/Tone of Voice

Tone of Voice


Hello! 👋

Welcome to Monzo’s tone of voice guide.

This is a (fairly) brief overview of how we write. It’s for everyone
in every team, and it applies to all the writing we do, inside and out.

We’ve opened this up to the world as well (hello world! 🌍), because
we want to be held up to the lofty standards we set ourselves here. We
believe in everything we’ve said, so if you see us falling short then
please let us know.


Every word matters 📖

The words we put on screen and paper are one of the most important ways we
have of showing people what we stand for. Not just our marketing, but all
our terms and conditions, every chat with us, all the nooks and crannies in
our app, and how we communicate with each other on the inside. Every word
adds up to people’s perception of who we are.

And if the way we communicate confuses, frustrates or scares them, we can
lose their hard-earned trust in seconds. It’s especially important
when we’re dealing with sensitive subjects, difficult topics or
technical stuff. Those are the moments of truth when people will decide if
we’re really transparent, and if we really have their best interests
at heart.

So every word matters. Every word is a chance for us to make a connection
with someone, go beyond what they’d expect from a bank and brighten
their day. (If that sounds unrealistic, check out some of the customer
feedback we get to see the difference we make when we get it right.)

This isn’t a set of rules 📜

Good writing is empathetic. Thinking carefully about the people you’re
writing to, and understanding how they feel and what they need from us,
shouldn’t feel like a tick-box exercise – it should be something you
put thought into every time. So if you’ve got a really good reason to
veer off the path we’ve put here, go for it.

Plus, we don’t want everyone to write like a bunch of drones. Monzo
writing should have a family feel, like you can tell it’s come from
people with the same values, but it shouldn’t feel like one person.
Because it’s not, and that’s a bit weird.

You’re here because you’re smart, caring, thoughtful people. We
trust you to do the right thing to help our users (and each other).

If you see a gap, tell us about it 🔍

Things change pretty fast around here. If there’s a topic we need to
cover, or an example that needs updating, talk to
Harry Ashbridge.


We use the language our audience uses, and make technical stuff as clear
as we can

Illustration of two people giving each other a thumbs up

We’re ambitious, positive and always focused on what matters to
people

Illustration of two people high fiving

We’re transparent about what we’re doing and why, and we
don’t hide behind ambiguity

We’re open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone

Illustration of four people hugging and smiling


Illustration of two people giving each other a thumbs up

We use the language our audience uses, and make technical stuff as clear as
we can

Swap formal words for normal ones

We’re friendly people, and we don’t want to come across like a
cold, faceless organisation. So use the kind of language you’d use if
you were talking with the person you’re writing to, and avoid
business-speak.

The best test for this is to read what you’ve written out loud. Does
it sound like the kind of thing you’d actually say? If not, some of
the words below might be the culprit.

Would you say… Or…
Assistance Help
Commence Start
Enable Let
Ensure Make sure
Further More
However But

(A quick aside on the whole ‘but’ thing: it’s
totally fine to start a sentence with the word but. Or the words
and, so and because. There’s never been a rule against it,
and no grammar guide will tell you you can’t. Plus we do it
all the time when we talk, so doing it makes our writing feel more
natural.)

In order to To
Obtain Get
Provide Give
Query Question
Request Ask
Require Need
Resolve Fix
Therefore So
Utilise Use

Real life example

Hello , thanks for your message!

You don’t need to opt out. The basis of open banking is that you can
choose which services you opt in to.

In other words, you need to give explicit permission to those services to
access your data, otherwise they can’t.

You can find out more about how we use your data in our
Privacy Notice 👍

A brief history of ‘professional’ English

The Romans arrived in Britain a couple of thousand years ago, and brought
Latin with them. Local tribal leaders had to learn Latin, or else. So they
did, and Latin became the language of religion and administration —
which is why the words ‘religion’ and
‘administration’ come from Latin.

Even after the Romans left, that Latin stuck around. The top of society
used it as a way to separate themselves from the common folk who
couldn’t understand it. It was a way of saying: ‘We know
something you don’t.’

Latin seeped into the foundations of legal writing (there’s still a
lot of it there today). And legal writing became the basis of all business
writing, because writing was time-consuming and difficult at first, and
you only bothered to write something down if it was important — like
a contract.

So what we traditionally think of as professional language is essentially
words that have a Latin root. Words we’d almost never say out loud,
but which we write when we’re trying to sound business-like.

And what we’re unconsciously doing is perpetuating that idea that
‘we know something you don’t’. But rather than making us
sound smarter or more ‘professional’, it makes us sound cold
and distant.

