Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.



Hearing your corporate voice

January 2014

Humans adapt to their environment. This is vital from an evolutionary perspective but it can have significant drawbacks in business. Expressions such as group-think, going native and regulatory capture have come into being because employees - and employers - often become so acclimatised to their working environment that, without even knowing it, they mentally extend that environment outwards to the rest of the business world.

It's not that everyone believes their company's culture is necessarily the best. It's just that when you're on the inside looking out, you often forget that any alternative viewpoint exists.

The picture from the outside looking in can be quite different, even diametrically opposed. For example, Google's original mission statement included the phrase "Don't be evil" and its pampered employees in sunny San Francisco no doubt feel they're changing the world for the better with every line of code they write. Yet Google's penchant for collecting vast swathes of data on its users has landed it in court on more than one occasion, and it's not a stretch to say that some privacy advocates see the company as one of the worst offenders... and bordering on evil.

Some inside/outside contrasts can be so bizarre that they'd be funny if they weren't so disturbing. Near the peak of the global financial crisis, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of banking giant Goldman Sachs, assured people that his company was "doing God's work." Whether or not you're a religious person, the Bible passage about Jesus overturning the tables of the moneylenders springs jarringly to mind. And even on a secular basis, the fallout from the complex financial instruments that precipitated the financial crash could hardly be said to have benefited many people, other than the bankers themselves.

The way a company is perceived has a huge impact on how it performs financially. An infamous example from the UK concerns the once-ubiquitous Ratners chain of high-street jewellery shops. The company imploded dramatically after its owner, Gerald Ratner, was filmed describing his own company's products as "total crap." Sales dried up overnight. The product hadn't changed: the public's perception of the company had. The voice of that company - in this case Ratner himself - had altered the way its entire customer base behaved towards it.

The act of incorporation of a business is designed to allow a company to act like a person (that's what incorporation means), and it does. Corporations have personalities of their own, all different. A significant part of a company's personality is defined by its voice, just as is the case with humans.

All companies have voices. Sometimes those voices are audible, like Ratner's and Blankfein's. But even without a single, vocal figurehead, your company's voice is heard by your customers. They hear it in the written words your company produces: in its press releases, in its marketing material, in its direct mail, in its branding, on its Facebook page, in its Twitter account, on its website, in its response to bad press and complaints. They read your company's words and hear its voice, loud and clear.

The tone of that voice can make all the difference, from the terse, bullying prose of an overdue tax demand to the angst-strewn requests for donations to charity companies, to the cheerily self-satisfied froth on the side of a smoothie bottle.

If you're at board level you need to be aware of your corporate voice, need to understand how your organisation is perceived by its customers. Outside agencies will be better placed than you to do this: as noted above, your own psychological filters will make it much harder for you to hear your company's true voice.

That's partly because you might not like what you hear. Given the speed of today's electronic communication, a single disgruntled customer can spread their annoyance far and wide through online forums and social networks. Sure, you didn't intend to overcharge Granny Smith by $20 on her monthly bill, but now her daughter is telling everyone - in her own, loud, virtual voice - exactly what she thinks of companies who attempt to defraud helpless little old ladies. And people are listening. And your company's own voice sounds a little less wholesome as a result.

There are several ways of dealing with problems such as this, but by far the best is to use psychology, since it's the only guaranteed way to not just understand what your customers are thinking, but actually influence it too. You can change the way your company is perceived: you can change its voice.

PR agencies will do some of this for you, as will your own marketing team if you have one. But that may not cover all bases.

Who writes the content on your website? Who handles your social media presence: not the strategy, but the words themselves? Do they use psychology? Who checks all your customer-oriented text content for accuracy and relevance and tone? Who writes responses to customer complaints? Who, in your organisation, is listening to your corporate voice and helping to change the way it sounds?

There's a gap. That's where we sit. We can help influence your customers in ways that PR and marketing people can't and don't cover. We'll help ensure that your corporate voice is loud and proud, a voice your customers want to hear.

Alex Cruickshank is CEO and Chief Wordsmith at Ministry of Prose and has a very good ear for voices.

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