it in people’s hands. You know if you wanna scale a voice fast and a good voice, you have to simplify it as much as possible and get it in people’s hands, and let them take it over. So I do an on-boarding session every week in which I tell people, the culture turned inward creates our product. The culture turned outward creates our brand. It’s very simple, it means that, you know, the way that we use Slack influences the way that we build Slack. And the way that we talk, the way that we communicate, the way that we deal with each other as colleagues, ends up being the way that we deal with the world.

So that’s what I asked them to do, be human with each other. And to be clear and concise, that’s the main thing. So, people think of brands as having this amazing personality, whatever no, we need to be clear and concise first. We don’t want to pack everything with personality ’cause as I said, everyone’s talking at the same time. And when you have a little bit of personality that’s great, it’s like finding a ladybird, a ladybug, out in the wild. But when you have a lot of personality, it’s terrifying. And anyone who has every had an infestation of ladybirds will know this. It’s like, if you’re a bank, it’s okay to have a nice warm tone, but the time you want to use that tone is when you’re saying, “Hey, welcome, we’re glad you’re here. Let’s do this savings thing together.” It’s not the point where you go, “Yikes, you went over your overdraft limit again.” That’s not the kind of personality you want and you need to choose when to use it.

Basically I try and think of it as and the most scientific slide ever, you wanna sit in the middle there, mostly. You want to kind of be clear and concise first of all because there are places and times when you can be bigger. They are few and far between. So I ask people to just stay in the middle to be clear and concise, and human. Human is the third word I do use. But it’s not about pretending to be human or about kind of reeling off a prescribed personality that’s set down in a style guide, it’s about finding the moments when you can connect with people when you can say things, just a simple word sometimes when you can say, “Happy Thursday” at the end of an email. Or when you can say, “I hear you, that’s really grating” in a support ticket or something. Just allow people to kind of see that you are real and you’re not just a bot responding.

Because words are important. Words have never mattered more, I would say that, that’s literally my job. But it’s true. A single word can elevate something or it can change your perception. Even if it’s just your own perception. Our emoji picker is called Emoji Deluxe TM. Is it because it was designated deluxe by some third party? No, is it even trademarked? I don’t know, probably, I hope so, I just said that out loud. I’m gonna go and do that. But why is it there? It’s there because there was a conversation when it was being built, this is the working name we’re gonna build an Emoji Deluxe emoji picker and it was a conversation that happened sometime in 2013, someone said, “I wonder if we could drop the word ‘Deluxe’?” Someone else came back with, “Why? It’s a nice word and it’s good to use a nice word when you have the opportunity.” And, this was backed up by our CEO who said this, I’m gonna try and read it: “When people see emoji in Slack, I want them to think of it as a gift. And what’s in that gift? Holy crap, it’s a ring, and Jesus, look at the diamond on that ring.” “That shit is, I mean it’s really amazing, it’s not just okay, what’s that? It’s, you at the back? That’s right, 100% deluxe, you feel me?”

It’s a word, one in maybe 100,000 people are gonna notice that word, and even if they do, they’re not gonna kind of get that from it but, it said something to the team at the time and it says something to me now, even when I’m working now on things, because that is the intent of the experience, that is what we should be aiming for, that should always be the aim. And it leads to things like the actual interaction that is deluxe which is when you started typing in colon TH, which is how you summon emoji, in order to get a thumb emoji, it would offer you thumbs up rather than thumbs down, by default, that was baked into the product. Because we assume that people want to communicate with positive intent, that’s where we start from. And that kind of thing, that IS deluxe. And that’s what we kind of aim towards and that’s what a word does for us. Because words, the right words, in the right place have never, probably I don’t know kind of historically could be difficult, but have never mattered more. If you choose them with intentionality, with purpose. Because it’s all about context.

In a world where everything is human, or pretending to be human, people increasingly need to feel seen. Every experience has these cadences, these moments of emotional connection. And those are the moments that really count. Those are the moments where people learn to identify with you, because you’re identifying with them. Where they can choose to push you away or hold you closer. Let’s unpack that a little more. How do people connect?

Well, coming back to that theater training ’cause everything is useful, you’re looking for moments of catharsis almost, you’re looking for those moments of heightened emotion. Where people are seeking something or feeling something and they’re getting to a point and then there’s gonna be a falling out where everything just feels more satisfactory. And a good place for us to think about doing this or for me to think about doing this is in moments of play, when people are in that heightened emotional state of play. And they’re up, and there’s one thing you can do on Slack you can add reactions to people’s messages. If you try and personally, on desktop, add more than 23 reactions to a message, you will get an error message that says, “We feel like you’re overreacting.” Thank you. That’s good, but why? Why is it, error messages are a cagey place to put personality, it’s a difficult place to put personality, but we can do that there, because we know that that person is not in a state of work, they are not stressed, they are searching for the 24th emoji to add to a message, and we feel comfortable and confident saying, hey you, we see you, we get what you’re doing, we’re not gonna let you do it, ’cause we have to have some boundaries, but you know, we get you and we appreciate you, and we value that mischievous spirit, we value that curiosity. You can do that on other kinds of error messages you can do that if you have the right kind of moment, this is an error message I think about a lot, it’s not one that people get very much anymore thank God but, I’ll read out the filling what it says, “Apologies, we’re having some trouble with your web socket connection, we’ve seen this problem clear up with a restart of Slack, a suggestion we make to you now only with great regret and self-loathing.”

