Write with a conversational and official voice
Give reliable information with confidence.
Why this is important
To be effective, government websites must inspire trust. The way to do this is to be a source of truth and speak to the reader comfortably and confidently.
Government interactions have a reputation for being difficult. Many people bring this idea with them to their digital interactions with the State. To serve Californians, we must overcome this perception by writing in a way that better connects with the people we serve. Use empathy and compassion to understand the experiences of Californians and the challenges they face.
Many web experiences now use a conversational tone. People have come to expect this tone in their digital interactions. When a government website uses a conversational tone, people feel comfortable because this tone is familiar.
How to do this in your writing
A conversational tone and an official one can seem like they’re opposites of each other, but they work together well. Your content sounds official when you state facts clearly and confidently without modifiers or qualifiers. Your content is conversational when it’s in plain language that’s familiar to people and uses conventions similar to how people speak.
How to sound conversational
- Read your writing out loud to hear how it sounds. This is especially helpful when you’ve done several rounds of edits.
- When speaking the text aloud, take a breath at each period and a pause at each comma.
- Approach writing like you’re helping a friend with a task. Be supportive without being superior.
- Think about how much work someone would have to do to retell this information. This reveals content that is complicated.
- Break ideas into small chunks for readers to help them understand.
- Use common contractions like you’ll, it’s, and we’ll.
- Do not use uncommon contractions like this’ll, y’all, and ain’t.
- Refer to people as you, and the government or department as we, as long as it’s clear who we refers to. This lowers the feeling of a divide between people and the State.
- For example: If you need benefits, apply by May 23, 2021. Do not say The benefits application deadline is May 23, 2021.
- Do not use me or my. It’s unclear if it refers to the reader or the writer.
- Use transition words where it makes sense. Start sentences with And or But to show the relationship between pieces of information.
- Example (courtesy of Plainlanguage.gov): A topic sentence may provide a transition from one paragraph to another. But a transition word or phrase (usually in the topic sentence) clearly tells the audience whether the paragraph expands on the paragraph before, contrasts with it, or takes a completely different direction.
- Vary the lengths of your sentences and paragraphs. This makes your writing sound natural.
- Avoid jargon or unfamiliar terms. If you must use them, do so sparingly, and define them for the reader.
How to sound official
- Use active voice. It helps content sound official because it’s confident and direct.
- Use qualifying language like approximately, around, about, or like only when necessary. We use these words naturally when speaking to sound more accommodating, but people expect solid answers from the State.
- Be honest when the State does not have a definitive answer.
Finding the balance
This example is too official, which can be hard to understand and confusing:
It is required that all people seeking to apply must do so prior to the deadline set by law of September 30. No applications shall be accepted after this date.
This example is too informal, so readers may not trust it as a source of truth:
Listen up: you’ve got to get your application in before the end of the month. Don’t wait! Do it ASAP.
This example strikes the right balance between being conversational and official:
Apply between August 1 and September 30.
Check your writing against these traits to make sure it’s conversational and official.
|Be||Do not be|
|A source of truth||A source of opinions|
|Welcoming to everyone||Overbearing|
|Official||Cold or distant|
|Sensitive toward others||Patronizing, pretending that you know everything about them|
Use a style guide for consistency
Style guides help you be consistent across your content. They standardize the way to write punctuation, dates, numbers, and other elements. Adopt an existing style guide if you often have questions about how to write something.
If you want to adopt a style, but do not know how to choose one, Associated Press (AP) Style is a good choice.