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How we write

Good writing is probably the single most undervalued talent a startup can have.

Portrait of David Jarvis
David JarvisFriday 5 June 2020

This is our framework for writing and applies both to the way we speak publicly and to internal policies such as policies, risk frameworks, capital plans, etc. It is inspired by our beliefs about the importance of good writing and by Monzo's excellent Tone of Voice guide.

Why good writing is important

Good writing is probably the single most undervalued talent a startup can have. We're used to thinking of communication as a key skill, and normal, face-to-face communication is great! It allows for empathy, human connection, and a high bandwidth of information transmission between two people. But writing allows us to write something once and have it be read by an infinite number of people, forever.

Writing scales.

Exactly how well it scales is largely a function of how clear the writing is. The better the writing, the faster people can read it, understand it, and go on to share its contents with others. In keeping with our core value of Simple Made Easy, it is most important to write in a manner that is clear and easy to read. If it takes you an extra 4 hours to write it well, but it saves each future reader 30 minutes, then that is a great investment of your time.

This matters most when we think about documents that will be written once and read often (like policies or blog posts). It doesn't matter so much when we're writing a quick email to a small number of other people or writing a how-to guide just for people in a specific team (though good writing can be nice then, too!)

Writing also forces us to be more precise and structured than we might be when speaking, which aligns well with our core value of Thoughtfulness. This is why Amazon has its famous culture of writing memos over using Powerpoint.

Tone of voice

Choose your words carefully

The words we choose are one of the most important ways we show our customers and each other that we understand them and are here to help. This applies across every use case‍—‌marketing, terms and conditions, products and user interfaces, and how we talk internally.

We build trust by using words that are friendly, clear, and explicit. This is really important when we're talking about hard subjects like conduct, risk, compliance, or technical details.

Guidelines, not rules

At the end of the day there are cases where for one reason or another the recommendations above won't apply (for instance, cases where we might be legally prohibited from being explicit or where the subject is just very complex and there's no easy way to explain it). That's okay.

The purpose of this document is to serve as a helpful basis for our writing.

Tone and voice

Tone and voice are slightly different and it's important to understand the difference.

Our voice

Our voice is who we are. We always speak with this voice, regardless of the context.

  • We are clear. We say exactly what we mean to‍—‌nothing more, nothing less.
  • We are honest. We share bad news directly and don't hide behind our words.
  • We are transparent. We share as much as we legally can about our products and how we work.

Our voice is foundationally about building trust.

Our tone

Our tone is our attitude. It changes depending on the circumstance and who we're talking to.

  • In our public writing, we use an empowering tone. We're here to enable businesses.
We're API-first, letting you choose how to deliver the right experience for your product.
  • Internally, our tone is warm and empathic.
We believe in providing a flexible work environment. That means working with you, our teammates, to integrate work into your life in a way that makes the most sense for both you and us.

We are empowering

We talk about what you can do

Our customers come to us because they have a job to be done, and we're here to enable them to do that. Our language is about building, potential, and the future.

We talk about who we're for

Some of our products have clear regulatory requirements that the customer needs to satisfy. We make clear who our products are intended for so there's no confusion.

We're inviting and fun, but professional

We want people to get excited about what they can do with our products, but we also want them to feel that we take our role seriously. We use an inviting and fun tone, but we don't put jokes on our marketing material or when dealing with external stakeholders (though we like to joke internally).

We stay positive

We think Griffin is an amazing company, but just going around saying that doesn't make it so. We need to demonstrably be the best. We're looking to win a war of product and user experience, not of words. So we don't put down our competitors, and we don't call out flaws or attack what others are doing.

By the same token‍—‌and in keeping with our core value of kindness and empathy - we are actively appreciative of the partners, investors and customers who are responsible for collectively making Griffin possible.

We are clear

We speak our audience’s language

Our audience is technical and sophisticated, but also values plain speaking. This means we shouldn't be afraid of jargon, but that a short and clear description should come before any detailed technical specifications.

It is worth noting that sometimes our customers don't know how to do what they want to do. Where that's the case, we help provide clarity in how they can meet their goals.

We should err on the side of being clear over being clever.

We speak naturally

We should write as we would speak when actually talking to another person. You can test whether you're doing a good job of this by actually reading what you're writing out loud. Language that reads like speech helps with rhythm and readability.

