Blog in Bits and pieces
‘Our tone’s just for our adverts, right? We can’t talk to customers the same way.’
You’ve put out your statement around Black Lives Matter on social media. You’ve added a banner on your website, explaining what you’re doing to support the movement. Job done, right?
Maybe not. In the quest for authenticity around social issues, focussing on big Above the Line moments isn’t enough. Your message needs to chime from every corner of your organisation.
Everyone’s a writer
Think about all the people who write on behalf of your business – customer service agents responding to chat messages and emails. The teams managing your social media. Even your finance and accounts teams chasing people up for payments. All of those people need to be on-message, too.
When they’re not, customers feel like they’re talking to a different company every time they speak to you. Which pretty quickly makes them question which side of you to trust. The empathetic messaging around COVID-19, or the short sharp emails from customer services?
When everyone’s on-message, it shows that your words have substance – and it creates nice moments that people take notice of. Like when Yorkshire Tea took the time to correct someone on social who assumed they weren’t supporting BLM:
Train people in your tone, and your messaging
Make sure any of the hundreds of people who might be writing on behalf of your brand are all on the same page.
That means getting them trained in your tone of voice, so they know how to sound. And it means equipping them with a regularly updated bank of key messages, setting out your brand’s stance on anything from the easing of social distancing measures to upcoming elections.
Those stances don’t have to be ground-breaking. But having them set out somewhere easily available makes it less likely that one of your colleagues will undermine all of your messaging efforts with an ill-timed tweet or complaint response.
As the year goes on, who knows what brands – and all of us – will need to react to next. But by getting your story straight, saying it with conviction and keeping everyone on message, you’ll make sure your words feel relevant and timely, and not like you’re taking advantage.
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. Find the first blog here.
‘We’re committed to endeavouring to attempt to support our customers. Um, where possible. Subject to change.’
If your biggest fear about reactive messages is sounding inauthentic, don’t just pay attention to what you say. Pay attention to how you say it. Certain words, clichés or types of language signal to readers that you’re not being genuine. Here’s how to keep it real.
Stop being ‘committed to’ things – and start doing them
In businesses’ responses to the pandemic, two words probably cropped up more than any others: committed to. Brands have told us they’re committed to our health and safety, to continuing to bring us great service, to getting back to business as soon as possible.
The trouble with those words is they don’t actually mean anything. You could be committed to going for a run – but until you’ve actually laced up your shoes and forced yourself out of the front door, that commitment is just hot air.
So look out for hedging language like that in your writing – other common culprits include endeavouring to, aiming to, and caveats like where possible – and cut it. Get straight to the action you’re taking instead.
Use concrete language
When you do get to describing the actions your brand’s taking, use concrete language to make those actions sound clear and convincing. Concrete language is tangible – words we can see, hear or touch.
On UK supermarket Sainsbury’s website, they say they’re ‘working to feed the nation’ throughout the coronavirus pandemic. That sounds much more solid and believable than if they’d said something abstract that we can’t picture, like ‘we’re continuing to provide for our customers’.
Don’t tell customers you understand – show them
Showing empathy in language is hard – and the easiest route can feel like relying on phrases like ‘we know times are difficult’ or ‘we understand that you may be feeling uncertain’. But telling people you understand them isn’t the same as… actually understanding them.
Instead of reaching for these phrases, show that you get it by listening to customers, and giving them the content they need and want from you now.
Like this nice and simple message on Airbnb’s website:
They haven’t said ‘we understand that travel abroad may not be possible right now, and you might be feeling stir-crazy at home’. They’ve shown that they get it by pointing customers to staycations and online experiences.
By avoiding hedging language, abstract terms and those ‘tell’ phrases, you’ll come across as more genuine, and make your messages stand out from the dozens of brands saying the same thing.
Now that we’ve covered the what and how, in our final blog in this series we’ll look at the where – how to filter your new messaging through everything you do.
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. Watch out for the final blog here. Or go back to the first one.
‘We should probably comment on this. Hmm, what can we say?’
Brands needing to react to the news is nothing new. But between a global pandemic and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 has made topical messaging pretty much a full-time job for marketing departments. And they’ve got big expectations to live up to as these days, we want the brands we buy from to show they care about social issues.
But topical messages can be a minefield. In this blog series, we’ll look at three ways to make sure you’re positively contributing to the conversation – and not just jumping on the bandwagon. And that starts with getting your story straight.
Your ad-hoc posts need something solid to back them up
It’s not enough to send out an email telling customers you’re committed to their safety at this difficult time, or post a #BlackoutTuesday black square on Instagram. Consumers are all-too-wary of the cookie cutter ‘social issue response’ from brands, as this post perfectly sums up:
To avoid looking like you’re paying lip service, your words need to be backed up by actions. In the case of Black Lives Matter, for example, are you championing Black voices in your content? Donating to organisations that fight racism? Changing your hiring practices to find more diverse talent?
And all of that needs to be backed up by a solid brand story – your purpose, values, vision and taglines. The core pieces of storytelling that will back up the more reactive messaging.
Now’s the time to reassess your messaging
A recent survey of UK Twitter users found that 93% of us don’t want brands to go back to their pre-Covid messaging. So if there was ever a good time to re-jig how you talk about your business, it’s now.
