What’s the difference? Does it even matter?
The truth is often we just refer to it by whatever our clients call it (they’re paying the bill, after all).
But here’s the thing: neither are quite up to the job.
Tone of voice is too narrow.
So is brand language.
To get the big benefits, just think of it as your organisation’s language. So it becomes ‘Cisco’s language’, say, or ‘Mandarin Oriental’s language’.
Now I should say I think the ‘tone of voice’ and ‘brand language’ labels are absolutely fine, it’s just that they’ve got baggage. When you read them a little switch flips in your brain and not surprisingly the word ‘brand’ flashes up in glitzy (and carefully RGB-specific) letters. Whichever label you choose, to people in your organisation it looks like brand’s bag – and not something the folks in HR, customer experience, L&D or anywhere else need worry about.
Only it is. And just calling it your language makes that plain.
Language. Changing the label makes it a much bigger deal.
At the nuts and bolts level of writing it’s not just about ‘tone’ anymore, but what choices you need to make so your message comes across most effectively. What content to use and what to leave out, and how to structure it to make things easy for your reader.
Then if we jump up to the jumbo company scale, it immediately gives you licence to apply your language to the kinds of things those ‘brand’ labels don’t get you near. Everything from bid writing to complaint handling, HR policies to annual reports.
It’s suddenly the entire business’s language, even if behind the scenes it’s brand who are pulling the strings.
It’s everyone’s responsibility and something everyone can use. And that means more people will reap the rewards of applying it to what they do.
We’ve been at it again. Fresh from encouraging more people to fly again with The Writer Airways™ than Virgin, we thought we’d put our linguistic hunches to the test in the banking world.
Our airline test was all about sounding human and packing personality into writing. So we thought we’d see if those same rules applied to the banks’ words; specifically, a few lines of marketing designed to nudge you into applying for a current account.
So, do people want personality in their bank’s writing? Well, no actually. When we asked people which words they associated with snippets of each bank’s writing, they said:
- Metro Bank was the most helpful (29%), useful (29%) and clear (30%)
- First Direct’s (the most distinctive, and often the linguistic envy of the banking world) was condescending (14%)
- Lloyds was boring (20%).
Pretty conclusive. Metro Bank’s writing was no great shakes; just a really straight description of their service. So is banking a totally different kettle of fish when it comes to language?
Well, trust in banks has taken a real dent in the past five years, and it looks like we’re seeing that in how people react to their writing. We want someone to make us feel like their business is stable, and that our cash is in safe hands. Helpful, clear and practical. (I’d bet that’s in some banks’ tone of voice guidelines.)
But if you’re a bank, the bad news is that won’t mark you out. And it won’t last forever. So once we’re all feeling safe and sound again, the canny ones will start putting the flair back into their writing to stand out from the steady eddies. Solidity was so 2013.
If you’d like to see what the press are saying about our research, click on these links below:
‘There’s not much to a bank you know, except its licence, its computer systems and its reputation.’
That’s what Mark Taylor, the ex-CEO of Barclays, said just after the Libor scandal story broke.
Now, everyone knows trust is the beating heart of banking. Without it, a bank has nothing. It’s dead. So it’s not surprising that amid the recent crises, the chief exec’s offices at RBS, Barclays, HSBC and now Standard Chartered downed tools to set about rescuing the banks’ reputations. They were desperate to claw back the credibility lost in the IT glitches, the Libor rate-fixing scam, the money laundering scandal and now, fresh for August, these undeclared transactions with Iran.
The CEOs themselves appear. They say sorry. They say they’ll fix things. The trouble is, often it’s just short-term damage limitation work.
But you can lose your reputation in an instant. Winning it back takes much longer, and can depend on the tiny details.
These crises are a beautiful opportunity to take the bull by the horns and change the culture of the bank from the inside out in a way that will stand the test of time.
Now we would say this, wouldn’t we, but language is one of the best tools any bank has to do that. It’s a reputation-building Swiss army knife.
The thing is, language is in everything a bank does. Right in the internal belly of the bank, it’s the emails each employee writes, it’s every HR document, it’s the policies, the intranet, even the employee welcome pack. Those nooks and crannies of the bank are the culture its people experience every day.
