“I don’t know the rules of grammar…If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.”
Wise words from ‘50s advertising icon David Ogilvy. And it still rings very much true —perhaps more so — today. We’ve spent many collective hours persuading clients that it’s okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” And that it’s even acceptable to use sentence fragments on occasion. Like we’re doing right now. So why are we encouraging our clients to show such contempt for the rigid rules of grammar? In a word: Voice.
We believe that businesses, like people, can and should have a voice. Preferably a distinct one. Your voice is the language of your brand, the expression of who you are and what you stand for. More than the words on your brochure or website or Facebook page, your voice comes across not just in what you’re saying but the tone in which you say it. Think “Make sure you’re drinking enough milk” vs “Got milk?” They’re pretty much saying the same thing, but the way they’re said — the voice — is completely different.
Your voice depends on who you are as a company, how you want to be perceived, what it’s like to do business with you, and what kind of emotional reaction you want from your audience (your brand, in other words). It can be playful or poetic, irreverent or inspiring, brash or humble. But above all, it should be human.
Regardless of where you’re speaking to your customers — online, in print, in the flesh — you should sound like a person talking to another person. Even if you’re a business selling to other businesses, you’re still trying to make a connection with carbon-based life forms, right? Which means the voice you use in your communications should be personable, accessible, relatable. Or, as David Ogilvy insightfully put it, “use their language, the language they use every day.”
Oh, the humanity.
So how do you sound less like a business and more like a human? To begin with, think about what kind of “human” your organization would be. If your company were a person, how would it dress? In five-inch heels and leather pants, or flip flops and board shorts? What kind of vehicle would your business drive? A 1960s muscle car or a MINI Cooper? What would it rather stuff its face with? Buffalo wings or a Bulgari caviar? Would it surf, ski, or sit on the couch binging on The Walking Dead? How would it spend its Saturday night: at the symphony or diving head-first into a mosh pit? You get the picture.
Once you have a clear idea as to what kind of human your company would be, you can better identify your voice. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- What’s the personality of your voice? Is it adventurous, fun-loving, compassionate? Choose three or four words that best describe who you are.
- What tone should you adopt for your voice? Down-to-earth, bold, uplifting? Sassy and sarcastic, or straight-forward and serious?
- What kind of language should you use? Simple, humorous, slang-y?
- What’s the purpose behind your voice? To educate, inspire, entertain?
Speak their language.
We also advise our clients to consider who they’re talking to when identifying their voice. Is your audience young and trendy, or older and more practical? Mostly male, female, or a mix of both? Will they respond to humor, are they street-smart, do they read The New Yorker or Rolling Stone? By speaking your audience’s language, your voice tells them that you get them. So the more you know about that audience, the more likely you’ll land on a voice that connects with them on a personal level.
Use your words. But not all of them.
Figuring out what not to say can be just as important as knowing what to say. We’ll often help our clients put together a list of off-limits words that have no place in their voice. For example, we recommended that a senior living community stop using the term “residents” (which sounds cold and impersonal) when talking about the people who live there, and instead refer to them as “community members” (much more welcoming). It’s a shift in language they’ve adopted across all their communications as well as their staff.
To help create a more authentic voice, we also encourage our clients to avoid jargon and unnecessarily complicated words. So, instead of “utilize,” just say “use.” Out-of-the-box thinking? Please throw that tired old phrase right out the window. Best practices? Why not say “Here’s what works” instead. Keep it simple, and you’ll also sound more human.
Embrace the contraction.
Along with simplicity, we urge our clients (even those who sell to other businesses) to be conversational and approachable in their voice. That means forgoing stilted, formal, overly professional language for a more casual approach. By all means, use contractions (“you’re” instead of “you are,” “won’t” instead of “will not”). Loosen up a little. After all, that’s the way people talk to each other in daily life — even during board meetings.
Make it personal. As much as possible, use “you,” “we,” and “our” in your voice. Speak directly to your audience, from a personal point of view. “We’re here to help you,” sounds so much more inviting than “ACME Industries is here to help customers.” Forget this B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business) stuff. It’s all about P2P (people to people). Let your voice reflect that.
Loud and clear.
Once you’ve defined and refined your voice, make sure you amplify it to its full extent. That voice should come across in every communication and interaction you have with your audience — from a single tweet to a 20-page annual report. Make sure your employees understand your voice and how to speak it so that it becomes embedded in your culture.
The best way to understand what we mean by voice, is to see (and hear) some in action. Here’s a sampling of strong, defining and differentiating brand voices from small businesses across a variety of industries. While each is different, you’ll find they all share certain qualities that make them accessible, personable, fun. And human.
You can almost hear the growl of the twin cam engine in this web copy. It’s aggressive, masculine, and adrenalized. And makes us want to don a pair of leather chaps and ride off into the sunset on one.
We’re gaga over this microbrew’s voice, which is self-deprecating, has a great sense of humor, and is just plain ol' having a blast making and selling beer. Check out their Awesome Stuff videos.
Trader Joe’s down-to-earth, homey, eclectic, humble-pie voice permeates just about everything this chain of grocery stores does — from its website to the store signage to its product packaging to its low-budget newspaper. People love TJs so much, they’ve written songs about it.
See, even a flooring company can have a great voice. This Kansas City-based small business uses simple language, strong word choices, and bold statements that speak to their work ethic, integrity, and unpretentious craftsmanship.
This iconic Detroit-based watchmaker embraces its history, blue-collar American identity, and urban locale in its straight-forward, working-class voice with just the right hint of pride and attitude.
This website is a great example of an approachable, conversational and casual voice from a surprising source: A financial institution. Who knew banking could be fun?
We applaud Wendy’s fast food chain for taking a huge risk with their voice on social media, specifically on Twitter. They’ve brought the sass and the snark, and it’s definitely grabbing attention. Our favorite recent tweet:
@McDonalds So you’ll still use frozen beef in MOST of your burgers in ALL of your restaurants? Asking for a friend.
We’d love to hear your voice.
If you’re still not sure what your business voice is, or how to go about projecting it, have no fear. There are professionals (oh, like us for example) out there who excel in just this kind of thing. Let’s talk voice. One human to another.