Blog in 07 2013.
What do you get when you fill two Writer apprentices with Writer-ly wisdom and enthusiasm? A brand-busting blog series, of course.
We’ll be travelling into the Twittersphere and wading through websites. Patting the backs of the tonally consistent and pointing out the brands that could do with a hand.
What got us on to this was the uncovering of the Rowling–Galbraith pseudonym secret. Since then people have been scouring for similarities between Harry Potter and The Cuckoo’s Calling. But why? Rowling’s one author. Galbraith’s another. Effectively they’re two separate brands. But people can’t help trying to force them under the same umbrella of tone – we’re suckers for consistency.
Unlike Rowling, brands can’t just make up a new persona every time there’s something to share. Nobody would know who they were. So consistency is key. It’s pointless having one tone of voice for Twitter and another for your website. It doesn’t work. Maybe it’s because it confuses us. Maybe it’s because we like knowing what to expect. Or maybe it’s just irritating.
So what does work?
You’ll have to stick with us for the answer. Over the next few months, we’re going to unmask our heroes of consistent tone and expose those lurking, tone-deaf villains.
Keep your eyes peeled.
(And if you don’t want to end up in our next blog – for the wrong reasons – you’d better start toning up.)
I’ve just read – for the fourth or fifth time today – this blog post on the BBC Ouch website by Mark Neary. His 23-year-old son Steven has autism and other learning difficulties. One of the many consequences of this is that his life is awash with the jargon of social care, which, says Mr Neary, ‘seems to make his life sound even less normal than it is’:
‘I live in my home. Steven’s current placement is in the family home... When I make a pizza, I’m making a pizza. When Steven makes a pizza, he’s increasing his independence skills (as overseen by an occupational therapist)... I have friends. Steven has a circle of support and influence.’
Even in just the short blog, you can get a feeling for the weirdly dehumanising effects of this soulless, patronising language. And that’s just from reading 500 words while sitting on a train – let alone being forced to live and think in these terms day in, day out.
For most business writers – and, I suspect, most people working in big companies – corporate jargon tends to play the role of the comedy villain in our working lives; there’s a certain pleasure in it being around, because we love to hate it. We can laugh at its gormlessness; we can share particularly execrable examples with each other; and heck, some of us can get paid for rewriting it.
Mark Neary’s excellent blog is a big reminder that sometimes, it can have a much more real effect on people’s lives than whether you win the next round of buzzword bingo.
Ages ago, I used to be a PR consultant. One day very early in my career, I phoned a journalist to (rather tremulously) pitch them a story.
Across the office sat a lady called Lynne. Lynne was a senior consultant the managing director had brought in to act as a mentor to us young’uns, and she was proper old-school PR (called people ‘darling’, talked incessantly about Reiki, had a vast leather-bound ‘contacts book’ but no idea how to switch a computer on).
Anyway, after I put the phone down, Lynne tilted her head to one side and said, ‘Laura, can I give you some feedback on that call?’
I cringed. Not just because she’d eavesdropped on my call and then offered unsolicited advice about it in front of the whole office, but also because of the word ‘feedback’. I’d barely heard it before, and it seemed at the time like the most bizarre, ridiculous piece of jargon.
My colleagues and I joked about it for weeks afterwards (‘Can I give you some feedback on those shoes?’ and so on – yes, hilarious, I know). Circa 2001, ‘feedback’ hadn’t yet entered common parlance. Maybe that experience scarred me, but I studiously avoided using it for years.
Of course, we’re at it all the time now. Feedback feedback feedback. You hear it all the time at Writer HQ. ‘We’ve got the feedback from that workshop.’ ‘Could you give me some feedback on that first draft?’ And it doesn’t bother me at all. (Though I’m still slightly allergic to using it as a verb: ‘Can you feed back by next Wednesday?’ Yuck.)
The same thing seems to be happening with another bit of corporatespeak: ‘stakeholder.’ It was always popping up on Boardroom Bingo lists. Here at The Writer, people seemed to do almost anything to avoid using it – or, if they had to, they’d stick it in slightly arch inverted commas. But now we seem to be mellowing. I’m starting to see it pop up unironically in the odd proposal or two: ‘We know how to keep even the most demanding stakeholders happy.’ It’s like we’re all looking around at each other and whispering, ‘So is it okay to say “stakeholder” now?’
How do we tell the difference between a new, useful bit of business language and insidious jargon? Simple: it’s jargon if there’s already a perfectly good alternative. There’s no other succinct way to say ‘stakeholder’: ‘person who’s involved in a project or interested in how it turns out’ doesn’t really cut it, does it? That doesn’t apply to, for example, ‘going forward’: we already have at least two perfectly acceptable phrases that mean the same thing (‘from now on’ and ‘in future’ – ‘going forward’ can mean either, which makes it vague as well as ugly).
I’m not saying we shouldn’t use words like ‘stakeholder’ judiciously. But refusing to use them at all is like insisting on saying ‘electronic mail’ or ‘telephone’. Language changes.
So I’m ready to bring ‘stakeholder’ in from the cold. What do you think?