Like Melville or Hemingway, companies need a unique voice to reach customers in a meaningful way.
Does your company have a voice? I doubt if anyone has posed the question to you before, but it’s time you thought about it. Sure, we’ve been afflicted by a pandemic of corporate anthropomorphism over the last few years, as an armada of consultants and business writers have made careers (and fortunes) by blathering about the corporate soul, corporate culture, corporate DNA, corporate personality, and so on.
Nonetheless, the notion of a corporate voice isn’t a clever marketing construct for selling books and seminars. (Not yet, anyway. I haven’t had the time). It’s an expression of your business that’s absolutely vital. So, let me first give you my definition of it, explain why it matters, and then some suggestions for finding yours.
The obvious place to dive in is with the referent: the authorial voice. Writers that reach us in a meaningful way do so through form and content -- the form is their “voice, a capacity to make the language speak in a way that is distinctly their own, and is the perfect vehicle for what they have say to us. When I think about Melville or Hemingway or J.D. Salinger or Don DeLillo, what I hear in my head is the pattern of their consciousness on paper. Their voice.
Re-reading that, it sounds crazily loftily. But don’t worry, I’m not running a reading group. The point is that a corporate voice is essentially no different. It’s a mode of speech, a distinct syntax that captures and conveys several critical dimensions of a business: why it exists, what it believes, and the relationship it seeks to have with its customers (“readers on other side of the equation).
Very few companies -- large or small -- have a powerful voice, or think about the need to find and sustain one. Most companies, the vast majority, in fact, describe themselves in automated, commodity language that’s fully interchangeable. And critically, the way you describe yourself is the way you think about yourself. And that influences behavior.
I spent some time checking out the websites of the Inc. 500 companies, and the language they use is generic mush, the worst kind of corporate writing, as flaccid and ignorable as the blenderized boredom manufactured by the hotel lobby pianist. There’s a void of voicelessness out there.
I’m not saying they’re not temporarily successful. Clearly, they are. But I would submit that if they articulated the reasons for this success with a unique corporate voice, their market position would be far stronger and more durable.
Make no mistake, the problem isn’t an Inc. 500 one. It’s pervasive, and it’s a big loss. Buyers (and I include in this group consumers and business customers) are highly sensitized to modes of presentation -- visual and verbal. We’re not a nation of readers, but we are one of listeners. We know the difference between the voice of Jay Leno and David Letterman, and we are hip to the instantly recognizable voice of “The Daily Show, even though we might not be able to describe it.
It’s remarkable. So many companies are run by unique, impassioned, linguistically arresting individuals who have a clear and distinct voice that comes through when they speak informally about their businesses. I’ve heard them. But when it comes to presenting their companies to consuming public -- and again, that could be the mass consumer of buyers of specialized IT services -- the voice is lost.
The problem is exacerbated by small and midsize companies, who -- wrongly believing that they have to sound big -- default to the pedantry of mainlined mush.
Meanwhile, time-stressed and presentation-sensitive consumers have come to believe that there are fewer and fewer differences between products and services. As a result, they are making their decisions based on the way a company addresses them, picking up on signals and cues that beckon the buyer, responding to the corporate voice. Indeed, the right voice sends cascades of messages about quality and a governing intelligence, the same way that when we walk past a restaurant that dazzles with design sophistication, we’ll comment, “That places looks good. Looks good? What does the food have to do with the furniture? Everything.
Companies also need a voice because, increasingly, corporations are perceived as narratives. These narratives can follow different arcs -- for example, the hero is banished from the kingdom, but returns and triumphs a second time (Steve Jobs and Apple). The storyline is the structure in your narrative, and the voice is the form. The right voice brings someone into your brand story, and invites them to pull up a chair and stay for a while.
How do you go abut finding your company’s voice? The first step is to sit down and write your company’s story. Write it like you were telling somebody about what makes your business special, what inspired you to start it. Keep it loose, conversational, as funny or dramatic as you want. Make sure it comes from the heart and from your experience; don’t channel business school language or business-plan platitudes.
Then read what you’ve written with this question in mind: Have you told it in a way that anyone would want to read? Care about? Believe in? If it sounds like someone else and not you, start again.
It’s a process. But once you’ve got it, your voice will speak with consistency across your entire company, your website, your PowerPoint presentations, your advertising, your e-mails. And you’ll also start developing a lexicon that becomes part of it. Hemingway was Hemingway in “Big Two-Hearted River and “The Sun Also Rises and there are words and phrases that are an indelible part of his lexicon.
I spend a lot of my time helping companies find their voice. I don’t impose it from the outside -- I interview the CEO and key leaders and pay careful attention to the story, the business lust, the speech patterns, the vocabulary, the metaphors. I ignore all the customer-centric speak and wait, ready to pounce on the voice that’s submerged in the adiposity of blah-blah-blah.
Often, it will emerge in the telling of an anecdote that involves an obstacle overcome or the epiphany of envisioning a competitive opportunity. Creating a voice for a company -- one that is pitched perfectly to its way of thinking and acting and being -- is probably the most important thing I do for our clients. Because a voice speaks louder than words.