Monthly Archives: January 2015

You can build a business – but what about a voice?

January 13, 2015

A couple of guys I know have just started their own business. I’ve been chatting to them about their customer comms.

These guys are great. As well as having a brilliant business idea, they’ve got bags of personality. They’re articulate, funny, and seriously know their onions. I reckon they’ll go far. Even so, a strange things happens when they deal with their (brand new) customers.

They start writing weird, sales-y things in their emails. They start saying awkward, scripted things on the phone that they’d never say to their friends or family. And, ultimately, they start sounding like salesmen, rather than the lovely, easy-going, genuine blokes they really are. It’s as if, in putting on their suits and ties, they’ve left their personalities at the door.

So why does this happen? For a start, we’re surrounded by pushy advertising and marketing speak all day, every day. Most of the corporate comms that drops onto our doormat or into our inbox is mediocre or worse, but we get used to it. And when we go to work, and flick some kind of mental switch that says we have to start being ‘professional’, all that corporatese starts coming out of our own mouths. We start signing off emails with ‘best regards’, even though the phrase itself makes us want to headbutt the water cooler.

And these two guys, like most people in their position, are instinctively reaching for this kind of recognised business-speak. After all – even if it’s not very good, and not really a reflection of who they are, at least it’s familiar.

All this makes me think of a singing teacher I once had. She said that singing isn’t about doing the right things – it’s stopping doing all the things that get in the way. Instead of trying to do something, she said, we just need to focus on our breathing and tell the story. It’s not easy to explain, but it made sense: for instance, on those high notes it’s no good straining and tightening the neck and throat – you’ve got to get all that tension out of the way, and just let the voice out.

And I suppose the same is true for these two guys. They don’t need to build a tone of voice so much as strip away all the stuff that’s stopping their real voice getting out. For them – and for many others like them – I wonder whether it’s less about creating something new than freeing something that’s already there.


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Words, meaning, and looking like a weapon

January 13, 2015

The English language is a subtle thing. A single word can send many bells of meaning ringing in your head. For instance, a couple of years ago I was horrified when a wedding venue emailed me to confirm the details for my ‘function’ (function?? Like a day of boring chat in a smelly room with a bad carpet? Didn’t they realise they were talking about MY BIG DAY? *diva strop*).

That’s why Ed Miliband has got himself into so much trouble. He’s accused of telling a group of BBC executives that he plans to ‘weaponise’ the NHS – something the Prime Minister describes as ‘a disgusting thing to say’.

The problem for Ed is that ‘weaponise’ is of course an extremely resonant word – it strikes a vivid chord. It’s a word of war, and – as such – brings to mind all the horror that comes with it. Troops mobilising, cities falling. And, thanks to the suffix, it’s got that cold-blooded, jargony-y flavour – that whiff of corporate speak (‘yeah, guys, we need to incentivise, verbalise, patronise and dehumanise. Action that’).

More importantly, we all accept that the words we choose say something about what we believe. I inferred lots of things from that measly word, ‘function’ – it was a clue that those smiley wedding planners who had spent all morning feeding me champagne and cooing over my engagement ring were not actually as excited about my wedding as they claimed to be, but were – in fact – just rolling another sale through the books. And Ed’s detractors have decided that this one explosive word says something about how Ed sees the NHS: not as something to make people better, but as something to wield against his enemies. Something to cause hurt and humiliation. Which is, as we all know, the opposite of everything the NHS stands for.

With this one little, loaded word, Ed has really shot himself in the foot.

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Don’t take it from me – take it from a brain surgeon

January 7, 2015

When I run writing workshops , I encourage people to spot – and avoid – the kind of heavy, corporate prose that turns readers off. I explain why it’s a good idea to ditch long words and business-speak, and instead choose simple words that strike a chord. Why torture people by ‘aligning departmental strategic objectives’ when you can ‘make sure all teams are working to the same goals’?

However, at this point in the workshop, at least one person starts to freak out. ‘Our work is complicated. Isn’t that language too… simple?’ they say. ‘Don’t we need to write in a way that’s more professional?’

No. We need to write in a way that is clear,  and – most importantly of all – human. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh (CBE), whose book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery manages to illustrate this point perfectly.

Marsh tells us about a time he chastised a junior colleague, a Senior House Officer who was giving an update about an elderly patient:

He turned a little sheepishly to face us.

‘Apparently she lived on her own and was self-caring and self-ambulating.’

‘Self-catering as well?’ I asked. ‘And self-cleaning like an oven? Does she wipe her own bottom? Come on, speak English, don’t talk like a manager. Are you trying to tell us that she looks after herself and can walk unaided?’

‘Yes,’ he replied.

The reason I love this is that Marsh is probably one of the brainiest people on the planet, and is doing the most complex and important work imaginable. But he doesn’t try to demonstrate this by using jargon and complicated language – in fact, he shows his deep understanding of his position through clarity and humanity. He reveals the truth of the situation by using real, everyday language. Unlike his junior colleague, who talks about the patient like an electrical appliance, Marsh reminds us that she’s a person, a lady, who lives alone but doesn’t need anyone to look after her.

Marsh’s language doesn’t make his message sound too simple, or – in fact, it only shows that he really ‘gets it’. It shows how smart he really is.

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