Five ways companies can use language better in 2020

Samuel Pollen
Jan 6 · 5 min read

As the Head of Digital Writing at Reed Words, my job is to make products and companies better with words. I believe the right words can help businesses get more done, win new customers, and keep their current ones happy. But all too often, they approach language in the wrong way.

It’s a new year — and a new decade — which means lots of businesses are looking to shake up the way they communicate. If you’re one of them, here are five things to bear in mind.

1. You don’t (just) need tone of voice guidelines

I’ve seen hundreds of tone of voice (or “verbal identity”) projects over the years. All too often, they go like this:

  1. A client hires a design agency to change the way they look.
  2. As part of this, the design agency sells in tone of voice guidelines.
  3. There is a workshop. The client is asked to describe themselves by rearranging flash cards containing words like “friendly”, “authentic”, “bold”, “innovative”, and “human”.
  4. The design agency calls in a freelance writer, or another agency, to write the guidelines. These include lots of rules like “Use the first person” and “Use short sentences”.
  5. The client — usually a Brand Manager, or a Head of Marketing — thinks these rules sound terrific, and signs the guidelines off.
  6. No one knows quite what to do with the guidelines. After a few weeks, they are put in a drawer.

The mistake is in treating verbal identity in the same way as visual identity — as a project that can be outsourced and “fixed” in a few weeks, without any internal effort.

But the way you talk isn’t the same as the way you look. Your employees all use language, every day. It’s impossible to script those interactions, or create a simple set of rules for them.

So what’s the alternative? You need to bring your employees along with you. Most of us communicate perfectly well without any guidelines in our day-to-day lives. We know when to make a joke, when we’re boring someone. Any successful tone of voice project harnesses those natural skills, instead of suppressing them.

No one looks at their company brand book every morning.

2. Stop trying to be everyone’s friend

I mentioned the word “friendly” above, because more than anything else, that’s the thing companies want to be. They want to say “Hello Anita” instead of “Dear Mrs Singh”. In turn, they want Anita to think fondly of them, and recommended them to all her friends.

I’m all for making corporate communications less stuffy, and more direct. But you know what? I don’t want my energy supplier to be my friend. I don’t want an email saying, “What’s up, Sam? Chuck us some meter readings when you’ve got a tick.”

Being friendly isn’t a problem per se, for the right company. But all too often, it’s a lazy substitute for being useful and interesting.

Slack’s loading messages. Initially charming, quickly annoying (but happily replaceable).

3. Think purpose, write detail

People who work in the creative industries love to tell you that every company needs a purpose. A clearly articulated purpose is indeed a powerful thing. The mistake is in thinking your customers particularly care about it, or want to hear about it more than they want to hear about what you’ll do for them.

Don’t tell people you’re on this planet to make life insurance simpler. Show them you are. Talk about your ultra-simple plans, your brilliant customer service, the hidden fees all of your competitors charge. A purpose should guide what you say and what you do. It shouldn’t be your main message.

“Show, don’t tell” is a maxim that most writers live by. Companies should do the same.

4. Be skeptical about data

“Title case is 57% more effective.” “Always include the recipient’s name in the subject line.” “You only have three seconds to get someone’s attention.”

I hear statements like these all the time. If you query them, you’re told, “I think it’s from a study someone did.” No source. No context.

I love data, and I think writers need to get more comfortable with the idea of testing and learning from users (sadly, fine words often don’t butter any parsnips). But I’m very skeptical when I see people turn one stat from one study into a hard-and-fast rule for all copywriting.

It always depends on the product, and the font size, and the other text on the page, and the intended audience. I did a psychology degree, so I feel somewhat qualified to tell you that behavioural science is extremely contextual. Don’t accept something as true just someone puts a number against it.

5. If you want to write better, write accessibly

One in six UK adults has “very poor literacy skills”. That’s 7.1 million people. In this context, there’s an obvious benefit to writing in clear, simple English: far more people will understand what you’re saying.

But it goes deeper than that. You may have heard of “cognitive load” — the idea that a human brain can only take in so much at once, before it starts to smoulder and turn black. Much of design now revolves around reducing cognitive load — fewer choices, fewer colours, a smoother path from A to B.

The same concept applies to writing. Simpler really is better. Less really is more. Crucially, this is true even if your audience are skilled readers, because cognitive load applies to all of us. Academics still tune out when presented with a wall of text. Lawyers still get distracted by background noise. But when I suggest the idea of using a Flesh-Kincaid test to keep copy readable, and perhaps cutting 50% of the words, many clients protest. “We can’t do that!”

Well, OK. But there’s a moral imperative here, as well as a commercial one. People have a right to understand what you’re selling, and who you are. Companies are rightly criticised when they don’t offer good wheelchair access, or materials for those with hearing impairments. But over-complex writing is an accessibility issue, too. I want to make 2020 the year companies start writing for everyone.

And if you need help with that, please get in touch.

I’m Samuel Pollen. I use words to make companies and products better at Reed Words. I also wrote The Year I Didn’t Eat, a teen book about a boy with anorexia.

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Samuel Pollen

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I use words to make companies and products better @reedwords. And I wrote The Year I Didn’t Eat, a teen book about a boy with anorexia.

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