Happy Sad FacesI recently talked with a nonprofit communications director whose challenge for 2014 is to remake her organization’s communications voice, style, and tone from something that’s frankly a little frightening to something much more friendly.

How does she know the current approach is frightening? Because the organization’s supporters and clients said so. The nonprofit asked for feedback on its website content, and heard back that people often feel more scared after going to the site (they work on a particular type of cancer). They also feel overwhelmed. Instead of those reactions, the nonprofit wants people to feel comforted and full of hope after visiting the website and reading their other ongoing communications.

So, they got the message. They need to change the way they communicate. But how? It’s not like cancer is a naturally bubbly and fun topic.

Here are three approaches I recommended. Maybe you could try these too?

1. Write in the second person as much as possible.

Using the words You and Your all the time — as much as possible — forces you as the writer to think about the reader, which I believe for most us, leads to more conversational and friendly writing.

2. Create a “friendly, plain English” style guide.

Trying to translate technical topics into plain English is excruciating for both the technical experts and the communications staff. So when you finally come to an agreement about how to talk about something, institutionalize it! It can take a lot of back and forth to find the right words to describe a certain situation in a way that is still accurate but also  understandable to a lay person. Don’t lose the outcomes of that internal negotiating work by just putting it into that immediate work product. Add it to a Friendly, Plain English Style Guide so you can use it again.

3. Find your voice in the communications of others.

Talking about voice, style, and tone is difficult in the abstract! What does “friendly” mean anyway? And, yes, it can mean different things to different people. To clarify the definition in your office, and to get everyone closer to common ground, I recommend you find writing from another organization that represents how you want to sound.

Take breast cancer organizations for example. Look at the differences in how several orgs talk on their “newly diagnosed” pages:

Susan G. Komen

Young Survival Coalition

Rethink Breast Cancer

Living Beyond Breast Cancer



Gloria Gemma

It’s not that one is right or wrong, but that they are different. Which approach would work best for your work and for the people who will be reading your content? Pull together examples that you can emulate in your own work. There’s also a whole chapter on voice, style, and tone in Content Marketing for Nonprofits (Amazon).


What other tips do you have for switching up the way your communications feel and sound to others?


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