In conversation with

Harry Ashbridge

Writer Monzo

Introduction

Introduction

We work with words at Sonder & Tell. And it’s through language that businesses best express their identity. Just think about it – words are used to name a company, to tell people what you’re about, to create culture and define values.

So imagine our delight at meeting Harry Ashbridge, writer for ‘bank of the future’ Monzo, who believes in the power of words just as much as us. Formerly part of agency The Writer, Harry pitched his own job in to Monzo when he realised that the bank cared about language, and could do with someone to look after it formally. Today, Harry oversees a team, running workshops and training programmes to make sure everyone in the business is comfortable with writing. “People drastically underestimate the impact of words”, says Harry. And he’s got case studies to back it up – trimming seconds off call scripts saved the company millions and a few terms being shifted around on a homepage resulted in double-digit growth. “I don’t think you have a brand if you haven’t thought seriously about the words you use”. Harry, we’re very happy to have you.

Question and Answer

What kind of stories did you engage with as a child?

Anything fantastical, really. I loved Lord Of The Rings, hoovered up all the Discworld novels, and I was – still am – mad about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I didn’t get on with Harry Potter though. Even though it was about a lonely little nerd called Harry (hello!), I never got past the first book.

"I was – still am – mad about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials"

What did you learn about the power of words during your time working at The Writer?

That people drastically underestimate the impact of words.

The language we see and use shapes how our brains work, what we think and feel, and how we act. There’s a tonne of fascinating science about the influence even a single word can have on how we behave. (This TED Talk from Lera Boroditsky is a great 15-minute primer.)

Good words tend to get pigeon-holed as a fluffy thing; a ‘nice-to-have’ if there’s spare budget after you’ve emptied the bank account on engineering and design. That’s a colossal missed opportunity for most companies.

One of my favourite stories from The Writer: a client came to a training session and then went back and rewrote a call-centre script because it was a bit wordy and complicated. They made it a better experience for customers, and in the process cut 17 seconds from the script… which saved the business over £6m because of the volume of calls they were making every day. £6m just from changing a few words.

“Good words tend to get pigeon-holed as a fluffy thing; a ‘nice-to-have’ if there’s spare budget after you’ve emptied the bank account on engineering and design. That’s a colossal missed opportunity for most companies.”

Your job at Monzo didn’t exist until you pitched it to them. What did you say to convince them that they needed you?

Ha! Needed me is maybe too strong. It was obvious Monzo had a sense of its identity in writing: it was remarkable how consistent they were, and they clearly cared about the language they used. But it was all informally looked after, with no guidelines and no writers outside what was happening on the blog. They were about 180 people at the time, and growing crazy fast – so without someone whose sole job it was to keep that high quality and make sure it scaled with the company, the consistency was likely to fall apart.

That was my pitch: Good writing is a real differentiator for Monzo, and you need someone to look after it. Someone to codify the approach, and then put processes in place to make sure it’s always working hard everywhere. Luckily they listened!

What does your job consist of today?

My overall job is the same as it’s always been: make sure all of our writing, inside and out, works hard for customers and sounds like it comes from Monzo. But as we’ve grown, how I go about it is a bit different. At the start it was mostly about doing lots of writing to convince people words matter everywhere. And running lots of training sessions to embed the tone of voice we’d created. Nowadays I still do some writing and training, but we’ve got a small (but growing!) team of writers who write, train and coach people all over Monzo. My job now is more about tying different bits of the business together, so everyone cares about words and our approach is consistent. Plus worrying about how fast we’re growing, and what the writing team needs to do to keep up.

Do you have any examples you can share of how getting the words right has directly impacted the business?

There are lots of hard metrics you can tie specifically back to us changing some words.We experimented with different messages about overdrafts, and the number of people choosing to switch their overdraft on went up 500%.We changed the headline on the website homepage and got a 15% jump in people going through to download the app. But my favourite things are the anecdotal stories from customers. One person said they switched to Monzo as their main bank account because of the release notes we write for app updates. And someone recently wrote in to say: “The technology behind Monzo is obviously really impressive, but honestly the reason I’m desperate for an account is because I just love your tone of voice so much. You’re doing things no one else is.”

Can you describe the culture at Monzo?

