An Event Apart: Content for Sensitive Situations

by August 25, 2014

At An Event Apart in Chicago IL 2014 Kate Kiefer Lee talked over writing content for legal, help, error, and other forms of sensitive content. Here's my notes from her talk on Touchy Subjects: Creating Content for Sensitive Situations:

  • When face to face, we get immediate feedback from people because we can see them and understand their feelings. That's empathy and its often missing in our online content.
  • We need to take the empathy we already use everyday and translate that to our online software.
  • There are a lot of topics that are sensitive by nature: health, medicine, money, religion, politic, fundraising, private information.
  • Urgent messages: we need to tell people bad news quickly. Errors, downtime, warnings, rejections, and apologies are all examples of urgent messages that are time-sensitive.
  • Not all touchy subjects are urgent. Think 311 vs. 911: help documents, customer service emails, forms, contact pages, legal policies, etc.
  • Make a list of all your content types. Pull out any you think are urgent, bad news, or touchy subjects. Then map them to people's emotions.
  • People have all kinds of feelings when interacting with your content. When someone's needs are being met they may feel very different then when their needs are not being met. How can you meet people's needs?
  • Match your reader's feelings to the tone you use in your content. Examples: error messages map to frustration and need gentle, calm, and serious messages. In help documents, we want to be helpful and friendly.
  • Put yourself in people's shoes to decide how to write your content for them. We're not writing for writings sake, we're communicators trying to help people to do certain things.


  • Be clear: all content needs to be concise and focused.
  • Get to the point: don't try to soften bad news, just get it out.
  • Stay calm: don't use exclamation points or all caps.
  • Be serious: you don't need to funny all the time.
  • Accept responsibility.
  • Be nice: you don't always have to be interesting or clever, but you can always be nice.
  • When you adopt these principles, you help people become more effective, reduce customer service issues, and improve word-of-mouth marketing.
  • Read all your messages out loud. This helps you catch errors and typos, improves flow and makes you sound human. It also makes you more empathetic and naturally puts you in a conversational frame of mind.

Content Types

  • Errors: we want to be gentle, calm, direct, and serious. Example: "We regret to inform you that we are unable to process your request as your credit card has expired." Instead try: "Your credit card has expired. Please try another card."
  • Say exactly what you mean and say it nicely.
  • Customer Service: make sure you are not being repetitive. Treat people like people. They are stressed out, frustrated, or confused. Don't repeat canned messages.
  • Help documents: people may be there trouble-shooting. Don't let your personality get in the way. Use extremely specific titles. Titles are very important in help documents -they help guide people to what they need.
  • After clarity, consistency is the most important thing in help documents. Keep your interface terms consistent in your service and your help.
  • Feedback/Contact content: there's not a lot of room for personality here. What works on a product page is less likely to work on a contact page. Reduce the amount of information you collect up front. You can always collect more later with follow-on questions.
  • Don't keep your voice and tone the same across different content types. Adapt to different situations appropriately.
  • Unsubscribe pages: people may be annoyed or frustrated. Validate their feelings and offer a solution (less email).
  • Social media: people are interested and curious but still need to be courteous, sensitive, and direct. Often times, you should listen more than you talk on social media.
  • Don't become delusional about your importance online. There's many times you're better off not saying anything.
  • Legal policies: people may be confused, and apprehensive. Be calm, through, and clear. You don't want to look like you are hiding something.
  • Terms of service can include summaries to help people understand the big picture. But people are agreeing to the full terms. Work on making all your text working.
  • Editorially and Automatic make their legal and terms of service freely available to others to reuse and update.
  • Apologies: when you apologize you need to own it. Show you understand the seriousness of your issue. Don't say "our apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused." Take responsibility. Be specific about what you did wrong and say what you'll do to prevent it in the future.
  • When we are in a hurry, sometimes we forget to be nice. Create some templates of possible content types before you need them. Know who needs to sign-off so you can apologize quickly. Create an emergency contact list of who needs to be involved when sensitive situations arise.

Teach These Concepts

  • We're all content people. The more people on your team know about how to manage sensitive content, the more cohesive your messaging will be.
  • A voice and tone guide can be a resource for your team members. Give them the tools they need. Example from Mailchimp: Voice & Tone Guide.
  • Focus on making a communication guide not a style & grammar guide.
  • When we're talking about content we often focus too much on us and what we want to say. Our goal is not for people to compliment our content, its for people to get things done quickly and easily.