Use more verbs and fewer nouns

When we’re writing, we tend to swap out verbs for nouns. That’s because
nouns are seen as fancier and more professional. Verbs are action or doing
words, like ‘decide’ or ‘analyse’. And nouns are naming words, like
‘decision’ or ‘analysis’.

There are several types of nouns

But the two main types are common nouns and proper nouns.

Common nouns name people, places and things, like ‘town’ or ‘boy’. We
don’t capitalise them unless they start a sentence. Proper nouns are the
names of specific people, places and things, like ‘England’ or ‘William
Shakespeare’. And we should always capitalise them.

We naturally use more verbs than nouns when we talk, because language is all
about doing things. So we should do that when we write as well. See how it
makes our writing shorter, too?

Would you say… Or…
We made a decision to We decided to
We conducted an analysis of We analysed
We provide help to customers We help customers

Speak your audience’s language

The psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has an idea called ‘the
curse of knowledge’.

He says that the more expert you are in something technical, and the more
you’re surrounded by experts in the same thing, the harder it is to
bridge the gap to what non-expert people can understand. You know it inside
out, so you assume too much knowledge on behalf of other people.
That’s something we can all fall victim to — so watch out!

Keep an eye out for terminology that we use all the time, but which might
not quite be clear to people outside Monzo (or even new people just starting
out here).

When we say ‘terminal’ do we mean ‘card machine’?
When we say ‘funds’ do we mean ‘money’? When we say
‘reversal’ do we mean ‘refund’? And if not, do we
explain why?

We can’t get around the fact that sometimes we have to use technical
language, and that some terms have nuanced meanings (like
‘refund’ versus ‘reversal’). But we can always be
precise about exactly what we mean, and help out people who aren’t
familiar with the subject.

Real life example

When you buy something in a shop or take out cash, the merchant asks us to
create an ‘authorisation’, which is when we update your balance in your
app — but the money hasn’t actually moved yet.

In most cases the merchant will then send a follow up message to collect
the money (called a ‘presentment’) based on that
authorisation. This can take up to a week but usually happens within 48
hours. This is when banks have always updated statements, and why it can
take a few days for transactions to appear in traditional bank statements.

Serious isn’t the same as formal

Sometimes we worry that writing clearly and simply can mean we lose
authority, especially when we’re dealing with serious topics.
That’s largely because of how business English has developed, and
it’s just what we’re used to. When companies get serious,
their language gets formal. It’s how you know this is A Big Deal.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Being serious isn’t the
same as being formal. That’s the crucial difference between content
(what we say) and tone (how we say it).

In 2010, US attorney Sean Flammer ran an experiment. He asked 800 circuit
court judges to side with either a traditional ‘legalese’
argument, or one in what he called ‘plain English’.

The judges overwhelmingly preferred the plain English version (66% to
34%), and that preference held no matter their age or background.
Here’s an interesting extract from Flammer’s findings:

The results indicate that the participants found the Legalese passage
to be less persuasive than the Plain English version. The respondents
also believed the Plain English author was more believable, better
educated, and worked for a prestigious law firm.

So it’s not just about credibility. Explaining yourself clearly
makes you look smart, too 💅


Illustration of two people high fiving

We’re ambitious, positive and always focused on what matters to people

Start with what matters to readers

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes when you’re writing; what
are they going to be most interested in? We’re often tempted to
explain why we’ve done something before we tell people what the thing
actually is — especially if it’s bad news or an uncomfortable message.
But if your first question is what does my reader really need to know, then
you can’t go wrong. Are they more interested in the process we took to
decide something, or how that decision affects them? (Hint: it’s
almost always the latter.) That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t
explain our reasons, it just means we should explain what the impact is
first. (And once you’ve decided what your key messages are?
Subheadings are your best friend.)

Stay positive

We believe in our mission, and we should be proud of what we’re doing.
Big up people’s achievements and generally spread the love.

But as much as we want to be the best bank in the world, we don’t want
to get there by putting anyone else down. It’s not the Monzo way to
call out flaws, or to attack what anyone else is doing.

It’s also important to remember that we wouldn’t get anywhere
without the support of the people who trust us to look after their money.
Everything we do is for them, and they deserve a share of the credit
whenever we celebrate our successes.

Sprinkle a little magic dust

Let positivity ring through in your writing. The odd exclamation mark or
confetti emoji is great! 🎉 But if we use them in every other sentence, they
start to feel a bit forced and insincere.

