Why we avoid writing in first person on external pages

Jennifer Hamrick
Wednesday 8 June 2016

As part of the University house style, we do not use first person when addressing external audiences unless speaking from the perspective of the University as a whole. [Note: second person, ‘you’, is acceptable.]

It may seem hypocritical to include ‘we’ in the title of this post, but I want to highlight the fact that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the first person in blogs and on social media, particularly when the identity of the writer (or group they represent) is fairly obvious. However, for the main University of St Andrews external web pages, using a first person perspective can cause a lot of problems.

Identity confusion

First of all, first person language can create identity confusion for readers.

Let’s say a prospective student is looking up the entry requirements for a course they are interested in, and one sentence reads, ‘We sometimes take applicants with an exceptional background in llama taming.’

Does ‘we’ refer to Admissions, to the School or to some other group? If the student wanted to find out more about this entry requirement, who would they contact?

It is vital that the identity of the agent is identified: ‘The School of Llama Raising sometimes takes applicants with an exceptional background in llama taming.’

Inconsistent tone

Related to identity confusion, first person language creates an inconsistent tone. Part of the University’s strategy for digital communications is to create a standardised language across all externally facing pages. The only way to create a coherent and standardised language is to maintain an objective tone.

The way one School or group uses ‘we’ may be in a completely different way from another School or group. By maintaining a third-person perspective, we are creating a consistent look and feel across all pages. This means external users will experience one united voice representing the University, rather than an assortment of disparate voices which causes the University to appear disjointed, with lots of siloed departments.

Marketese and happy talk

Web users have limited time to find the information they want, and anything that takes more time risks alienating the user. Both marketese (language which makes users feel like they’re being sold something) and happy talk (self-promotional chatter that conveys no useful information) should be avoided. First person language can easily turn into marketese and happy talk, making a user-experience too long and frustrating.

Here are some bad examples of first person marketese and happy talk from the School of Llama Raising:

  • ‘Do you wish to become the greatest llama farmer in the world? We’re here to help! At our amazing School, we’ll give you all the tools and instruction you need to raise a prize-winning llama.’
  • ‘Welcome to our website, we’re glad you dropped by. At the School of Llama Raising, we pride ourselves on our happy, friendly staff.’

Feeling irritated already? That’s probably because as a web user, you have had to wade through this type of self-congratulatory language before just to find out some very basic information. It’s easier to maintain an objective tone when you use the third person.

Bottom line

We avoid first person on externally facing web pages in order to be clear about agents’ identities, to maintain a unified and consistent tone, and to avoid irritating self-congratulatory language.

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