Monday, November 28, 2011

Technical Writing and the Corporate Voice

A good portion of a company's image can be defined without a single word, or with very few words. Think of ads (Apple's for example), trademarks (Nike's "just do it"), a website's design, a product's packaging, etc. These visuals showcase not only the company's products, but many aspects of the company's identity (or at least the public side of its identity) in a strong and very identifiable way. However, if much can be conveyed without words, every word a company publishes, whether in print or on the web, also has an impact on its image. Matthew Stibbe wrote a great article on the subject in his blog Bad Language, in which he writes that
"Finding a corporate voice and using it consistently adds weight and distinctiveness to a brand. Good writing enhances a brand in different ways. It can reinforce the reader's idea of what the brand stands for."
The examples Stibbe uses, from Google's "I'm feeling lucky" to Amazon's cues that reassure buyers and incite them to click that final "place order" button, are all direct (and short) messages sent to the end user. But can the unique voice of a company also transpire in its most technical documents? How does a 100+ page user's manual differ from one company to the next? And is it identifiable to the company past the logo on the front page? In other words, does the document use the corporate voice? Technical writers follow so many rules, dictated by widely-distributed style guides and other manuals, and are so constrained by the technical nature of their documents' content, that they don't seem to have much legroom for branding. Needless to say, however, that a few minutes of research will prove just the opposite. 

Take a look at these (randomly chosen) smartphone user guides, for example.
The visual design (layout, colors, fonts, etc.) of these publications sets the tone. But look at the choice of information architecture. What information comes first? Is it an overview of the phone, a series of obscure commands, or several pages of legal material? What other topics are covered in the document? How are they organized? Is the emphasis on the phone's hardware or its applications? Compare the choices of words (in particular those that have an impact on the reader's emotions, such as "important," "troubleshooting," "warning," "not," "cannot," etc., or, on the opposite, "you can"). Compare the use of graphics and tables. These guides are very different from one another, aren't they?

Defining a corporate voice and maintaining a uniform voice across a myriad of technical publications takes a lot of effort and coordination at all levels of a company. A few tools that help: corporate style guides, document templates, unified outlines, clear objectives... and good communication between Marcom, Tech Pubs, and other departments.