When I first started Content Rules, I did a lot of the writing work myself. I wrote training courses, installation guides, administration guides, command line references, all sorts of uber-technical stuff.

That was before the web. In fact, Netscape was one of my first customers in 1995 (which was a famous year for them, as you probably know). Back then, we actually printed books on paper. We didn’t have XML, DITA, and CMS systems. This was even before we posted .pdf files to the internet for downloading.

And back then, we were technical. We were very very technical. We wrote about technical topics, in technical ways, using technical language. Instructions were for “the user” and they were extremely formal. For example:

“The user installs this application by inserting the CDrom into the CDrom drive.”

“To install the Acme Series 9000 Router, place the box on a hard surface with the arrows pointing in the upward direction.”

We always used the third-person and we avoided “he” and “she” at all costs. We didn’t use contractions. We weren’t friendly. This was business! And it was technical!

Well, things ain’t what they used to be. Most of the technical writing I read today, even for the most technical products, tends to be written in a very familiar voice. Whereas 15 years ago, we went to great lengths to be stuffy and a bit know-it-all-ish, today we are downright jovial, familiar, and all part of the hip crowd.

Let’s take airline websites as an example. My favorite comparison is virginamerica.com versus just about any other airline website. Here is the carry-on restriction page for Virgin America:



Contrast the tone and terminology of this page with the same information on united.com:

Sure, United has that cute little puppy on the right pane. But, check out the language.

Virgin provides the information in response to a question that I could definitely hear myself asking, “How much carry-on baggage can I bring?” And the answer is very short and to the point.

Side note: I like the idea of Virgin’s presentation. It looks very easy and inviting. However, the response to the question is one run-on (and on and on) sentence that has more than 50 words in it. I think this is terribly unreadable and should be changed.

United’s site is much more formal. It contains a lot more detail. It has bullets (which are much better than one run-on sentence). It makes you pay attention. It’s tone is “I’m serious! This is important! You should listen to me!”

Next, let’s contrast the sentences about where you can find more information.

Virgin: “For detailed information on what you can or can’t bring, it’s a good idea to check with the Transport Security Administration (TSA) in the United States.”

United: “For additional information about carry-on guidelines, please visit the TSA’s website at www.tsa.gov.”

Virgin uses the second person. Check on what you can or can’t bring. It is very personal and direct. It’s talking to YOU. Virgin thinks it’s a good idea to check. United doesn’t talk to you at all. It is not personable.

While United provides a website address for the TSA (www.tsa.gov), Virgin provides the site as a hot link directly from the words Transport Security Administration. Even better than that, the link takes you directly to the appropriate page on tsa.gov with the information you need.

Virgin is friendly and helpful. That is the way all of our content is moving these days. From technical guides to websites themselves, content has gotten more familiar, more personal, and more friendly.

What do you think of this trend? I have my own ideas, which I will post next time. But, until then, I’d love to know:

  • Do you prefer the friendly and personal communication?
  • Do you think, for example, that Virgin takes your safety less seriously than United because it is less formal?
  • Do you think the pilots on Virgin are younger?
  • Do you take a product more seriously if the instructions you read are more formal?
  • Is a product somehow “better” if its content is more technical? Less technical?



Val Swisher
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