Use more verbs and fewer nouns

When we’re writing, we tend to swap out verbs for nouns because nouns are seen as more professional. But when we're talking, we naturally use more verbs than nouns (after all, most of the time we're not sharing facts, we're telling stories).

It turns out that written text flows more naturally when we use more verbs than nouns as well. It makes things shorter, too:

  • We made a decision to → We decided to
  • We conducted an analysis of → We analysed
  • We provide help to customers → We help customers

Swap formal words for normal ones

There's a whole lexicon of British "business-speak" that one can use to sound professional, but also needlessly distant. We try to avoid that:

  • Assistance → Help
  • Commence → Start
  • Enable → Let
  • Ensure → Make sure
  • Further → More
  • However → But (PS, it's fine to start a sentence with "but")
  • In order to → To
  • Obtain → Get
  • Provide → Give
  • Query → Question
  • Request → Ask
  • Require → Need
  • Resolve → Fix
  • Therefore → So
  • Utilise → Use

We are honest

We speak about ourselves directly

When writing about us as a company (as opposed to Griffin as a product/platform), we use the first person. For example, we say:

We have zero tolerance for bribery

Rather than:

Griffin has zero tolerance for bribery

We are also deliberate about using the active voice‍—‌particularly when we're giving bad news or talking about a process.

We’ve decided to close your account

The alternative, in passive voice, reads like this:

A decision has been made to close your account

Passive voice isn't great for a couple of reasons, but the big one is that it sounds like we're avoiding responsibility. It also makes it sound like someone else made that decision, but they didn't - we should own it.

We don't waste people's time

Some businesses are too risky for us to work with. While it's okay for us to spend a bit of time getting to know them to understand where they fit relative to our risk appetite, we don't want to waste their time.

As soon as it's clear that we won't be able to work with them, we share that information and why:

We're sorry, but we can't open an account for you‍—‌we've decided not to work with companies in the gaming space for the time being.

We are transparent...

...with our products

We make clear that people can read our API documentation and user guides without signing an NDA. We also make clear that they can access our sandboxed environment without us needing to run a formal due diligence process. We want people to know they can get "hands on" with our products without having to commit to us.

...with our pricing

We are overtly public about how much we charge and we make it easy for people to find out how that changes at scale.

...and with how we work

On our blog, on Github, and on our website we share in detail how we run the business. We believe that people would rather work for and with companies they know and understand.

Style guide

Rules in practice

Once again‍—‌a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. These guidelines won't always be appropriate.

All documents and frameworks should be written to a high standard, even if they are first drafts. We should conduct our business in all things as if our work were to be published, in its current and raw form, by a major newspaper.

  • No spelling or grammatical errors. It's 2020. Spellcheck is good now.
  • Be consistent with tenses.
  • Don't use complex formatting/indentation/etc. If you couldn't easily format what you're saying in Notion, that's a bad sign.
  • One space after sentences. Two spaces is heresy!
  • Use the simplest language you can. Anyone at the company should be able to read the policy and understand it.
  • Natural language flow. Documents should read naturally, with each section following naturally from its previous one. Where asides or references are needed, put them in footnotes to preserve flow.
  • Leave no room for doubt. Whether or not an action is permitted by a given document should be made unambiguously clear with objective language.
  • Capitalise section headers consistently. We prefer sentence case (e.g. "Rules in practice", not "Rules in Practice") but we're not dogmatic‍—‌just make sure you use the same case throughout.
  • Define your terms. If you're using domain-specific terms, define them at first use. Avoid capitalising improper nouns.
  • Don't repeat yourself. If you're covering something that already exists in another document, reference and/or link to that document rather that repeating its content.
  • Respect your reader's time. Keep it short. Avoid sentences more than 20 words long. We've all got other things to do.

Policy style

The following rules are more detailed and prescriptive and relate to specifically how policies and procedures should be written.

  • Use the first person where possible. Language should refer to "we/us/our" rather than "Griffin".
  • Don't add our name to policies. There is only a Conflict of Interest Policy, not a Griffin Conflict of Interest Policy
  • Capitalisation...
  • only for proper nouns (the Compliance team, the Conflict of Interest Policy, the Risk & Audit Committee).
  • not for defined terms (e.g. "conflict of interest" within the Conflict of Interest Policy)
  • ...requires a very strong argument for why anything else deserves it.
  • Keep bulleted lists short. Long lists of bullet points just turn into walls of text. Keep it brief and to the point.
  • Avoid using defined terms unless absolutely necessary.