Setting The Right Tone: A Few Words With Kate Kiefer Lee

We took a few moments to talk about design, the use of proper voice and tone, and other touchy subjects with MailChimp writer and editor Kate Kiefer Lee.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

I come from an editorial background. I worked as an editor at a music and entertainment magazine for years before moving to the web world. It all started with some freelance marketing and copywriting projects. I eventually went to work at MailChimp, and this is my fifth year here.

When I started as the company's first staff writer, I wrote guides, edited website copy, helped out with blog posts, stuff like that. My job has evolved quite a lot over time. I still write copy every day, but now I spend a lot more time thinking about MailChimp's style and helping people write. I work on a team of designers, developers, and marketing people, and I manage a small team of writers. I love my job.

You write a lot about writing. Very meta. Tell us more about that!

Teaching is my favorite way to learn, so I like to write about my work. I've written for different kinds of publications, including A List Apart, STET, UX Magazine, Design*Sponge, and Forbes. It's fun and challenging to write about the same concepts for different audiences. I'm also co-writing a book with Nicole Fenton. It's called Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose, and it will be out in June. We're almost finished with the manuscript. I'm tired.

What are the origins and purpose of

MailChimp's voice and tone guide started as a companion to our internal style guide. We have a lot of different content types, from playful success messages to serious compliance alerts. Our voice pretty much stays the same from day to day, but it doesn't make sense to use the same tone all the time. shows people who write for MailChimp how to adapt their tone based on the situation. It's all about putting yourself in the reader's shoes. We made it a public website because it was both an experiment and a learning experience for us, so we thought other teams might find it useful too.

You're giving a talk this year on “Touchy Subjects.” What will people take away from it?

Can't wait! I talked a lot about voice and tone last year, and this is an extension of my Voice & Tone research. There are certain industries and topics that are sensitive by nature—healthcare, banking, et cetera—but some of the content types that web teams work on every day are sensitive too—like error messages, unsubscribe confirmations, and apologies, to name just a few. We'll talk about how to write to readers where they are, in a considerate and inclusive way.

Kate Kiefer Lee will present her hour-long talk “Touchy Subjects: Creating Content for Sensitive Situations” at An Event Apart San Diego, An Event Apart Chicago, and An Event Apart Orlando: Special Edition. Don't miss your chance to hear Kate and all the other inspiring, insightful speakers—register today!