Words are hard

Building a style guide at Slack (and thinking about how we all communicate at work)

Words are Hard her image
Image Credit: Alice Lee

“Words?” We say calmingly to each other in channels at SlackHQ: “Words are hard.”

And so they are. We spend all day every day typing. Blog posts, tweets, typing messages to big public channels and typing messages in private conversations. And getting the right words every time? Hard. Making sure that people understand your intention and your tone, particularly? Also hard, dang it! So we’re trying to make it easier.

We are Slack. “You look nice” isn’t just a loading message. When we test integrations, or code, we actually send messages that say, “You look nice.” The cadences of the release notes, and of our Twitter account, or error messages, or support tickets are the same cadences you’d hear if you spoke to us in person.

The voice of the company sounds like us. And so it should—we’re talking, human to human. Because, after all, the company turned inward creates the culture that makes the product. And creating our “brand” is merely a matter of turning that culture outward to speak to the outside world.

Two years ago we started keeping track of the Slack voice — the words we use, the words we don’t—and shaping our notes into a guide to help the rapidly expanding company speak in a consistent, human voice. But the number of hands on keyboards here is growing fast, and it’s important to keep people focused on not only how, but why we sound like we sound.

Plan is: We’re building our style guide from an internal artifact into an external resource that can help empower people working and communicating in all kinds of disciplines.

This is the first in a series in which we hope to start a wider conversation about things like:

  • How to build a living, breathing style guide that empowers and supports your culture
  • How to build an internal voice that translates naturally into your external voice
  • How to integrate a voice across brand, product, and support channels, because to the customer, it should feel like the same person is talking to them across each
  • Why communicating with courtesy, clarity, and in a more human way matters to people in work generally

At the end, we’ll publish the guide and the resources around it — and a view into the making of it. Both, hopefully, will be useful to someone.

So to start off, 10 things. Ten things we as a writing team are thinking about as we start to write about the way we think about writing. (Heavens, but that was a terrible sentence. Sorry. Good thing we’re creating a style guide.)


Ten things (in no particular order) that we think about when we think about words

  1. Words are powerful. You have it in you to empower, educate, and delight with your choices. You also have the power to exclude, alienate and confuse. Be conscious of your words. (And aim to do the first set of things. Not the second. Obviously.)
  2. Words are hard. But not that hard. We all write, every day. Which is good, because like any skill, writing requires practice. We can help make each other better.
  3. Meet people where they are. Keep your tone appropriate for your message, and your words respectful to your reader. Be empathetic, and do not overstep boundaries.
  4. Do the work. Don’t write everything that comes into your head, expecting everyone else to dig your point out of it. Read everything over several times (and wonder out loud if you can’t get it down by 40%. Or 70%, for that matter) before pressing send.
  5. Editing makes everything better, and should be done in a way that makes people better writers. If you’re editing someone else’s work, do it transparently, and explain the reasons behind decisions. If you are a writer, drop your ego, and allow yourself to be edited.
  6. Use emoji. But only as frosting, never as food. The right combination of words is worth a thousand emoji.
  7. Make sense. Don’t futz about wondering if an infinitive has been horrifyingly split, whether you need a serial comma, a contraction or [something else]. Being understood is better than being absolutely correct. Damn those pedants.
  8. Don’t let making sense stop you finding joy in words. On the contrary, let them feel as good when they’re tapped out from the tips of your finger-tongues as they sound as they’re rolled around in the brain-ears of your eyes. Write words you want to read out loud. We can help.
  9. If you work for Slack, you ARE the Slack voice. You’re not doing an “impression” of the Slack voice when you write things here. You bring yourself, your experience and your skill, and write with shared characteristics and values. Empathy. Courtesy. Playfulness, Craftsmanship. Find the joy in words. Own them.
  10. We have character, and character is good, but the moment that we let character overwhelm the content, the game is lost.
  11. Surpass expectations. Do what is expected of you, but then give a little extra.
  12. Know when to stop.

We’ll break out different parts of this list in periodic posts — as well as share more thinking about how we can communicate more effectively and courteously in a monthly series. We’d love to get your thoughts and questions along the way.

But in the meantime… know when to stop. Right?

Anna Pickard mangles grammar at Slack.

About Slack

Slack has transformed business communication. It's the leading channel-based messaging platform, used by millions to align their teams, unify their systems, and drive their businesses forward. Only Slack offers a secure, enterprise-grade environment that can scale with the largest companies in the world. It is a new layer of the business technology stack where people can work together more effectively, connect all their other software tools and services, and find the information they need to do their best work. Slack is where work happens.