Long before the Egyptians put reed to papyrus some 3,500 years ago, we developed speech, what then might have been simple sounds evolved into words, and words combined to form language capable of conveying ideas and even stories. The fact that we established such complex forms of discourse is the defining factor in the success of the human race, in fact there is no creature in the known universe that is able to communicate to us with such complexity and emotion, so much so that some ancient stories that would have started out only as spoken word, have truly stood the test of time and are popularised today.
So why, if we are capable of such powerful and emotive language, have we come to combine such a bland concoction of words for our now primary tool of communicating one another, the web?
There’s various explanations as to why we’re faced with bad content, such as a failure to assign the job to a skilled person, but regardless of who writes the content, the big issue is the web itself, or at least our mindset when thinking about the web. When writing for websites it is hard to look beyond the computer, as we stare at the beginnings of our website or even a blank page in our word processors, it stares back at us with all its emotionless glassy exterior and we lose sight of the humans that we aim to connect with. Like us, our audience are capable of a multitude of emotions. Sadly, instead of taking advantage of this, it is all too easy to slip into autopilot, churning out content as good as robot-speak with no consideration for humans.
To provide more context I made a quick example.
Nothing groundbreaking here, all I’ve done is turned off the boring text autopilot, and thought about how I can make the text a little more human. To start with, real humans couldn’t care less about “more information”, so instead I’ve opted for “Know your Maki from your Nigiri”. To the audience, in this example a Sushi newbie, I’ve thrown in some exotic words to get them all excited about the prospect of one day being fluent with them, I’ve also changed the ever so robotic “download our PDF” to “our handy guide”, now it is much more human, since humans have hands and all that.
This example shows that a few choice words are able liven up some text and create a tiny feeling of anticipation and excitement within the humans we’re trying to connect with. Now that we’ve come to understand and work towards content that speaks from one human to another, there is another obstacle in our way, Fear.
Self doubt and a lack of confidence is also another reason we fail to enliven our content with human friendly qualities, especially when trying to infuse comedy into our writing. ‘What if people don’t get this?’ is the biggest worry, but rather the question should be, ‘what if one person gets this?’ because if one person finds delight in the witty writing, then chances are others will do too. Much better to have one in ten people feel delight from your content than an entire audience feel nothing.
MailChimp provides an excellent example of this type of risk based comedy. In Aaron Walter’s book Designing for Emotion he describes how Mailchimp use their ever-so-delightful mascot, Freddie the chimp, to bring them much success. Amongst many other things, Freddie the chimp will occasionally say, “Looking good today, have you had a hair cut?” chances are I haven’t, and Freddie the loveable chimp is going to look a little silly. But, on the off-chance that he is right, magical things happen. Emotions of doubt and elation ensue as I am perplexed at how this little digital chimp could know such a thing, and for that great moment of delight, Mailchimp gets a big win for their risk, all the more so if I’m driven to share my experience with others.
By turning off the robot-like autopilot and engaging our fun side, along with taking risks and being more confident, we can start to create human-friendly content. If our over-worked, unskilled content creator isn’t doing it, it is we that must take control and humanise our web, because behind all the copper wires, aluminium unibodies, gorilla glass and plastic backlit keys, it really is just humans talking to humans.