And on the outside it’s far more than the veneer of advertising. It’s the website, the press releases, the letters to customers and clients, how the bank writes to you when you make a complaint, and the Ts and Cs on the very back page of the current account brochure.
The global bank that takes its language seriously will find their reputation rising head and shoulders above the rest at a time like this.
Who’s it going to be?
There are two new high street banks floating about at the moment. They both want your attention, and they both want your cash. Those banks are Virgin Money and Metro Bank.
It’s a really interesting situation that banking hasn’t seen before – the public doesn’t know anything about either bank and that means there are no customer services records to see, no branches to visit, no stats, nothing. So the only ways to get you hooked are with their accounts. And with their branding.
Here’s some bits from Metro Bank’s boastful ‘about us’ page.
‘With our unique, customer-focused retail business we reinvent the rules of retail banking, making every effort to remove all stupid bank rules from our day to day services to offer simpler and more convenient banking to you.’ ‘We aim to exceed the expectations of our customers every day.’
And here’s some bits Virgin Money’s calm, honest ‘find out more’ page.
‘We’ve made no secret of our ambition to build a new kind of bank in the UK, one that makes everyone better off – customers, staff, shareholders, partners and the communities we serve.’ ‘We’re here to build a bank that’s fair, transparent and honest – bringing a fresh face and some much-needed competition to the high street.’
Which will do better? For me, calm and honest definitely beats boastful when it comes to keep my cash safe and sound, so my money’s on Virgin.
So today, this is happening.
À mon avis, one of the sillier public trials we’ve seen recently.
Paul Chambers is facing trial in a court of law for tweeting a joke. No, really. The story goes: he’s off to meet a lady from Northern Ireland for a date. But when he arrives at Robin Hood airport in Nottingham, it’s closed. And being a cheeky sort, he tweets: ‘Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed, you’ve got a week… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’. Fine, sure, very droll.
Just a man getting grumpy about some rubbish public transport. Nothing new. Let’s move on. Let’s not report Paul, send plain clothed officers to his house, search him, his house and his car, then arrest him and take him to court under the Crown Prosecution Service’s provisions against bomb hoaxers and try him in the High Court, because that would be madness.
Ah, too late.
Now, many people far more qualified than me can comment on just how silly and damaging this is for freedom of speech, or how seriously people take our law enforcement, or even the politics of social media. But it does seem that in an age when we tweet 300 million times a day, the law needs to catch up with just how fast publically available opinion is growing.
We all use hyperbole like Paul’s in speech every day and nobody bats an eyelid. But now, thankfully, everyone has the opportunity and the soapbox to air their views on sites like Twitter. And after all, it’s really just an ongoing conversation – everyone can be just as facetious and dramatic as we would be in real conversation. Which for my money, is brilliant.
It’s just a shame the law doesn’t think so eh? Keep up, law.
When I was little, I got a bike for my birthday. I was dead chuffed. It had 15 gears, it was blue (my favourite colour) and when I saw it was called ‘Jungle Lightning’ I knew I was going to be the coolest kid in all Winchester.
‘Wow, ‘Jungle Lightning’. This bike must be amazing! What a metaphor!’ I expect the kids cried. And that’s fine. Everything’s about what makes you sound like you can battle aliens when you’re seven.
But the next thing I know, I’m some sort of adult, and I want a bike. So I stroll into Halfords and ask the man what’s what when it comes to bikes for adult-type people. And when he does, I can’t help but chuckle.
They’re amazing aren’t they? Like some new elite team of marvel heroes; wonderful hyperbole for what is still just two wheels and a frame. And yet the aspiration of the names makes me really happy. (Although I do like the idea of naming bikes more mundane, honest things like ‘The all-new Apollo Ache’, or ‘The powerful new Raleigh Heave’.)
One of our Writer people owns a bike called ‘Space Falcon’, and something tells me it will never live up to that as she battles vans, buses and insidious people on terrifying bikes named ‘Stealth’ as she glides into work. I personally love that products live in a fantasy land where our kettles are called ‘Serenity’, our shoes are called ‘Anarchy’ and our razors are called ‘Gillette Fusion Power Gamer Razor’. Just so long as we all know they’re a little bit silly. Because I still want people to stare in awe (and confusion) when I mount my ‘Paradox’.
