Monzo: the bank that likes to smiley

November 1st, 2018

Hey Harry. Before we get stuck in – could you just explain Monzo for people who don’t know you?

Monzo is a bank, but hopefully very different from the kind of bank you’re used to. We’re entirely digital, for one. So no branches – you can open an account in five minutes flat on your phone. We were started in 2015 by a group of people who believe that banking is needlessly complicated and doesn’t do enough to make your life easier.

And how important is tone of voice for Monzo?
I’d say it’s pretty fundamental. How much people like and trust us has a lot to do with how we communicate, and we have fewer chances to communicate because we only really exist on your phone. So every word we write matters more to us as a digital bank in particular.

Finance isn’t something people feel confident and comfortable about, and we have a duty to make things clear and easy for people to understand.

And it’s crucial for us as a bank in general, too. Finance isn’t something people feel confident and comfortable about, and we have a duty to make things clear and easy for people to understand. Partly because the FCA say we have to, but more importantly because it’s just the right thing to do.

Who does the writing at Monzo?
Everyone! Everyone here is a writer whether they consider themselves one or not, because we’re all churning out words every day. So it wouldn’t be scalable to funnel everything through me or any other writers, and there’s no formal process for that. My job is more to help everyone else get better, and poke and prod things to keep our standards up.

I run a training programme which helps everyone get on the same page about writing, so everything we do has a family feel. And of course I will write or review some stuff, as will other people in our Marketing and Community team. But other than that, we just trust the smart, caring people we’ve hired to do the right thing for customers.

Plenty of companies have lovely mellifluous writing when they’re trying to lure you in. I don’t know of many who keep that same style in their Ts&Cs.

How do you explain Monzo’s tone of voice to a new starter?
In the briefest of nutshells, we’re transparent, friendly and inclusive. Transparent in that we’re always open about what we’re doing and why. So there’s no room for unhelpful jargon and corporate-speak. Friendly in that we’re a nice bunch of people. We want to reflect some of our actual personalities out into the world, so our tone is light-hearted and conversational. Inclusive in that Monzo is for everyone. We pay a lot of attention to the terminology we use (things like gendered language), so Monzo is a welcoming environment no matter who you are.

What’s it like being a writer for a bank?
Not sure I’m the best person to answer this, because I don’t think writing at Monzo is like writing for many other banks! In my old life as a consultant, I spent a lot of time writing for traditional banks, and there were layers and layers of bureaucracy that just don’t exist here. Also, tradional banks would talk a good game about being ‘customer-centric’, but very rarely actually followed through. It’s the total opposite at Monzo.

Your tone of voice guidelines are on your App and your website for customers to read. Why?
We take a fairly radical approach to transparency, where we’re ‘transparent by default’. So if there are principles guiding why we communicate the way we do, we think it’s fair that customers get to see what those principles are. It’s also a way of forcing ourselves to keep our standards high. If people can see what we’re aiming for, they can call us out when we fall short.

Many people (including lots of people who work in banking!) feel that banks’ writing is constrained by the regulators. What’s your experience of that?
In my time here I’ve not dealt directly with the regulators, and I’ve not heard about them having any problem with the way we write, even when we push the boundaries beyond where most banks would. (Our Ts&Cs are only 800 words, and readable by an 11-year-old, for example.)

Generally speaking, I think there’s a common misconception about what the regulators want from banks’ writing. The FCA say everything we do has to be clear, fair and not misleading. That’s a pretty strong signal to write in a clear, human, straightforward way. What they won’t let you do is make claims which aren’t quite true, or exaggerate how good something is. Both of which seem fair enough to me.

