One of the tenets of Content Rules, a brand-new book published by Wiley this month about creating content as a cornerstone of your business’s marketing, is Rule #4:
“Speak human. Communicate your brand mission, values, and philosophy in simple terms, using the language of your customers. Speak in a conversational tone, with per sonality, empathy, and true emotion. Kill corporate-speak, buzzwords, and other language that makes you sound like a tool.”
Of all 11 content “rules” (which are more like guidelines, really), it’s the one I’d have guessed would be the most accessible. Everyone knows what that means, right? Because all of us are human? And all of our customers are, too?
But, surprisingly, it’s the rule that gets the most questions at the end of a presentation or speaking gig: “What does that really mean, to ‘speak human’?” “How can an organization communicate as a human, when it’s really anything but?”
The key is to create marketing content—like websites, blog posts, e-books, Tweets, Facebook posts and so on—that sound as though a person, not a corporate department, fashioned it.
Why is that important? Because “markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors,” said Rick Levine and his colleagues, authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Basic Books, 2000), a decade ago.
William Strunk and E.B. White said as much in the Elements of Style four decades before that, when they wrote about the importance of a straightforward communication style: “Write in a way that comes naturally... Be clear... Prefer the standard to the offbeat.”
In other words, communicating in a clear, straightforward manner makes both you and your business far more accessible to your would-be customers. I’m resisting using the word “authentic” here, because it strikes me as one of those overused, amorphous terms that lacks a precise meaning. Nonetheless, your organization will sound authentically real, as if it’s run by actual people (which it is, of course!), if you differentiate yourself by speaking in human terms.
There’s another benefit to communicating this way, too, especially for small businesses: It’s far easier to express your organization’s distinctive point of view based on your own mission and brand attributes when you speak in your own voice—when you speak human rather than corporatese.
Even if you run a business that sells to other businesses, you are still ultimately speaking to other humans. As Jellyvision founder Harry Gottlieb said earlier this year, “You may be marketing to all of your customers, but remember that you are always speaking to a single person in particular.”
So how do you speak human? One easy way is to simply write the way you talk. Specifically:
- Relax. Your voice should be natural, loose, and direct.
- Be conversational. Write a blog post, for example, as if you are writing a letter to a friend.
- As I’ve written about here before, avoid Frankenspeak and other jargon that makes you sound like a tool.
- And kill the patched-together “Franken-quotes,” too, which are what my friend Matthew Stibbe of the United Kingdom’s Articulate Marketing, calls “that hype-loaded thing in the press release or blog post...”
- Use informal colloquialisms or casual expressions. “They add fizz and ginger,” Matthew adds.
- Break some rules. Despite what you learned in school, you can start sentences with and, but, so and because.
- Show, don’t just tell. Use stories. Show how your products or services live in the real world, how they fit into the lives of your customers. Show your audience how your stuff helps people by telling them about those people, not by talking just about your stuff.
- Worry more about creating remarkable content; worry less about being professional. The minute a client starts talking about a need to come across as professional, “I start worrying,” says Matthew Stibbe, “because that’s when the buzzwords, the ‘end-to-end,’ ‘win-win’ jargon comes out. No one believes you when you use language like that.”
So what do you think? How do you give voice to your business?
Image credit: cybercafe
Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of Content Rules (Wiley, 2010). Follow her on Twitter @marketingprofs.