Our Head of People Tara likes to say “kindness is currency” at Monzo. The best thing about working here is really, really lovely people who care so much about doing the right thing, who also happen to be whip-smart and really ambitious.I think a big part of what’s allowed us to grow so fast without everything falling apart is that there’s a strong focus on hiring people with empathy. Being smart definitely isn’t enough – you need to be here for the right reasons.

At what stage should brands start thinking about the impact of the words they use?

I don’t think you have a brand if you haven’t thought seriously about the words you use. To even describe it at all you need words: it needs a name, it needs a way of encapsulating what it’s about, it needs a mission and some values. All of that takes words, and if you skimp on them up front it’ll bite you later on.

Also, you don’t have a brand if you write differently in different places. You have a collection of split personalities. People tend to focus on the shiny marketing writing, and then ignore the real guts of the customer experience: customer service, error messages in the app, Ts&Cs, debt chasing messages. That’s the truth of dealing with your brand day to day, and usually it kinda sucks.

“I don’t think you have a brand if you haven’t thought seriously about the words you use. ”

What questions do you ask when establishing a brand’s tone of voice?

“What do you stand for?”

The way you write is tangible evidence of your values in action. If you say you’re a courageous brand, you need to take some risks in your writing. If you say you’re inclusive, you better make everything you say really easy to understand. Most brands don’t really stand for much, because their commitment to their values is only skin deep.

“What problems have you got?”

Framing a new approach to writing as a way to fix stuff, rather than just as a ‘brand’ exercise, gets much more support in my experience. There will be a way that better words can help solve pretty much every business problem, you just need to find it.

“How are we going to bring this to life?”

Guidelines on their own don’t achieve anything; they’re step 1.1 in creating a tone of voice that has an impact. So I’d be asking about the plans to embed the new style once we’ve created it: how do we get buy-in from people across the business so they support it; how do we train people so they’ve got the skills and confidence to use it; how do we create great examples of it so people can see it in action around them every day; how do we measure whether it’s working or not? Those are trickier conversations, because people don’t usually want to think about the hard work of big change programmes – but without that stuff, it’s kind of a waste of time to create a new tone of voice, because people won’t use it.

How would you respond to a client who has a budget for design but not tone of voice?

The bane of my life when I worked in agency! So many clients would spend mega money on new platforms, shiny technology and visual branding, and then they’d copy-and-paste the same old content they had before into the new thing. And then they’d wonder why their customer satisfaction scores were in the toilet. It’s like buying a Ferrari and running it on dishwater.

People will see your words more than they’ll see your logo. Your words are your customer experience. If you don’t care about your writing, you don’t care about your customers.

Which other brands stand out for their tone of voice?

I’m not so interested in what a brand’s tone of voice is as much as whether they actually follow through with it. If you’re really fun and innovative in 15% of your writing, but the rest of it is naff, I don’t think that counts for much.

So the cliché answer of Innocent Drinks still holds true, because they make sure their tone of voice lands pretty much everywhere. MailChimp are also a nice example of a brand with some personality who follow through (mostly) everywhere.

Although… to completely undermine what I just said about consistency, I was sofa shopping the other day and loved the names Loaf have given their sofas. Everyone else has sofas named pretentious things like Carnaby and Wilhelmina. Loaf have called theirs Cuddlemuffin and Sloucher. I could definitely fall asleep on the Slowcoach. They aren’t that much fun outside the names, but I still liked it.

Are there any copywriting books or communities that you engage with?

Shamefully no, not really. When it comes to proving the value of words, behavioural economics books are great: things like Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nudge. Lots of the theory and experiments they discuss are to do with the impact of changing words. And when it comes to language, I’m a big fan of anything by Mark Forsyth. His books The Etymologicon and The Elements of Eloquence are clever, beautiful and make you sound smart in the pub.

Also there are communities for agency writers, and brand-y writers, but I don’t see anything around for in-house writers doing what we do at Monzo. Is there one I don’t know about? Someone let me know!

"When it comes to language, I’m a big fan of anything by Mark Forsyth"

Harry's Storylist

Books

  1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  2. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  3. The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  4. Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  6. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Magazines

  1. The Atlantic
  2. New Scientist
  3. The Economist

Podcasts

  1. 99% Invisible by Roman Mars
  2. Stuff You Should Know by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant
  3. No Such Thing As A Fish by The QI Elves
  4. WTF by Marc Maron
Previous Story
Sonder & Tell are Hiring!

Content & Community Manager

Articles

Featured storytellers

View all

Sign up to our newsletter