Don’t Poke the Bear: Creating Content for Sensitive Situations

We’re all imperfectly human, and our readers are no exception. They have touchy subjects and insecurities and things they’d rather not talk about—and they bring them all to the table when they interact with our content.

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We tend to show more empathy during face-to-face conversations than in written communication. When we’re getting immediate feedback, we don’t want to offend anyone or make them feel awkward, so we naturally adapt our tone based on the situation. You might use a more casual tone during dinner with your best friend than you would in a meeting with your boss. That sort of tonal code-switching is partly an act of empathy. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate in writing. We can’t see our readers or their reactions, so writing to their comfort level isn’t always instinctual.

We also generally write from our perspectives as experts in our industry. We deliver bad news in a way that protects our interests or shifts blame to our customers. Though we may know everything about our topic, we don’t know everything about our customers. Not even close. They have struggles and insecurities that affect the way they interpret our content and view our brand.

Some topics are especially likely to make them feel uncomfortable or frustrated. These touchy subjects aren’t limited to the obvious offenders like money, religion, and politics. They’re not limited to highly visible crisis-management messages crafted by professional writers, either. They’re common things like:

  • Error messages
  • Warnings
  • System alerts
  • Financial and privacy-related updates
  • Legal agreements

When we’re writing about sensitive situations like these, we have to get inside their skin.

We have to be intentional with our empathy.

Collect yourself#section2

Delivering bad news is hard, but it’s part of life and business. We notify customers when we’re out of a product they want to buy, and we send warnings when people violate our companies’ terms of service. God forbid we have to send a system alert because our database was hacked, affecting every one of our users. But these things happen to the best of us, so if you find yourself the bearer of bad news, here’s what to do:

  • Remain calm.
  • Speak clearly.
  • Be serious.
  • Be nice.

Imagine you’re driving down the interstate, listening to music, windows rolled down. And then you see those blue lights of shame coming up behind you. You pull over, and your heart is racing as the police officer approaches your door. What kind of information do you need in that moment? How do you want to be treated? Chances are, you want to know if you’re getting a ticket right away. Equally important, you want the officer to be nice.

No matter who’s at fault, customers deserve the same respect when they’re receiving bad news. If you have to inform someone you’ve closed her account due to an unpaid balance, don’t start your email with:

Dear valued customer, we have sent you three notices, and we have not received any payment from you since December 2012. We have to take certain actions when customers fail to pay their bills.

Instead, calmly and quickly get to the point:

We had to close your account because your balance is six months past due.

After you explain the situation, try to normalize the customer’s feelings. Even if she did something wrong, you can probably understand how she feels. And at the very least, it shows that there’s a real, live human—and not just a greedy company—behind the late-payment notice.

We understand that you depend on our service, but we can’t let balances go past six months due.

Sometimes we have to go beyond empathy—we have to be moved enough to do something about it. Knowing the next steps can relieve a huge amount of stress for the customer, and turning these situations into learning opportunities builds trust. Offer a solution and extend an olive branch, if you can.

If you’re not ready to pay the full amount but you’d like to get your balance back on track, email us to set up a payment plan. We’d love to keep working with you.

And, of course, humor doesn’t belong in these situations. Even if your company has a playful voice, you don’t need to be funny all the time. Sensitive subjects call for a more serious tone than positive communications, like success messages or welcome emails.

Offer full disclosure#section3

Our customers don’t have access to the same information we do. If something goes wrong that affects them, they have the right to know exactly what happened and why. When delivering bad news, offer as much information as you can.

Airlines send flight delay notifications all the time, by email and inside their apps. They have a lot of information to send to a lot of people every day, so vague canned messages save time and money. Problem is, vague canned messages make people mad—and one too many angry customers leads to a loss of time, money, and trust.

Flight delays are stressful at best, and a notification that says, “ALERT: Flight delayed by 30 minutes or more” can compound someone’s stress. For people who are trying to get to an important event, that kind of message is downright infuriating. Customers deserve to know why the flight was delayed, the rescheduled time, and if there are any other options. Even if you use templates, it’s worth taking the time to create a set of messages that vary based on the situation, or fill in important details before an email goes out.

