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Sticks and stones

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How much do the words you use genuinely reflect your brand? How hard do you think about the words you use and how you use them?

Researching a new client last week, I looked through other websites in their sector. Naturally, they were similar, outlining highly specialist services in an industry I know little about. But in this case, it was like the same person had written them… and I was still none-the-wiser about what any of the companies really did. The language was overly complicated, incredibly technical and the descriptions were so very, very long.

True, those technical websites are not selling their services to me. The people who commission work from them would (hopefully) understand every word. But even then, there’s no need to bore them into submission. And none of them gave any sense of what the experience would be like to work with them.

If the product or service your brand provides is the same as your competition, finding something that makes you stand out is a constant challenge. As you zig, others zag, and your whole sector is in one big slalom race to win new business. If you’re the one coming down the slope saying things differently to the rest, you will be the one they remember.

Knowing your audience, what they will relate to and understand, is one of the most important starting points before you put pen to paper. Not just their demographics, their role in the decision-making and their understanding of your service, but also what emotional impact is going to be most effective. Do your words need to reassure them, motivate, entertain or simply inform?

Think about how your words will lead them to describe your brand and the relationship they can expect to have with it, not just what it can do for them.

Be prepared to focus some energy on getting the words right. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.

I can generally string a sentence together, but sometimes it comes out as complete and utter gobbledegook. Sometimes, people must look at me with confusion about the garbled splurge that falls out of my mouth. While, at other times, something comes out to make me scan the room to see if someone smarter actually said it.

Many years ago, I was in meetings with someone who was incredibly articulate. Coupled with a lovely voice and lofty reputation, they seemed so beautifully erudite that I found myself nodding and agreeing. Until, one day, I listened carefully to the words themselves and realised that it was actually nonsense. As the least experienced in the room, I figured the only way to learn was to ask them to explain. They said it again, simpler. Leaving the meeting, most of the room whispered their thanks as they had no idea what the rambling was about either!

The lesson in that for me was that yes, language is a beautiful thing but using it effectively is more important.

I lost the opportunity to work with a client once because I condensed the proposal document into something concise and pithy. I had assumed that they would prefer me to get to the point, with brief summaries rather than pages of lengthy rationale. He acknowledged that my recommendations were sound and that I had covered everything he needed, but he wanted to be convinced by the rigour of the thought behind them.

If you choose to simplify or take a very casual conversational approach, you also have to be confident that your audience will connect with your language style.

Fortunately, New Zealanders are generally comfortable with a level of informality reasonably early in relationship. It’s important to understand your audience’s acceptance of this from your brand.

It used to be that we considered whether a contraction (such as we’re rather than we are) came across as too casual, or to go easy on the exclamation marks. Now informality can mean things like whether it’s OK to swear and the use of emoji.

If you feel this is genuinely appropriate and authentic to your brand, go for your life. But if you feel that your audience isn’t ready for colourful language or quirky yellow faces and cartoon fruit, be prepared to have to take them on a journey with your brand, but at the right time and in the right places.

The words we use and the tone in which we express them have two important goals. One is for our words to be authentic to how we want our brand to be heard. The other is for them to connect to the people we want to hear them. Understand both and both will win.

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About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz