Nicole Fenton is a guest on the Happy Monday Podcast with Josh Long and Sarah Parmenter. Nicole designs with words. She is excellent communicator working with companies from Apple to Facebook. The trio talks her book, Nicely Said, co-authored with Kate Kiefer Lee and other philosophies behind writing. Listen to the full conversation here.
Starting from the bottom
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was very young. I have an English degree and kind of come from a nerdy, technology family.
Both of my parents met in a engineering test lab. So there is a little bit of technical expertise in my family.
I didn’t want to to advertising writing. I wasn’t going to go into a marketing masters or anything after I got my English degree.
So I thought about which company I wanted to work for no matter what I would be writing and I decided to try to work at Apple.
At that time, they weren’t really hiring writers off the street. Unless if you had a lot of experience.
So I applied to work at the call center. And started at the bottom and answered phones and emails. Eventually, kind of worked my way up to basically running the content side of the website for the organization I was working in, which was the online store.
I just started at the bottom. Which would be something I recommend to anyone who’s not sure how to get started.
Kate and I really wanted to write the book we wish we had when we started our work.
I kind of think of it as not a manual or workbook. Some writing books are very high level and inspirational. We tried to go somewhere in between those two things of this is how you write and writing is the best thing in the universe.
The things you will learn from this book are actually how to do the work of owning your communications. And communicating clearly and kindly. Sticking to your true voice.
Kate and I both really care about voice and tone, and showing empathy to the reader. Lately, I’ve been talking about it as turning your chair or swiveling your chair and actually talking to the people your talking to instead of at them. Which is what a lot of companies do.
They [companies] talk a lot about themselves. And they don’t really think of their customers first.
So those are the kinds of things we tried to focus on. And we do go through practical - what is the research you do, how do you make a creative brief or a project brief, how do you actually do the writing itself, taking out the passive voice where it doesn’t work or cutting jargon. Those kind of line level designs.
But then also go through all the content types that most web writers or designers or CEOs or bloggers would need to be thinking about.
We also cover how to make a style guide, which I think a lot of people are interested in, but aren’t sure how to start.
Just dealing with the editing process in a large or small organization. Where you have everyone invested in the content, but nobody seems to know how to make it work.
The Problems with Writing on the Web
Sometimes companies know what they want to say, but they don’t know how to say it. They talk about themselves or they just don’t think in terms of the user.
And this is such a design drum that we beat every day. Think about the user. What are they trying to do? Where do they come from? What might they be feeling?
Time and time again companies have a plan about what they want to say, but I think because of silos or stress or short-deadlines or unreasonable deadlines, it’s often let’s throw something at the wall and see if it sticks.
And that’s not really the way to make good content.
How We’re Taught to Write
Honestly, clients come to me saying they don’t want to do that. But they find themselves doing it. Because they don’t know how to do the other thing, which is the right thing.
Whatever that might be for their readers. So then you get people saying “we’re the industry leading, blah, blah.” It’s just meaningless crap honestly.
My job is to teach them how to talk about themselves in a way that isn’t alienating to their customers. And also work towards their goals.
It’s not super complicated. But if you don’t know how to do it and you’re trained in as a MBA - I don’t know. The way we’re taught to write in college is not the way the business world works.
It’s a big gap.
Show Your Human Side
That’s what Kate and I are always trying to advocate. Be you. Show your human side. That’s what people want to see and identify with.
They don’t want this monolithic wall to talk to like airlines and DMVs or banks. Nobody wants that.
I think that showing your errors and admitting to them, a good apology can take your customers from liking you or being skeptical to being very loyal and passionate about what you’re doing.
It’s really funny common sense from the customer service ops world. That we’re trying to bring to the web.
Show your customers you care. Don’t give them a blanket apology. Or I apologize for the frustration you may of felt.
It’s that dismissive, we’re not taking responsibility because our lawyers are choking us kind of thing. That just doesn’t work for people.
Good Examples of Writing
We have a lot of good examples in the book. What Pinterest is doing, and Kate loves this company called Quinn Popcorn. They’re a small family that makes popcorn and their doing great stuff. Just the way they put these touches on product.
I really like Harvest, which is an invoicing software service. But they have very clear help documentation. And there interface is very clear.
So as someone who uses their service, I enjoy paying for it. And they don’t annoy me with emails that I don’t need. They know their place in my life, which is I am paying you to hold my hours and my invoices for my clients.
Etsy is doing a really good job with broader storytelling work. Instead of talking about themselves so much, they show the work of the people that use Etsy and sell on Etsy.
Which I think is the right way to promote yourself. It’s to show how you’re helping other people and the cool stuff they’re doing.
We Need More Writers
I think they’re is a little bit of a stigma around the stuff that I do. People think help center documentation or error messages or interface labels - that’s not sexy right?
But honestly I really enjoy making things clear for people. And I think that is a skill a lot of people don’t have.
I think we need a lot more writers. I can not find enough web writers these days to refer work to.
There is a huge gap between where we are and how good it could be if more people were working on content.
I read a lot of things in connected fields. I like to read about design and writing and editing - I don’t just stick to the books that say “for the web” on them.
A few books that have made an impression on me. Everybody loves Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you haven’t read that, it’s an amazing book about writing.
My friend Tiffany Jones Brown at Pinterest introduced me to this book called Writing Down the Bones. If you have any interest in Buddhist philosophy, like I do, it’s a very interesting book. But it’s also just a great writing book.
One more writing book I love is called Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg (by a guy’s name I can’t say correctly).
I always love the A Book Apart series. I can’t plug them enough. All of those are great honestly.
There is a book by Kio Stark called Don’t Go Back to School. So if you want to teach yourself something, anything, that is an amazing book.
Do yourself a favor and read Nicely Said too.