“And herein lies the Personalization Paradox… In order to create nimble, reusable pieces of content that can be combined in different ways for different people and different devices, you must standardize everything about the content.” – The Personalization Paradox by Val Swisher & Regina Lynn Preciado (XML Press 2020)

In this iteration of our blog post series based on The Personalization Paradox, we will dive into paragraphs.

A paragraph is a collection of sentences that build on each other to convey information and to express the author’s voice. Readers may not be conscious of it, but they have certain expectations about paragraphs. Here are a few:

  • Each sentence in a paragraph should build on the previous sentence.
  • A paragraph has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • There should be some variety of sentence composition to prevent monotony.

The words you use, the length and styles of your sentences, and how you combine them all come together to put your voice into the content. And your voice is what turns reading into an experience, rather than just a list of sentences.

Paragraphs also provide a visual indicator to readers for where a piece of information begins and ends. The space between paragraphs helps readers skim through a block of content to find the information they want. If you’ve standardized your components well, your readers will know exactly which paragraph to skip down to if they are looking for something really specific.

Why Voice is Important

Voice defines and supports your relationship with your customer.

In a world of personalization at scale, any inconsistencies in voice become very apparent to your customers very quickly.

  • Content with different voices does not flow seamlessly from one paragraph to the next.
  • Content with too much voice interrupts the message and distracts the reader.
  • Content with no voice at all is boring and does not differentiate your content from any other random content your customers encounter online every day.

All Content Needs a Voice

Your enterprise voice is crucial to building your brand, distinguishing your content from your competitors’ content, and developing relationships with your customers. At best, content that strays from your voice standards provides a bit of friction for your customers. At worst, breaking your voice provides an unpleasant experience and drives customers away.

Voice is arguably even more important when what you’re selling is an idea, such as banking services or auto insurance. It’s not that hard to make one shoe or toy look distinctly different from another. But in the case of insurance policies or checking accounts, voice becomes the distinguishing factor for most customers.

How to Standardize Paragraphs

The goal of standardizing paragraphs is not to make every paragraph read exactly the same. The goal is to ensure that every paragraph can flow easily with whatever paragraphs come before and after it, whether those paragraphs are part of the same component or housed in an entirely different component being reused in the customer experience.

The steps to standardizing paragraphs include:

  1. Define tone of voice
  2. Define reading level
  3. Define paragraph parameters
  4. Configure software or update style guide

1.    Define Tone of Voice

Standards for tone of voice define how much or how little “voice” to include in the paragraph. It does not take much voice for a paragraph to become overloaded. Too much voice in every single paragraph can make for difficult reading when you string those paragraphs together.

Different levels of voice are appropriate for different types of content, as shown on this spectrum.

Tone of Voice Spectrum

Marketing not only gets the most voice, it’s often the owner of the enterprise voice. If your voice has yet to be extended to other silos, that’s something you can start working on right away, with just a conversation. Who knows — you might already have voice standards decided and documented in-house, and all you have to do is extend them to your own team.

As you develop standards for each type of content, you’ll need to determine the right amount of voice for that content. If your enterprise voice is quirky and fun, just how much quirky fun should you put into your troubleshooting procedures? If customers are in trouble, do they want a lot of fun? Or should your support content tone it down a little, to respect the customer’s emotional state of frustrated, confused, or even angry?

Examples in your style guide are the most effective way to convey voice standards. We recommend including at least one or two examples from several different types of content. You can use incorrect/correct examples or just include good examples as models for authors to follow. Describe what makes the samples correct (or incorrect).

Define a Target Reading Level

Reading level is an assessment of what level of formal education the user is likely to need in order to understand the text. Variations in reading level can wreck a customer experience in a heartbeat. You may have seen this issue before, if you’ve ever followed a link from a support article about troubleshooting a desktop app to a system administration guide. Suddenly the content is a wall of text, with long sentences and academic writing style full of passive voice and jargon.

By standardizing on a target reading level, you help ensure that content is appropriate for all anticipated reading levels. Always write to the least common denominator.

There are several reading level scales that can help you evaluate the complexity of your content. Here are some of the more popular ones:

  • Flesch Reading Ease
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test
  • Gunning Fog Index
  • Coleman-Liau Index
  • International English Language Testing System
  • Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

Many of these formulas are available in software that can evaluate content as you write it, providing feedback for content creators right where they work. They use criteria such as number of syllables in a word, number of words in a sentence, or number of letters in a sentence to determine how readable the content is.

Average Reading Level in the United States

The average person in the U.S. reads at a level between 6th grade and 8th grade. This is the target level that you should most likely aim for with your text. This level is for people who have English as a first language. People for whom English is a second or third language are likely to have lower grade level scores.

The best advice is to keep your sentences short and your words simple.

Paragraph Parameters

Length

We strongly recommend that you standardize on short paragraphs for most content. Two to three sentences is a good length for reading on a screen.

Shorter paragraphs are typically more readable. Readers can more easily scan down a page to find the content they need when paragraphs are short and there’s good space between them. Short paragraphs are also easier to consume on mobile devices and through voice interfaces.

Short paragraphs are more versatile for personalizing the content. Short paragraphs make it easy to separate common content from unique content. The common paragraph can be reused, while the unique content is provided when and where it is needed.

You can allow longer paragraphs where appropriate for the content. Academic, scientific, and legal content may need to comply with external standards.  You may be required to include a high volume of information in a single paragraph for regulated content, based on the regulatory bodies’ requirements. As long as you define these situations in your content standards so that the longer paragraphs are intentional, you will still reap the benefits of standardizing on shorter paragraphs in the rest of the content.

Presentation

Some content is clearer when presented in lists, notes, or tables than in regular paragraphs. Sometimes the decision of whether to use alternatives to the paragraph must be left to the writer. Other times, the content clearly benefits from being consistently created as a list, note, or table.

For example, some companies define a “note” as being for supplemental information that is not necessary to the main content. Other companies define the “note” as being a way to highlight important content.

Tables are often specifically mandated for content that works best in a matrix, with three or more columns. Two-column tables may be allowed, or you may prefer that any content that works in two columns should be a list instead.

Configure Software or Update Style Guide

After developing your paragraph standards, you need to document them and enforce them.

The most effective way to enforce these standards is to configure them in your content optimization software. A less expensive, but also less effective way is to document them in your style guide.

In either case, train writers in how to write to the voice standards. Provide as many examples as you can; it’s easier to learn from examples than from reading descriptions.

We’ll talk more about content optimization software and style guides in the next few blog posts.

Summary

Different types of information may require more or less voice. It’s easy to overdo voice where it’s not appropriate. It’s also easy to underdo voice, and create content so bland and boring that no customer can engage. When you add the exponentiating effect of everything going digital — and especially the sudden need to get digital during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — you’ll see just how crucial it is to have a consistent voice across the enterprise.

Interested in learning more? Go buy the book today!

Book cover for The Personalization Paradox