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When Words Fail Us

Published In: The Blend - January 2008
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In business, our words are often the first thing our customer sees and hears from us.

Just A Figure Of Speech

Someone is up to something in your business. You don’t know who it is but you know they’re up to no good. You only have to turn your back and they’re at it again. The well-laid plans, the table set with care and the reception area just so: nothing’s as you left it.

You’ve worked hard to build this business. You’ve put in the long hours and put money too where it’s needed. Nobody can say you’ve skimped on it. You’ve set the standards and built something to be proud of. But your word’s no longer law in your own place. Someone is making mischief.

And they seem to be everywhere: loitering at the entrance, hanging around out back, causing mayhem in the kitchens and bedrooms. They’re at it morning, noon and night.

You’re not the only one who’s noticed it. There’ve been complaints. Your team is up in arms and playing the blame game. Only this morning, another customer stormed out over something unimportant. Everyone seems to be on edge and snapping at each other. Something’s not right. It’s at the tip of your tongue to say what it is but words fail you.

A Quiet Word In Your Ear

So who are these shadowy figures making trouble for you? You’ll be surprised to hear that you know them very well. They’re right under your nose as we speak. They are the words we use in our business. Yes, those same words that stand there all innocent, as though butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth.

They don’t mean any harm, of course. They’re just full of youthful energy and, left to their own devices, they get up to all sorts of devilment. But put them to work for you in your business and they’re as good as gold. They’ll work all the hours God sends them. They’ll be as quiet or as noisy as you wish them to be. They can be discreet just as easily as they can demand attention. It’s just that right now, they’re an unruly mob waiting for someone to take command.

And as with all loose cannons, we ignore them at our peril. Perhaps it’s familiarity that breeds in us a certain contempt for the part that words play in our business? After all, almost everyone can use words. We speak and write from an early age. It’s not called our mother tongue for nothing.

And yet that same tongue can easily become tied or twisted. Too often in our business, words fail us. We want to say one thing but our customers hear another. We want to welcome in but what we recite leaves our guest feeling cold and unwanted. We set out to delight, to inspire, to charm and to persuade but instead we send our buyer elsewhere with a flea in the ear. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we have what the French describe as a ‘deaf conversation’.

A Word To The Wise

So how might we begin to have real conversations in our business? I spoke with Margaret Ward of Clear Ink, the clear English specialists and she had this to say: “Customers have a personal relationship with the companies they choose. All good relationships are based on respect, honesty and consistency. If the brand is the relationship between the producer and the consumer, then clear English is the caring way they should talk to one another.”

But can it be as simple as all that? Can words really make such a great difference? From an early age, we’re told that what we say is not as important as what we do and that ‘actions speak louder than words’. When we return from the playground, upset at some cruel taunt, our parents are quick to remind us that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’. Later, when we step into the sandbox of the business world, we hear how it’s much more important to ‘walk the walk’ than simply ‘talk the talk’.

In our world, words are often dismissed as lightweight and disposable. Yet sometimes, actions don’t speak louder than words. A word of praise or forgiveness or welcome offered by one person to another can say much more than gesture or deed. And words can hurt us. They can cut us to the quick. Ask any lawyer and they will tell you how many business disagreements centre on what is said rather than what is done. There are clearly times when it’s important to talk the talk before we even begin to walk the walk. We are social creatures after all, alive to the weight and nuance of what we hear. We must not underestimate the power of words.

In business, our words are often the first thing our customer sees and hears from us. Remember that very few business relationships begin face-to-face (and even those that do rely heavily on what is said at first in order to establish rapport). Perhaps in an ideal world, we could always show someone what we mean? But in our world, the invitation to do business is usually extended through the written or spoken word, whether by advertisement, direct mail, phone call or website. In order to set things in motion, we must first tell before we can show. And in our part of the world, it is the language of clear English that best helps us to say what we need to set up the business relationship.

Someone Once Said

But surely it is easier to say something clearly than to couch it in obscure language? You would think so, but you only have to read a typical brochure or website to recognise the peculiar capacity we have to choose jargon, cliché and gobbledegook over simple words. Perhaps we believe that to use simple words is to dumb down our communications? Yet Sarah Marriott of Clear Ink reminded me that it was famous American author Mark Twain who said: “I notice that you use clear, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way.”

A quick study of the great speakers confirms this. Whether we look to the words of Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, we find they have one thing in common. They used clear English and the words they chose ring down the years with unmistakeable distinction and authority. We find the same when we look to the great copywriters of our day. We may not know them by name, but we certainly know their words: ‘Let Your Fingers Do The Walking; A Mars A Day Helps You Work, Rest and Play; It Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin.’

These speakers and writers cannot be accused of dumbing down their communications. Instead, those who hear and read their words are left in no doubt about what is being said and yet there is both truth and intelligence at work in the exchange. The invitation to the listener is clear and they can choose to take it up or refuse it as they wish.

Say What You Mean

Of course, it’s not enough just to make our invitation clear. We must follow through both in word and deed. But Margaret Ward notes that, “Sadly, most companies have an inconsistent ‘voice’ when they speak to their customers. First, they lure them in with the promising language of marketing materials. But when they become a customer, the problems start. The company starts speaking to them differently. Emails, letters and customer service representatives use very formal language, jargon and legalese. This language distances them from the customer. It may make the customer feel ashamed: ‘I don’t know what that word means, I must be stupid’. Or that the company is wasting their time and being disrespectful: ‘Why don’t they say what they mean? I don’t have time to ring and ask them what they meant!’

Not a great way to make the customer feel, is it? After a while, the customer becomes so distanced from the company that they decide the relationship is beyond repair. They seek out another relationship with a company that says what they mean and talks to them using a human voice.”

Famous Last Words

George Orwell once said: ‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity’. Those unclear words that loiter around your business suggest to your customer that you do not mean what you say. When you pile up the formal language, jargon and legalese that Margaret speaks of, it sits just inside your front door and thumbs its nose at your customers. You may not mean to push your customers away but that’s what happens.

As Sarah Marriott says: “We shouldn’t be afraid to say what we mean. Clear English is language that gets to the point, quickly. It respects the listener. It is not baby English or dumbing down, it communicates in a professional yet friendly way.

Companies need to ask themselves: 'Does the language we use with our customers help to build a trusting relationship where promises are kept and honesty is valued? Do the words we choose clearly express our brand values or hide them away?”

Hear, hear! I couldn’t have said it better (that is, more clearly!) myself.

For more on putting words to work in your business, go straight to www.ClearInk.ie

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Published In: The Blend - January 2008
PDF  |  Print

About 'The Blend'

When Words Fail Us is one of ‘The Blend’ series of articles in which Gerard Tannam takes a look at how to cook up a great brand, samples some of the ingredients you'll need to make one of your own and weighs up the impact of branding on different parts of the business mix.

Gerard is the founding Managing Director of Islandbridge, a business that delivers brand direction, planning and corporate communications across a wide range of sectors including retail, property, hospitality and tourism. Recent clients include Temple Country Retreat & Spa, Musgraves Food Services, Choice Hotels, The Westport Woods Hotel, Liffeyside Properties, Littlejohn Health Centre, and DIT School of Hospitality Management. For more on putting your brand to work for your business, get in touch with Gerard Tannam on +353 1 495 3330 or [email protected]

 

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