Full disclosure also helps diffuse everyday problems that could turn ugly. If your website is down, a message that says, “We’re sorry. The site is down” isn’t exactly helpful. Is it down for routine maintenance? Because of a storm? Do you know how long it will take? What are you doing about it? If something goes wrong, reassure your customers before it turns into something bigger.

Legal agreements are common offenders. People are rightfully protective of their personal data, and many of us are on guard from the moment we sit down to read a company’s terms of service or privacy policy. Though it’s a cornerstone of legalese, resist ambiguity. Fight it with clarity! Provide as much information as you can in legal documents, without putting your business at risk.

Editorially’s clear terms of service and privacy policy reflect the team’s love for good writing, and they still meet the company’s legal requirements. When readers completely understand your contract, they relax, because they feel more in control of their own information. So if you use cookies, tell your customers why—it’s usually not as scary as it sounds. And if you’re afraid to fully disclose something, maybe you need to rethink the practice itself. Unclear language is often symptomatic of unclear practices, so make sure you’re solving the right problem.

Prepare for the worst#section4

Sorry, optimists, but we owe it to our users to consider the most disappointing, frustrating, and embarrassing situations we could possibly put them in.

Copywriters are trained to write for the most common outcome. For example, online retailers send credit-card decline messages all the time. Usually, it’s because the card is expired or someone fat-fingered the number. Those customers can just retype the number or use another card. No big deal.

But sometimes, that kind of notification is a big deal. What if someone’s trying to buy something they need or a gift for a family member, and they’re out of cash? The decline message informs them that they’re out of credit, too. Suddenly, every word carries a little more weight.

At MailChimp, we regularly notify people that we shut down their accounts because they sent spam or violated another one of our policies. The first few weeks on the compliance team can be difficult—delivering bad news all day, every day certainly takes some getting used to. But over time, emotional labor sets in, and you deal with enough evil spammers that sending these messages almost gives you a sense of justice.

But “evil spammer meets justice” is just one of many possible scenarios, and we’d be wise not to spend too much energy worrying about the bad seeds. In reality, not everyone who sends spam is trouble—innocent people violate our policies every day, because they don’t know any better.

Maybe a business owner collected business cards in a fishbowl, thinking it was OK to send those people a mass email; maybe a nonprofit has been too busy to send a newsletter lately, and emailing an outdated list caused too many bounces. Worst-case scenario, people could lose their jobs over an account shutdown. That changes things. Over time, our compliance messaging has evolved from harsh warnings to more educational notifications. Instead of sending a short, threatening message that says, “Warning: Terms of Use Violation,” we try to provide links to help documents for people who might not understand why they broke the rules.

We don’t know who’s reading our content. We can’t predict the fallout they’ll face. But we can communicate in a way that maintains their dignity. Before writing a message, take a minute to think about the impact it might have on your readers.

Don’t blame or shame#section5

We’d be naive to think the customer is always right, but it’s best not to assume they’re always wrong. Careless copywriting can expose our readers’ vulnerabilities and make them feel like failures. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown says, “There are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior.” Researchers simply don’t find that shaming creates positive outcomes. We have nothing to gain from making our readers feel guilty, but we’ve got a whole lot to lose.

Blame almost always makes its way into sensitive conversations. Most banks email users when their account balances are low. The message is helpful, because it prevents overdraft fees. But a lot of people feel stressed and embarrassed about low account balances. Since they might already be in a vulnerable place, an insensitive message can turn that stress into shame.

My large bank used to send an email that said “Alert! Your account balance fell below $50.” There are a couple of problems here: first, that “Alert!” makes it seem like a Very Big Deal. It’s like when a family member calls and says, “I need to talk to you about something.” The seconds seem like hours until they finally SPIT IT OUT. Opening with an alarm puts readers on edge before they even get to the message itself.

The email also said the balance “fell” below a certain amount. Although it’s a subtle difference, “fell” is more dramatic than something like “dropped.” All in all, “Alert! Your balance fell…” comes across as scary and stressful. Consider the ways customers could be affected by this email: some people might live paycheck to paycheck, and feel tense every time they have to so much as think about money. This email could upset them. Others think $50 is plenty, thank you very much! The email might make them feel insecure, like maybe they don’t have enough money after all. (Easy for you to say, bank.)

