Writing with Tone at MailChimp: An Interview

Writing with Tone at MailChimp

You’ve wondered how to inject a little personality into your copy… And we’ve talked about writing with tone before (right here).

Now you can learn from one of the masters of voice and tone, Kate Kiefer Lee of MailChimp fame. Cuz I sat her down and picked her brain for 25 minutes! The result is a power-packed discussion you should listen to while you workout, while you’re drafting copy or, well, how ’bout right now?

Here’s what you’ll find in this short audio-only chat:

1:40 – The distinction between voice and tone

3:04 – How Kate describes the MailChimp tone that people love

4:05One technique to instantly get in a conversational frame of mind

6:01 – The business case for working on your copy’s tone

7:55 – Can you simply ‘add’ tone to your copy?

8:12 – Excellent rule of thumb for EXACTLY when to get friendly with your tone

8:27 – Kate gives an example of where the MailChimp tone can be especially lighthearted

8:37Where you should never, ever get heavy-handed with your personality

9:18 – I offer an example of how I’ve seen heavy-handed tone get in the way of UX

10:36Kate tells us how tone at MailChimp can sometimes offend – and what she does when that happens

13:05 – What if writing with personality doesn’t come naturally to you? How can startups write with tone?

14:16 – The best place to start when you’re determining your tone

14:52 – What happens when you’re unsure of what your reader is feeling or thinking? What about the grey areas in user experiences – like writing Help text?

15:23The 1 area where you can almost ALWAYS get friendlier with your tone

15:39 – Questions to ask yourself before you write copy

16:07 – A quick way to break down your messages to know when to get tonal… and when to ease off

16:56 – Does it help to have a mascot, like Freddie the Chimp, if you want to get really playful in your copy?

18:24 – What Freddie is never allowed to say

19:08 – Why do people love Freddie so much?

19:29 – READER QUESTION: “Should I even bother trying to develop a tone of voice?”

21:34 – Where your voice should REALLY come from!

22:26 – The #1 thing startups can learn to do better by paying attention to MailChimp’s copy

23:30 – What Kate loves most about working for MailChimp

Follow Kate on Twitter and tweet your followers to check this out

Get the MailChimp voice-and-tone guide


About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • Nice interview. I’m having an “ah-ha!” moment. I hadn’t really thought about tone & voice like this.

    Talking about stress & writing for baby boomers especially comes together better. I’ve noticed that mindset varies for people who doing the exact same thing. Noticeable in how it varies with age.

    WARNING: Sweeping generalization coming!

    I’ve found that baby boomers have a higher level of stress with computers. It’s subtle but they fear they are going to do something wrong, even with something as simple as filling in form fields. They’ll check & double check. They’ll read instructions. Twice. Three times just in case they might mess up. When something goes wrong, it’s their fault. They even talk about their fear of breaking the computer.

    I started seeing this while doing usability testing for both software and sites. I even spy on people out “in the wild” to see how they use their computers, tablets & phones.

    I’m not a copywriter. I wear assorted hats. In many startups, I’ve done lots of the writing though. Children’s games all the way through sites for baby boomers. My preference is humor, but have fallen flat on my face at times. (I’m a HUGE MailChimp fan.)

    Toning down the humor when the audience skews older has achieved better results. For all sorts of situations. (Older audiences generally think: “oh no, I might break something or mess up.”) And amping it up with younger people has worked (they’re more likely to think: “stooopid computer!”).

    Now I’m more aware of tone & using it smarter. Cool beans, Joanna & Kate!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      That’s fantastic, Annette. You’re so right about how complex technology can seem to newer users, especially those who are conscious of the fact that they are surrounded by power users. If your copy is supposed to help your users (and, in turn, help your business), then it’s not doing its job if it’s confusing people. Thankfully, Kate gave us some great tips on when to inject personality and when to pull back.

      Side note: My sister and I bought my nana an iPad for her 86th birthday this year. She has a computer but doesn’t like using it, so we weren’t sure about the iPad — but she totally adores the touchscreen and uses it like a pro.

  • Amil

    hello, would it be possible to get a transcript of this? I have some colleagues who are hard of hearing and a transcript would be very helpful. Thank you!

  • I heart mailchimp. And learning the distinction between voice and tone was very powerful. Thanks!

    • I also heart MailChimp. Thanks, Gedaly!

      • kimsnyc

        ditto on this. well done, Joanna.

  • Janet – Go Jane News

    Joanna, great interview with Kate from MailChimp. I use MailChimp for my community bulletin board and I must say I’ve taken a page or two out of their playbook in my own copy writing tasks.

    In one instance when something went wrong in the delivery of my board, instead of doing a dry explanation of what happened, I took on a little bit of tone from Homer Simpson (D’Oh!) The issue was totally out of my company’s control and really rested with the various mail service providers and their ever-moving spam walls.

    It humanized the experience, got a chuckle from some of my readers because I tell them a joke every week anyway. And it put my clients at ease too.

    So, these lessons in tone are very valuable and do go a long way in growing your business and building your brand.

    Thank you.

    • Great story, Janet. A little levity can go a long way when you’re communicating with people who rarely (if ever) get to see you as the human — or team of humans 🙂 — you are…

  • The whole Mailchimp experience is a reference for me. Thank you so much for this. I also liked knowing the story of Ben Chestnut, available here:

    • Thanks for sharing! I hadn’t seen that before. Watching now…

  • Enjoyable and informative interview. I really liked the point about when to be fun and when to be serious. I think the hamster thing is from AppSumo 🙂

    • That’s not the one I was thinking of. 🙂 I know the name of the one that bugs me — but I didn’t (and still don’t) want to say it. 🙂

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Sweep 1: The Clarity Sweep
Sweep 2: The Voice + Tone Sweep
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Sweep 6: The Heightened Emotion Sweep
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