Our tone of voice
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.
The Monzo tone in a nutshell
We use the language our audience uses, and make technical stuff as clear as we can
We’re ambitious, positive and always focused on what matters to people
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
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…|
(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|
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 💅
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.
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.