My experience of working with financial services companies is that they often use the spectre of regulation as an excuse not to push for better writing because it involves uncomfortable change

My experience of working with financial services companies is that they often use the spectre of regulation as an excuse not to push for better writing because it involves uncomfortable change. (Having said that, I don’t think I’m stepping out of line if I say the FCA doesn’t always take its own medicine when it comes to clear writing…)

Lots of brands these days are going for a ‘friendly and human’ tone. Were you conscious of this? Did you deliberately try and do anything to differentiate you?
Personally, I don’t think our tone of voice is particularly distinctive in itself. As you say, lots of companies (especially start-ups like ours) have broadly got the same tone of voice. But that’s because it’s common sense to write in a nice, human way if you want people to think you’re nice humans. And because most of the traditional companies we’re trying to ‘disrupt’ are still lightyears away from doing this anywhere close to consistently.

I’d like to think that where we’re different is the focus on really making it happen everywhere. That’s the differentiation I’m most interested in. Plenty of companies have lovely mellifluous writing when they’re trying to lure you in. I don’t know of many who keep that same style in their Ts&Cs.

Emojis seem to be a part of Monzo’s tone of voice. That would give your old colleagues at The Writer a heart attack, and is totally unheard of for a bank. Did that happen naturally? Did it feel like a big deal? Do you have specific guidelines for how you use them? (OK, that’s lots of questions in one!)

Emojis have been a part of our personality pretty much from the beginning. I think the story is that an engineer just chucked them into the app at some point, and it grew from there. So they’re entirely organic, and definitely not anything we subjected to a barrage of user testing. When we were defining the tone of voice guidelines, I asked people on our community forum what they think of our tone of voice, and emojis came up. The general gist was: we like emojis, they’re an authentic part of who Monzo is, but maybe you could stand to use a few less…

So we’ve folded that into our guidelines, and we do have some specific guidance. Like don’t use them to replace a word, because they’re not universally understood; and only use them if they’re adding context to something you’re saying.

There’s increasing evidence that using emojis makes us more effective communicators, and can fill in the contextual gaps that short bits of writing often leave out. That’s especially important for a company like ours where you’ll basically never see us face-to-face, and most interaction is a brief exchange of written words. So emojis are definitely here to stay.

I notice you spend a lot of time in your guidelines backing up your tone of voice with science and research. Why?
For a couple of reasons, really. First is that people tend to pigeon-hole good writing as a nice-to-have. Something that customers appreciate, but which doesn’t really make a difference. So I wanted to be clear that whether or not we write well will have a huge impact on whether or not people like us, or let us look after their money. That’s where all the behavioural economics comes in.

The second is that most of us are instinctively pretty good writers. We all broadly know when we’re reading something good, but we’re maybe not so good at identifying why it’s good. So the snippets of linguistics are there to help explain why conversational writing makes people trust you more, or why the passive voice makes you sound shifty.

What attracted you to Monzo?
There’s no company in the world I’ve ever come across that writes really well, everywhere, all the time. And there’s no reason for that except not enough people trying to make it happen, and the company itself not having the right values.

From what I knew about Monzo from the outside, it felt like this could be the place. A bank where the writing is already really good; with a genuine interest in making things better for people; a militant commitment to being open and honest; and a brand that people go nuts for.

So it was 40% the chance to make a big impact at a young fast-moving company, 40% because I’m a big fan and believe in the mission, and 20% because it’s just a cool place to be.

What advice do you have for brands (particularly fintech) who are just thinking about tone of voice?
Don’t look around at tones of voice you like for inspiration. The worst thing you can do is go ‘We love Mailchimp’s tone of voice!’ and copy it. Your tone of voice has to suit you, otherwise people will just see it as a fake marketing exercise.

Make sure whatever tone of voice you come up with is something everyone in your company can use, and give them really practical guidance and training. If you need a degree in creative writing and linguistics to understand the nuances of your tone, then it’ll never exist outside a few places.

Start by focusing on the worst writing you do at the moment, not the best. It’s easy to make a nice email a bit nicer. But the real impact will come from making your gnarly technical writing more readable. People remember things which are unexpectedly good – no-one’s that impressed by a well-written email.

You might have to convince naysayers that it’s worth making some big changes to bring the tone of voice really to life. So make sure you measure the difference it makes. Things like click-throughs, sign-ups, how many confused people end up talking to customer support – find some metrics and keep an eye on them.

Thanks, Harry!
Check out Monzo here.