‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that’s most important.’
For years, that’s what brand agencies and language consultants have been telling their clients when selling them ‘tone of voice’. Want your customers to be more loyal? Your people to be more engaged? Your products and services to be more desirable? Just get rid of all that pesky jargon, business-speak or formality in your writing and voila.
After all, when everyone’s saying the same thing, saying it in a friendlier way will make all the difference, right?
Often, jargon and business-speak just mask the fact that actually, brands and organisations have nothing interesting to say. And changing that is a much bigger challenge than changing the way you write.
It means changing the way you think.
Here are five thoughts to get you started.
Think about the reader
That customer who’s just complained about someone being rude to them on the phone doesn’t give a hoot about the awards you’ve won for your service. And your people aren’t going to listen to how brilliant your newly merged company is if they’re worried about losing their jobs. So think about your reader. Who are they? What’s important to them? Cut through the spiel and spin and talk about what matters.
Your people, products and processes all need to live up to your messages. So make sure you join up your thinking between teams and departments. One of our clients wanted their messages to be all about making life easier and simpler for their customers. But clunky processes and creaky legacy systems meant their service didn’t live up to it. They needed to make sure those things were changing too, otherwise they’d be making promises they couldn’t keep. (And when the change actually happened, it became a really positive message in itself.)
Think one thought at a time
Don’t write things by committee, or try to tick off 20 ‘key messages’ in every piece of communication. It always sounds false, disjointed or forced (or all three). And anyway, your reader will only remember one or two things. So focus on the one or two main points you want them to take away.
Think like Einstein
Albert Einstein once explained relativity by saying, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.’ Note that he didn’t just find another word for ‘E=mc2’. He took a completely new look at relativity and explained it in a way that everyone, not just scientists, could understand.
And finally, think about your language
Once you’ve done all of that, you can think about the specific words you use – the bit the consultants would call ‘tone of voice’. Only this time, you’ll have something to say.