And this is a thing that you get when you’re in the middle of your work, you’re trying to kind of get something done, suddenly, the one thing you’re depending on to do your work in that moment has fallen out, has said, I’ve fallen down and I can’t get up. And you can do nothing about it, and it’s frustrating, we’ve all had that, with all manner of software. But in this moment, people tended to do a weird thing. They tended to screengrab it, and put it on Twitter and say, “Isn’t this lovely? Isn’t this charming? I feel so happy right now, I love you Slack.” Which is weird. And I didn’t write it, it was written by one of the co-founders but, otherwise I wouldn’t go on about it so much, but, I think it’s because it’s this moment where we’re not only showing empathy, we’re showing a two-way empathy. It becomes a two-way street. It suddenly becomes a moment where people see people. It says, “We recognize your frustration. We apologize for it, and holy forking shirtballs, we feel it.” We feel it because we are frustrated too. Because in this moment, where you’re trying to do your work and the one thing you’re depending on, which is Slack, has just fallen over, and you can do nothing about it, apart from turn it off and on again, which no one ever wants to say. But the thing that we’re depending on, in our moment, in this moment, to do our work, which is to bring Slack to you, which is web sockets, whatever those were, have fallen over, and we can’t do anything about it, and that is frustrating, and in that moment, they start to see people. They start to see people behind the product. They start to see real, broken, imperfect, fallible people who get frustrated, who get ashamed because there’s a problem and they are trying but there’s just some things we can’t do. We see each other in these moments and people seek that out, we want to connect, we want to feel seen. We want to, it’s just a natural human instinct.

Release notes, something we put a lot of love into, I’m just gonna cover them up. Hang on, let me do that, there you go. We put a lot of love into them, a lot of people do, they make ’em hilarious or whatever. We don’t do that, we list everything that’s gone into the release that a user could see, we make them charming enough to read that they want to read to the end, and we put it in basic enough language that any user can read them and get the benefit. But why we do it is more important. And there are lots of reasons actually, I could talk about this alone for like an hour, but it shows courtesy, it shows humility, it shows empathy, but also, we make it nice enough to read because if you are gonna bother to not have automatic updates turned on, to go to the App Store, go to the Play Store, find the app you want to update, click a tiny little arrow that says read more, then you deserve to have something good to read when you get there. You deserve to have something that is worth your time. You are curious, and being curious is good. There is nothing more valuable to me than that. And that deserves to be rewarded every single time and when we can start conversations, we do.

When we have the opportunity to talk to people and have them talk back and say, we are opening a conversation, we want to have this with you. We can say something like, “You look nice today.” We can say something like, “You’re doing a great job.” And we do, we would say on Twitter, “You’re doing a great job”, and a hundred people would reply and say, “Thanks very much, I thought I was too but no one else noticed.” We have no idea, of course we don’t. We have no idea where that comes from. We don’t know what people are doing or whether they’re good at it or let’s face it, whether they look nice today, which you all do by the way. But they, but why do we do that? Why is that something we would do? And I couldn’t get my head around this at first, it was something that Stewart Butterfield obviously he had started doing it before I arrived and he was like, “Tweet nonsense will you? Just tweet words.” Sure, absolutely.

And then I realized that if you spend much time in California, or maybe the rest of the U.S. I’m not sure, probably not though, walking around the neighborhoods, in the middle of the day, someone will say something nice to you like, “That’s a great dress.” Or, “Your hair is magnificent.” Or, “I’m appreciating your look.” Something. And when I first moved to California, from the UK, ’cause I am from the UK, by the way. This freaked me out. We don’t talk to strangers in the street. We certainly don’t say nice things. Were they trying to like, hit on me? Were they trying to mug me? Was it some weird combination of the two? And then I realized that, no, they were saying something because I was wearing a nice dress. I just had my hair dyed, I had committed to a look and I was working it, and they wanted to recognize that, they wanted to say I am a human recognizing another human in the wild. I appreciate you, I see you.

And there was no expectation of continued reciprocity or a continued relationship, it was just that, that was it, and that’s something that I do also mention in this on-boarding session every week because those are moments we can put into our culture that end up being part of our voice. Just messaging someone and saying, “Thank you for saying that thing in that meeting, I wanted to say the same thing, but you said it better than I could have done.” Those sorts of things.

So yes, it’s about being human, but it’s about choosing the moments in which you can be human. And choosing the right words, because words are powerful. But we have to do the work to make sure that when we’re using them, they have the most power they can, and that means meeting people where they are. Sometimes we don’t have to talk at all, often we don’t have to talk at all, but when we do, we go to them, and we allow them to feel seen and heard and acknowledged and included. And then we know when to stop. And that’s the magic. Because we can’t all be magical all the time, we have to choose our moments. So, thank you very much.

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