The bank’s intentions were good—a low-balance notification is a nice courtesy and practical business move. It’s the subtle word choices and overall tone that don’t sit right. Losing the exclamation mark and softening the language could change the way the message makes customers feel. Some banks, like Simple, try to reduce customer anxiety by cutting out low-balance notifications altogether. Others let customers decide for themselves whether or not they receive these messages, how often, and how much money constitutes a low balance.

Assuming user error is a slippery slope. When people feel they’re being blamed for something, they become defensive. Instead of trying to understand the message and solve the problem, they focus on clearing their name. And in order to clear their name, they need someone else to blame. Guess who! That vicious cycle diminishes the very trust we work so hard to build with our customers.

Mean it#section6

Compassion doesn’t happen on the surface—you can’t just sprinkle in a little kindness after your content is in place. Creating voice and tone standards paves the way for empathetic content, so you don’t end up scrambling for the right words when times get tough. Voice and tone guidelines should be accessible for writers and non-writers, so people across departments feel empowered to communicate on behalf of the company.

But compassion only works if we’re practicing what we preach. If we can’t treat each other with kindness, our customers don’t stand a chance. Brown calls this concept minding the gap. “We have to pay attention to the space between where we’re actually standing and where we want to be,” she says. “More importantly, we have to practice the values that we’re holding out as important in our culture.” Think about the touchy subjects that exist within your workplace. In Daring Greatly, Brown recommends asking questions like this:

  • Which behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
  • Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  • What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  • What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
  • How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?

I’d add a few questions for web teams:

  • Are critiques productive or stressful?
  • Are teams isolated, or do they communicate about organizational goals?
  • Do employees actually use the product they’re writing about?
  • Do people cheer each other on, or are they competitive?

Whatever your answers, you can bet those patterns come through in your content.

If the behaviors your team is practicing don’t line up with the ones you want to portray, then start by looking inward. Some insensitive content just comes down to oversight, but sometimes, it’s a reflection of the way a team treats each other. Fixing an error message won’t fix your organization, but it could start a larger discussion about culture problems. Walk right into those conversations with coworkers and clients, because a well-adjusted team is one of the best things that can happen to your content.

Approach touchy subjects directly, and if you’re a manager, give your team the freedom to talk openly about them. These conversations don’t have to be uncomfortable for people; in the right setting, they can be positive, focused, and restorative. We need to take care of our own, so they have the strength to take care of our customers.

We’ve all got problems. Our websites are broken, and our communication is too. But our readers don’t expect perfection; they want to know we’re human. That means we have to accept that they’re human, too.

About the Author

Kate Kiefer Lee

Kate Kiefer Lee is a writer and editor at MailChimp. She lives in Atlanta with her giant dog and average-sized husband. Follow her on Twitter at @katekiefer.

6 Reader Comments

  1. You’ve set a great standard for crisis communication: transparency, empathy, and clarity of purpose. This is exactly what all sensitive messages should strive for. Thanks for a great post.

  2. I think some companies do not explain the reason for their mistakes, for fear that people will see them as weak, or that it competition can use that to mock. I think like you, the users do not have to see ourselves as systems that have all worked, but as people who manage systems and sometimes they have unexpected problems.

  3. Terrific article. Thank you!

    I’m not sure I agree with you on the flight-delay example. I’ve found through experience that if the message contains critical information (particularly a call to action), shorter is always better. If it’s longer, it’s more likely to be ignored or set aside to be read later. Of course, consumers want to know the “why” as well as the “what,” but I’ve found that actually providing those details makes the overall message less likely to be read.

    Striking that balance between too much information and too little information is a perpetual challenge for my team when we’re conveying important information.

  4. Paige. if you, thought Aaron`s c0mment is great… last week I bought a new Buick when I got my check for $5047 this last 5 weeks and also 10 grand last munth. without a doubt it is the best-work I have ever done. I actually started five months/ago and practically straight away made myself more than $75 p/h. I follow the details here,, IT OUT

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