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The importance of language for your business

One of Quietroom’s founders, Vincent Franklin, chatted to us about the common language problems that businesses face and how to overcome them. You can follow Quietroom on Twitter here, and sign up to their quarterly newsletter here.

What does the Quietroom do?

We do three things: thinking, writing and training. We specialise in words and language and how you can use them to change behaviour. We work in all levels of organisations, both internally and externally: boards of directors that need to get people behind their mission, marketing departments that need to sell their wares, or retention teams that need to better understand their customers.

I got into this because I did some work for a pensions company, and I realised that there was no place where the chasm between customers and providers was bigger. It’s really only by changing the language that you can help people join in the conversation. You need to build a relationship and trust between the customer and the provider – particularly when it comes to pensions, medical services or electricity, where the product is invisible. You have to encourage customers to trust you.

What are the most common traps businesses fall into when it comes to language?

When people come to work for an organisation, they’re told loads of things: this is how to log on to your computer, this is how to book a holiday, this is how you’ll be paid, this is who you report to. They’re rarely told, ‘This is how we talk’. If they are, it’s usually just how the person next to them talks.

So people start using language that’s strange to them because they think it makes them sound professional. We start trying to become more formal than we’re comfortable with, but we actually end up using distant language that takes the energy out of how we write. We work too hard and we forget that language is about building relationships. Readers have to feel a certain way about things – they have to feel an emotional pull and be engaged. You might get people’s respect but you’ll never get their trust.

When it comes to writing, the biggest myth is that we [at Quietroom] are asking people to dumb down. Take writing a letter with a complicated message: research shows that if you stick to the point and write with verbs, nouns and short sentences, people will think the letter comes from someone high up the organisation. Equally, if something sounds overly complicated, people will think it comes from those lower down the chain. Of course, sometimes we have to say really complicated things – but you can make things clear even if they’re not simple. That means putting the right words in the right order. The point of language is to bring people towards you ­ – you won’t achieve that if you’re just trying to sound clever.

Should businesses speak differently to staff than to customers?

Consistency is really important. Groovy, funky communications from the HR department might be great to start off with, but then you get the contract through and it’s really formal – so it feels like a Jekyll and Hyde situation. It’s really important to find a way of talking that can remain consistent.

Similarly, when it comes to businesses talking to their customers, the promise from the brand should be the same when you first sign up as when things go wrong and get complicated. That might mean toning down your grooviness and warming up your more formal, complicated literature.

We believe in making things clear, vivid and real. Clear means that people get it first time; it’s immediately understandable and the words are in the right order. Vivid means words that resonate emotionally, using verbs to create energy. Real means going into their world and not expecting them to come into yours.

What advice would you give to a business just starting out and trying to define its tone of voice?

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Lots of small businesses try to behave like a big company and put long, pompous words on their site to make it sound as though they’ve been around for a long time. Instead, it’s better to focus on the positives: we’re a small company so we’re agile, can respond to your needs quickly and have low overheads.

The most important thing, though, is to focus on your customer. There’s a massive difference between companies that talk about themselves and how long they’ve been going for, and those that talk about their customers and those customers’ needs.

Is there a process they should follow?

Well, if you leave it to chance, it’ll all go wrong. Make sure that whatever document you put together will help people to write something well again and again. Brand guidelines are either very vague – who wouldn’t write in a ‘human’ way? – or they’re far too prescriptive. To find a middle ground, you need to ask: what are the ideas I can take and repeat? What is it that makes a sentence good? And you need a rationale that will always hold true, for example, ‘We talk about people; we don’t talk about things.’

What’s the best way to train people in language? How can businesses ensure their staff understand a tone of voice and stick to it?

One of the problems for large corporations is that they’re run by people with expertise in quite specific things, but then they might employ a young graduate to do their marketing and they won’t listen to that person. You need to respect the expertise that other people in your organisation have.

How has Quietroom helped businesses in the past?

We rewrote a load of letters for HMRC that were about an investigation into tax affairs, and reduced complaints about those letters by 50 per cent – so we recovered a massive potential drain on resources. We also helped a high street bank’s telephone team who were talking to people who wanted to take money out of bonds – and saved the business £500 million that it expected to lose.

In short, language has a huge impact. If there’s one thing I’d suggest, it’s write like your customer. Don’t always be trying to sell people something and speak in clear, positive language. Tell people, ‘I can solve your problems’. Don’t say, ‘I can offer you solutions’.

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