WHY ‘WHAT’ SHOULD COME BEFORE ‘HOW’

I’m sitting on a train as it screeches gratuitously to a halt having barely left the platform. It’s nearly 9pm and the starkly lit carriage is half empty. Across from me is an urbane fellow in his early 30s – that stony expression so popular with commuters etched on his face.

His baritone voice projects – I can’t help but avoid snippets of his phone conversation. Phrases like: “I accept that,” “I’ll manage her expectations” and “They certainly didn’t indicate that in the email”.

Now I think about it, all this jargon could get annoying. Four stops to go – hopefully the train gets moving soon, then maybe he (let’s call him Jargon Guy) will get off at the next stop and take his office speak with him.

Then again, perhaps I should be more tolerant and less judgmental. But that’s hardly the point…

Because the reality is, a snap judgment based on a first impression you’ve got little tolerance for when it pops up in your face as you go about your day, sums up the way many people form perceptions of brands.

THE UNIVERSAL TRUTH ABOUT TONE OF VOICE

That’s why the following bit of tonal advice is pretty much universal: “Sound like someone you like.” It’s a simple tip that always rings true in workshops. But with it comes a deeper commitment – an often-overlooked unwritten contract between brand and customer…

If you’re going to sound like someone you like then act like someone you like, too.

Even better, start acting in ways that send out the right signals before (or at least at the same time as) you start finding the right words to help your brand articulate itself best.

Which brings me back to Jargon Guy. The train’s moving again now, two stops have come and gone since I first tuned-in to his voice and along the way I’ve just started to notice something unexpected… It turns out that it’s Jargon Guy’s BROTHER on the phone. And the two of them are talking about their PARENTS. The “managed expectations” mentioned a few stops back, will be the expectations of Jargon Guy’s dear old mum.

This surprises me a bit as I’d first assumed he was talking to someone at work about an office move, or something similarly tiresome. Intrigued, I open my ears wider and start to realise something way more interesting. The jargon assault I’d previously anticipated hasn’t happened. With each passing train stop headed out of London, it’s as if Jargon Guy’s language has instead become incrementally more natural and less business-like.

As we approach my stop and I gather up my things, all becomes clear. Jargon Guy and his Brother are planning a surprise birthday party for their Mum. Good on him. And shame on me for writing him off as just another self-obsessed salary man. The joke’s on me really, sat there as I was wondering how to turn my frustrated observations into something for work and being too train shy to pick up the phone to my own brother for a long-overdue chat.

IF YOU HAVEN’T GOT ANYTHING INTERESTING TO SAY…

Whatever it was that broke the language spell for Jargon Guy, it’s easy to understand why people – and brands – can end up sounding a certain way in the first place. Using jargon, writing to please your boss rather than a customer, relying on terminology and assumptions, rattling off motherhood statements and even arse-covering, can all come into play. Especially when it comes to the written word.

It’s corrosive, infectious and sends out all the wrong signals. But with the right direction and a little dedication these things are straightforward to fix.

I personally believe that if you can write, then you can improve your writing. It’s as simple as that (and a lot of hard work in between). What’s harder to fix though is what’s going on underneath the voice.

It can take an enormous amount of planning, energy and creativity to get a brand walking the walk. It also takes buy-in and action from the most senior people in the business. But whether it’s through product, service, content, experience, or a blend of different things, there are plenty of brands that manage to pull it off (Zappos, Mr Porter, Lego, Warby Parker, the list is long).

Of course, unlike Jargon Guy, they’ve never really suffered from strangers judging them for their dreary language choices. But just like Jargon Guy, they’ve got heart and are making the effort to show it.

And when you’re showing heart, it makes the transition from a dull, corporate and aloof tone of voice easier to achieve – as well as making your brand all the more believable, memorable and likeable for it.

Kevin Johns is Associate Director, Brand Language, at The Clearing

Image courtesy Arileu

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