The same goes for superlative words like ‘great’,
‘lovely’ and ‘awesome’. Sprinkled over our words
they brighten everything up. But if we use them all the time, they start to
lose their power. (If everything’s awesome, then is anything really
awesome? 🤔)

Illustration of two Monzo customer support agents

We’re transparent about what we’re doing, and we don’t
hide behind ambiguity

Always be clear about who’s doing what

There’s a funny thing that happens to our writing when we’re
giving bad news, or talking about processes. We slip into what’s
called the ‘passive’ voice, which basically means we don’t
say who’s responsible for something.

Like this:

A decision has been made to close your account

That’s not great for readers for a couple of reasons:

  • Firstly, it looks like we’re avoiding responsibility. We decided to
    do it, so the fair thing is to own that decision. From their point of
    view, we could look a bit shifty otherwise.
  • Second, it’s ambiguous — we haven’t actually said who made
    that decision. Was it us? Was it our regulators? There’s a chance
    someone won’t know, and we’re creating a problem for them that
    doesn’t need to exist.

Here’s the ‘active’ version:

We’ve decided to close your account

(This could also be ‘I’ve decided to close your account’,
depending on the situation. The crucial thing is that we explain who’s
responsible.)

Here are a couple more examples:

Passive: This bug will be fixed in the next update.

Active: We’ll fix this bug in the next update.

Passive: If you make a complaint, it will be escalated to a complaint
specialist.

Active: If you make a complaint, we’ll escalate it to a complaint
specialist.

We use the passive voice partly because we’re unconsciously distancing
ourselves from the message. If we’re closing someone’s account,
that’s not a nice message to give, and we take ourselves out of the
equation.

But that’s not fair for the reader, and what they need should always
come first.

There might be rare occasions where we deliberately don’t want to say
who’s responsible for something, but we usually slip into the passive
by accident — it’s not a conscious decision. So we’re not saying
never use it, but make sure you’ve got a really good reason for using
it if you do.

How monkeys can help you spot the passive 🐵

Add ‘…by monkeys’ to the end of any phrase you think might
be passive. If it still makes sense, then it’s passive! Easy as
that.

  • A decision has been made to close your account …by monkeys
  • This bug will be fixed in the next update …by monkeys
  • If you make a complaint, it will be escalated to a complaint specialist
    …by monkeys

If you try the same thing with the active versions, they don’t make
sense. That’s how you know they’re active.

  • We’ve decided to close your account …by monkeys
  • We’ll fix this bug in the next update … by monkeys
  • If you make a complaint, we’ll escalate it to a complaint
    specialist …by monkeys

None of that makes sense, so these are all active.

Monkeys. Who knew? 🐒

Trust in subheadings, they’re your best friend

We’re a species of skim readers. We’ve got more to read than any
humans in history, on smaller and smaller screens, with less and less time
to do it. So as writers one of our toughest jobs is just to hold
people’s attention.

That’s where subheadings come in 😍

Subheadings give you the gist, fast

Scroll through this guide, and you’ll (hopefully) be able to
understand the big idea in each section just by reading the headings. Then
if you want the detail, you can dig in.

The best headings are more than labels or questions

A heading like ‘Subheadings’ doesn’t tell you anything on
its own. Neither does one like ‘What do I need to know about
subheadings?’ The trick with subheadings is to summarise the essence
of what you’re trying to say in one line, and then save the detail for
the bit below. It’s tricky, but your readers will thank you for the
effort. Even if they only look at the subheadings, they’ll still know
the key stuff.

They work even in short bits of writing

Don’t be afraid of a few subheadings in an email, or a customer
response. It’s pretty unlikely that anyone will say: ‘Sorry,
could you make this longer and more complicated please?’

Behavioural economics alert: subheadings help with ‘fast
thinking’ 👟

Behavioural economist Daniel Kahnemann has a theory called ‘fast and
slow thinking’. And there’s a link to language that fits in
nicely here. In brief:

You can’t help answering a sum like ‘2 + 2’ in your head
because it’s so simple. It promotes fast thinking, which
doesn’t take much effort.

Whereas you probably won’t even try to solve ‘1604 x
7803’ unless you’re a math superstar. Because it looks like
more effort from the outset, it promotes slow thinking and you’re
less likely to engage with it.

How does that link to language?

Big long dense blocks of text make you feel sad inside before you even get
started. They’re the linguistic equivalent of a difficult sum.
(Think how you react to a page of A4 writing without any spaces in it…)

Whereas speeding down a list of short, sharp headings is a breeze, so
you’re more likely to stay engaged and pay attention. Subheadings
(and simple language) promote fast thinking because they make it easy for
readers.

Make bullet points work for you

Our advice on bullet points is pretty simple. Big lists of bullets are no
easier to read than big blocks of text. So they should be:

  • no more than a (short) sentence
  • consistent in style
  • related to each other
  • under 6 per list.