Gather together the core pieces of your brand story – usually found on your website About Us and your brand positioning documents - and take a long, hard look at them. Do they hold up in 2020? Or, like KFC’s Finger Lickin’ Good, do they suddenly feel out of step?
Sort your brand messaging into what you can keep, what you need to update, and what needs to go. And don’t forget to involve all your teams. Make it a diverse group and ask them what they think your brand stands for, what it means to them. Because that’s where you’ll find a truly authentic story.
Of course, once you’ve figured out what your story is, you need to work on how you say it. More on that in part 2 of this series…
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. You can read part two here.
Herd immunity, incubation periods, zoonotic. Over the past few months, the general public’s vocabulary has exploded with medical terminology and niche scientific jargon.
‘Ah, the R rate,’ we nod intelligently. ‘Of course, the distinction between the R number and the growth rate is crucial.’ A few BBC articles down, and we’re all expert epidemiologists.
… Except of course, we’re not.
It’s good that we’re all learning more about something that’s changing our daily lives. But coming into contact with so much technical terminology can cause a fair few problems for us as readers. There’s a lesson here for the scientific and medical industries in general: what’s the right way to talk about complex topics?
Two problems with jargon
1. By definition, it’s exclusive
Jargon is defined as ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’. The part about ‘a profession or group’ is important: jargon is insider language. It signals to people who aren’t in the know that they’re on the outside.
In the wrong hands, that insider feeling can be used to deliberately obscure meaning – throw around enough complex words, and your listener might give up trying to understand, and just assume you know what you’re talking about.
2. It makes us switch off
An Ohio State University study from February this year found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics.
In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to disengage readers.)
So let’s assume you don’t want to deliberately pull the wool over your reader’s eyes, or bore them to tears. How can you use language to draw people in, not push them out?
Think like your reader
When you’re an expert surrounded by other experts, it’s difficult to un-know all the sector-specific knowledge in your head. Test your writing out on a family member or friend – do they get it? If not, you need to find a simpler way in.
The fix might be as simple as defining a scientific term when you first use it – even if that feels dumbed down to a pro. But sometimes it might mean rethinking how you frame the information, and whether all the new vocabulary is helping or hindering your reader.
Acronyms send a signal to our brain that what we’re about to read looks like hard work. So avoid them when you can.
Let’s say you’re writing about ACE2, the protein in our cells that coronavirus attaches to (told you I was an expert epidemiologist). The first time you use it, explain what it is. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the protein…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
Use language we can see, hear or touch
What’s clearer: ‘Maintain social distancing’ or ‘Keep a car length away’?
Concrete language that we can see, hear or touch is much easier for our brains to process than abstract concepts. Try using more verbs (doing words) than nouns in your writing, and using language you can physically imagine. In the public health realm, people will be more likely to do what you’re asking of them if they can picture it.
We’ll never be able to do away with technical terms – nor should we try to. They’re important for accuracy, and as a shorthand when we’re talking to others who are in the know. But when you’re trying to communicate niche ideas to the public, they work against you. So keep the jargon behind closed doors. Now, excuse me while I google R rate again.
More than any other type of comms, emails run the risk of coming across the wrong way. And when it comes to communicating about coronavirus, the particular words we choose matter more than ever.
We recently ran a webinar where we shared three psychological effects that come into play when we’re writing and reading emails. And the tips to overcome them.
Here, we’ve summed up all the good stuff in three blogs. Find the first blog in the series here.
#3 Know the feeling you want to get across
In our last post we touched on how emotion can get miscommunicated over email: you read an email one way, when the sender meant it to come across totally differently. Linked to that are the neutrality and negativity effects, which come from the research of psychologist Kristin Byron.
A mismatch of intent and effect
Byron suggests that if you intend your message to seem positive, there’s a good chance it’ll be read as neutral. And if you think you’re coming across as neutral, there’s a chance you’ll sound negative.
It’s about a lack of cues
In email you can’t see people’s facial expressions, body language or reactions. Without being able to see a quizzical look or a raised eyebrow, we don’t know an email is landing badly. Nor can our reader see the smile that tells them that our comment was a joke – not a dig.
Knowing that these effects exist is half the battle
As writers, it means we’ll be more aware of how our emails might be misconstrued. And as readers, it can help us question whether Dan from HR using so many full stops really means he’s annoyed at us. We could give him the benefit of the doubt.
Beyond that, the best way to stop emotion getting lost over email is to pinpoint the exact feeling you’re going for. Think beyond negative, neutral and positive. Do you want your readers to feel relieved? Hopeful? Calmed? Curious? Tuning in to the specific emotion you’re trying to convey will help you review your writing, and make sure you’re using language that evokes that feeling.
A word of warning
If you want your email to convey a positive emotion, don’t default to using lots of upbeat adjectives and exclamation marks. The adjectives will mean you’re telling your reader how you want them to feel, rather than actually moving them to feel that way. This is a great opportunity! What an exciting initiative!
And exclamation marks will likely make you sound over-excited or shouty. Don’t do it!!! (See.)
Three ways to beat the neutrality and negativity effects
- Pick the specific emotion you’re aiming for in your reader, and use language that evokes it.
- Know that you might have to dial the feeling you’re going for up slightly – it gets dampened somewhere in cyberspace.
- Don’t rely on hackneyed phrases, exclamation marks and positive adjectives to create a mood.
If your words need work, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org