So tell me, what’s your bike called? The one you ride now, or your past pride and joy.
For me, yesterday was a sad day. Steve Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple.
It’s odd isn’t it? CEOs resign from companies all the time and nobody bats an eyelid. But the moment Steve Jobs goes everyone’s shouting it from the rooftops – even writing bizarre obituaries of his life. Like this.
A big part of his charm is how he communicates with people, the way he connects. We’ve all seen him stand up and deliver his speeches. He’s straightforward yet inspiring. And while he doesn’t get as much press for his writing, it’s just as effective.
In his letter of resignation, he’s really doing a lot of the things we think makes great business writing.
There’s a teensy preamble, then he dives straight in with the point: ‘I hereby resign as CEO of Apple’. Shame about the ‘hereby’, but he’s told us everything we need to know up front. We know what we’re reading, and why he wrote it.
A little later he starts a sentence with ‘And’. Just because it’s natural, it flows and it makes sense. Which is what Apple’s all about.
I could go on. But for every wordy hero, there’s a villain. Rebekah Brooks plays by different rules. This is her resignation letter.
It’s unnecessarily long and most people won’t have read it all the way through. Maybe only Rupert got that far. Maybe she doesn’t want you to. But I did (we are self-confessed word geeks at The Writer, after all).
I was looking for words ‘I resign’ on there. But it’s not until paragraph six we’re begrudgingly given ‘Therefore I have given Rupert and James Murdoch my resignation’
Like blood from a stone.
And generally it feels very evasive and robotic, I mean, have you ever heard anyone say ‘I leave with an abundance of friends’? No, because that person would definitely not have an abundance of friends. You’d edge away quietly, making sure you knew where their hands were.
So, CEOs of the world, if you want Joe Public here to think you’re not a clinical robot, make sure you tell it like it is. Sound human, be natural, and go out in style.
We’re always saying that words can make and save companies money.
But they can impact on the less tangible stuff in our lives too (though I don’t want to come on too ‘Paul McKenna’).
For example, I was walking though Oval station this week. It’s a strange cocoon of a station, sheltering you from the elements and the bustle of the streets outside with classical music and rousing quotes.
On this occasion it was a quote written on the staff noticeboard that grabbed me. One of Tolstoy’s finest:
“Music is the shorthand for emotion”.
What a lovely thought, I thought.
And I sauntered merrily down the escalator toward the tube, briefly inspired and touched by Tolstoy’s insight. Shortly afterwards I found myself getting far too intimate with a man’s elbow on the tube.
But despite that, Tolstoy stayed with me. And even in business writing, there’s always an opportunity to cajole, to inspire and stir your reader. Take it.
A good name is more precious than gold. It’s an old Irish saying, but some things never change.
Take last week, for example. I was listening to an old Ricky Gervais podcast where Stephen Merchant was excitedly talking about a band he’d seen advertised on a blackboard, outside a bar.
With everyone in the studio waiting with bated breath to hear what this brilliantly named band were called (and with my slight fascination with band names) I found myself gripped.
Until finally, he said “The band was called... Loose Change”.
After a long pause, I imagine everyone in the studio looked at each other in disbelief. Then smiles, sniggering and chortling turned to raucous, unabashed laughter.
How could a name be so dull? Could there be a less evocative, emotive or electrifying name for a band?
Cue suggestions of “Rough Outline” and “Pocket Fluff”. These names will never adorn a poster for Glastonbury. If a band can’t muster up some inspiration or spark in their name, it doesn’t give you much confidence in their ability to write good music, does it?
But that’s the value of a name. And in business it’s no different.
If you call your travel company “Annual Leave Solutions” or your latest proposal a “Leverage synergy initiative” people won’t be excited. And why should they be? You’re underselling your business. And if you don’t think you’re good, they’re not going to.
But get the name right and you’ll capture someone’s imagination (and maybe, their business).
So next time, think about your audience and give them a mountain of moula, not just loose change.