If you find yourself writing marathon lists of bullets, think about whether
you can group them into themes under different subheadings. And if your
bullet starts to stretch into more than one sentence, then you might be
dealing with a paragraph with a dot next to it.

Try to keep your sentences under 20 words

Why? Because we’re all human and we’re all busy. Shorter sentences are
easier for people to scan and quickly get the information they need. Plus,
they’re more accessible for people who struggle with reading or have a
cognitive disability, like dyslexia.

Studies
show that 11-word sentences are considered easy to read, and those of 21
words are fairly difficult.
Research
also shows that when your average sentence length is 14 words, people
understand over 90% of it. But at 43 words, people understand under 10% 🤯

Default to what you’d say out loud

The trick isn’t to sit there counting every word you write. We vary the
length of our sentences when we talk. So you’ll see where you’d naturally
pause or take a breath when you read it out loud. Reflecting that in our
writing makes us sound more human, and helps with rhythm too.


Illustration of four people hugging and smiling

We’re open, inclusive and welcoming to everyone

Be open and inclusive

Monzo is a welcoming community no matter who you are. That means we’re
inclusive in our language too. We can, and should, change our language to be
more inclusive of everyone.

Obviously there’s no place for anything racist, sexist or derogatory,
but it goes beyond that too.

For example, it’s pretty common to address a group of people as
‘guys’, even if there are women in the group — but we think
‘hey folks’, ‘hello everyone’ or ‘hey
y’all’ is more inclusive.

We think about all the different meanings or associations words might have
when we use them. In our technical work we use ‘allowlist’ and ‘blocklist’
instead of ‘whitelist’ and ‘blacklist.’ That’s because of the origin of
these terms, with white being seen as ‘good’ and black being seen as ‘bad.’

We explain ideas as clearly as we can

Colloquial expressions (like ‘ain’t’ and ‘gonna’) and idioms (like ‘the
elephant in the room’) might be harder for people from different cultures,
or people with English as a second language, to understand.

So if there’s a clearer way to explain an idea, that’s what we should use.
And if someone uses a word or phrase you’re not familiar with, it’s best to
ask them to explain! You’ll be helping them learn to be more inclusive in
their communication, and helping any other people reading or listening who
might also be struggling to understand.

As with everything else in this guide, if you’re being thoughtful and
compassionate then you won’t go wrong.

Labels matter more than you think

It might seem pedantic to care about whether we say ‘guys’ or
‘folks’, but how we label things really matters.

Psychologist Lera Boroditsky ran an experiment in 2009 that makes this
point really well.

She told two groups of people that they were in charge of solving the
problem of crime in the fictional city of Addison. The scenarios were
identical in every way except one: she told one group that crime was
‘preying on the city like a beast’, and the other group that
crime was ‘spreading through the city like a virus’.

The group who were given the beast ‘frame’ were much more
likely to propose things like more police and tougher sentencing. The
group with the virus frame were much more likely to suggest social reform
and education.

No matter how she rejigged the experiment, with groups based on
people’s gender, background, age or political persuasion, the beast
and virus frames were the biggest factor in influencing how they
responded.

We’re much more susceptible to this kind of ‘framing’
than we realise. And the labels we choose for things are often signals of
biases we might not know we have. So being more thoughtful about the
terminology we use is a great way to uncover and overcome them, as well as
making sure we don’t accidentally upset or offend anyone.

We love emoji 💌

Emojis set us apart and reflect what we’re like as people: colourful,
friendly and open to new ideas. So feel free to use them, but please bear a
couple of things in mind.

Use emojis to add context, not replace words

Emojis are best when they add a little extra flavour to what we’re
saying. They help clarify what we mean, and let our personality shine
through. (And research suggests they make for more effective communication.)

But not everyone will know what they mean, so please don’t use them to
replace words. We risk confusing people if they pop up in the middle of a
sentence. Some screen readers also struggle with emojis, which means we
might make things tougher for visually impaired people if we’re not
careful.

Think about the situation you’re using them in

Lots of people are using emojis, but they’re still by no means
universal. And they can provoke a strong reaction if we’re not
sensitive to our audience.

The best rule of thumb if you’re speaking directly to someone is to
reflect what they’re doing. If their writing is emoji-tastic, then
feel free to be the same. But if they’re not using any, or if
you’re talking about a particularly sensitive subject or giving bad
news, it might not be the best place for emojis.

If you’re writing something for a more general audience, the same rule
applies: think about how people will feel getting this news, and which
emojis (if any) will help get the right message across.

As with all of these guidelines, use your own judgement. If you’re
always thinking carefully about how people will feel, you’re on the
right track. 👍

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