The reason it was discussed so much is that voice is incredibly difficult to define. It’s the thing that makes writers sound uniquely different, what distinguishes Dennis Lehane from George Pelecanos in crime fiction, or Stephen King from Shirley Jackson in horror.
And it’s every bit as important in business writing as it is in fiction.
Last year I worked with an author on using articles to promote his book. Between some material in the book, emails we traded, and his blog, I’d pulled together what I thought was a pretty good piece. It was technically accurate and flowed well, and covered what I’d pitched the editors.
The problem? It didn’t sound enough like him, and he told me so. And he was right. He’s a prolific blogger as well as a book author, and has his own distinctive voice.
Why does it matter if voice is distinct?
Because everyone recognizes impersonal “corporate speak.” It’s usually filled with buzzwords like “leading,” “synergy,” “paradigm shift,” and so on. It’s lazy, safe, predictable. People use it because no one wants to inject their own personality into it.
This is a legitimate branding concern. Too many distinct personal voices can dilute a brand and confuse its customers. On the other hand, a brand that sounds just like every other brand is also pretty diluted. It also, and I see this in social media, misses opportunities to show its unique strengths.
So where’s the balance? How can you sound distinct, without losing your voice when your best communicator leaves or your company (and PR department) suddenly grows?
Know your company’s mission, vision, and values
The people who communicate on behalf of your company need a strong command of its mission, vision, and values. This isn’t as simple as making them memorize the company’s mission statement (many of which are useless anyway).
It’s not even as simple as inviting them to strategic planning or goal-setting meetings. A company’s values come through in every interaction with their publics, from sales to customer service to employee relations. Communications people, like everyone else, observe and listen. Pushy sales, lazy or rude customer service, and indifferent employee relations communicate a company’s values far more than a few sit-down meetings with the C-suite.
A communications staff using indistinct language may, in fact, be afraid to rock the boat — or at the very least, afraid of the potential consequences, from the boss if not the public. So:
If you’re the boss:
- Start by asking yourself what you stand for. Integrity, truth-telling, the best service in your market, and so on. Outline what that means for your customers. While you’re at it, think about whether you need to redefine your business.
- Review company content: website, press materials, videos, etc. Do their words match your vision?
- If the answer is “no,” find out why. Be open to the answers.
- Work with your communications team to figure out how and where you can make changes.
If you’re the communicator:
- Assess the language you use in your current content; separately, assess what you believe your company’s brand to be. Do they match?
- If not, challenge your boss to do better. Find out how and where to change your assumptions and align your ideas with your boss’s.
- Start experimenting with language and visuals. Use words that advance the newly aligned understanding of mission, vision, and values. Don’t back down from committing to a different way of communicating!
In an industry like digital forensics, where thought leaders are easily recognizable, a blog or article that doesn’t “sound like” them can mean trouble. Whether they own a business or are contributing something else — research or training — a diluted brand can be as bad as making readers wonder whether they can trust what they’ve just read.
This is all the more important as more business-to-business firms — 89 percent, as of last year — embrace social media. It can be scary to show how you’re different from the competition. But companies are made up of individuals and their interactions with one another. If you have to think about authenticity, you probably aren’t authentic; but if you focus on developing your best values, and your voice along with them, you’ll differentiate in a way no competitor can match.