On Episode 61, I’ve got Ben Afia back in. I’ve known him for a decade and he has trailblazed the world of tone of voice. You may remember him from the other times he’s been on. He always talks sense about tone of voice. This time, he has a language manifesto. I knew when I saw he’d posted it, that we’d have to have him on. As always, it was an informative, engaging discussion.
- Download Ben Afia’s Language Manifesto — When you focus on language, you help everyone connect as humans. You’ll find it easier to give customers what you promised and they’ll be happier.
- About Ben Afia — A brand strategist, coach and international speaker – how did I end up here?
Mark: Ben Afia, welcome back to Confessions of a Marketer, great to have you here.
Ben: Thanks for having me again Mark.
Mark: Well you've got a new piece out there that caught my eye, the language manifesto. Can you tell me about that?
Ben: Absolutely. Well the language manifesto really comes from a couple of decades of working with big brands, large corporations and looking at what's happening with the language in those organizations. And the thing that I noticed really is that quite often language is good when it's in marketing, when it's in brand, if it's advertising and that sort of thing. But it's often not so good when it's within the culture, within the organization, internal communications and sometimes it's quite bad in customer service as well.
Ben: So there seems to be a lot of effort going into the language in marketing to customers, but not elsewhere and especially not with the people who are talking to customers day-to-day. So the manifesto really came out of a frustration I suppose, that trying to work out, well why is that connection not happening? And my feeling quite strongly is that if you can link up the language within the organization with what's going on to your customers, to your audiences outside the organization, then you have a much more coherent brand, you have a much more coherent message. The left hand is saying what the right hand's saying and that builds trust.
Mark: And you have some examples of phrases that, oh man, we all hear every day that you say reveal a lot about an organization, things like your call is important to us and so forth. Why do you think companies rely on these kinds of pat phrases when we all know they're kind of vacuous?
Ben: Yeah. It's interesting isn't it, because when you see these words as a customer, one of the examples is, this oversight is being taken very seriously and has been brought to the attention of senior managers. How much faith ... how much faith do you have in that being brought to the attention of senior managers? Not a lot. So it really is about trust and I think what's going on is ... so language is tribal. Language is about who's in, who's in the tribe and who's out. And within organizations, we tend to do what other people are doing because we need to belong to the tribe.
Ben: And it takes quite a lot of courage and confidence to step out of the norm, the norm of what's expected of you and to do something different. So I think people just do the best job they can with the information they have available and they do what they think is being asked of them. And I think the thing that leadership are missing in organizations very much is that they can be challenging that language and steering it in a different direction in order to get a different result.
Mark: So you say that language and culture are related and I guess what you were just saying was kind of distilling that. Can you drill down into that a little bit more, the connection of language and culture?
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I suppose this is the heart of it really. It's that we use language to express our vision, our strategy as leaders. We lead and engage people using language. We manage people and we connect with people using language, so language really is in everything within an organization. It's in your strategy, it's in your performance contracts, it's in your marketing, it's in your terms and conditions. So words are everywhere and words articulate your thoughts and your behavior.
Ben: The language gives away what you really believe about your customers and about your staff. And I think that people are just not really aware of it. They're not quite conscious of the fact that the words they're using give those ... gives away that truth. And so when the language is harsh or less than human, that's a message that you probably don't want to be giving to your customers or to your employees, but it almost happens by accident. And I'm asking people to be a bit more thoughtful about how the language they use reflects their culture.
Mark: Yeah. And your call is important to us, isn't jargon. It isn't ... like in the hi-tech world, words that just don't mean anything. It just is kind of empty. It just ... hear it over and over again and it ends up meaning very little because if your call was important to us, you'd pick up the phone, right?
Ben: Absolutely, yeah. It's a really interesting point because what happens when we hear and see forms of words that we've seen time and again is, we don't really take them in. The human brain is tuned to look for newness, things that are fresh. And if we see those forms of words that are familiar, we just tune them out. We don't take the message. So they actually don't make good communication.
Mark: Yeah. So I do a lot of writing in my daily life and I work with a lot of people who aren't writers. And sometimes they'll say to me, why does it really matter? People understand what I'm saying. So I guess my question to you is, why does the way we speak, the way we write, really matter?
Ben: Well I think one way to look at this would be to think about the benefits of focusing on language in an organization and the key to it is about trust and connection. So for employees in an organization, quite often people have a professional facade, they use language, they speak and they write in a way that they think is expected of them. But when you focus on language and you give people a different way to use it, a different tone of voice perhaps, you give people the agency to be more expressive of themselves and to be more themselves, more human at work. And when you give that permission to people, that helps them to look after your customers better and helps them to engage with people around the organization better. And there's another benefit that comes from that, which is that those people then are going to be more engaged and more energized and more willing to cooperate, to work together.
Ben: I've run writing training sessions and on the first session in the company, people are a bit skeptical and we have to work hard to win them over. And then they start going out into the organization after the first day and telling people about what they've learned and they're full of energy and people come in bouncing into the following sessions and they're like, oh, I've heard about ... I've heard this is really good. And it's like a ... it's almost like organizational therapy, if you like. It frees people up to be more themselves at work. And so I think that can help them to feel more a part of the organization's mission, more aligned with the vision and the values. It helps them to be more confident when they're responding to customers' needs, especially in complex situations when they need to be quite agile. When you really line this up, it can help your customer service be say, giving similar messages to your marketing.
Ben: So when you attract new customers through your advertising and marketing generally, are you delivering the same consistency through your customer service? And I also think it helps you to give your customers what you promised them actually. And the reason it does that is that if you are conscious of your language, then it's harder to use jargon and terminology that your audience won't necessarily understand. It forces you to challenge you on that and that means that you have to write what's real, you have to write what's true and if you write what's true, that's much easier to deliver and that leads to happier customers, it leads to fewer complaints and it leads to employees who stay longer.
Mark: Yeah. You have a section titled language improves your brand, culture and communication. What does that mean for the average company?
Ben: Well, I think what many companies miss is the connection between culture and brand. So the four words you mentioned there are brand, culture and communication and I also add behavior. So what typically happens in brand development is the marketing department or brand department will work with an agency of some kind, maybe an advertising agency, a brand agency, to develop brand strategy. And then they'll cascade that strategy into brand guidelines of various kinds. They'll turn that into various sorts of communication briefings for teams, for designers, for the other agencies and it tends to stay on the communications ... the marketing communications side of the business. But what I've seen going into organizations is that, if that brand's strategy doesn't reflect the reality of the culture that has to deliver the service to support that strategy, then it's disconnected and you lose customers' trust because you're saying two different things.
Ben: To give you one example, I was in India a year ago working with one of the UK's mobile phone networks, with their web chat teams looking after UK customers and this company were launching a new brand strategy, a new strap line. And when I asked the Indian teams what they felt about it, how it had landed with them, it was just striking that they hadn't even been told about it. And I suppose this is what I mean, that your marketing has to be joined up with customer service, otherwise the people who are talking to your customers day-to-day are not delivering the same message. And that's why I see culture as feeding into brand, brand into communications and then back into people's behavior. So it's a virtuous circle, if you like.
Mark: It really comes down to communication, internal communication within a company to let people know what's going on.
Ben: It's amazing how often it's missed though, isn't it?
Ben: And I think it was just so busy. I think people are busy, they've got targets to hit, agendas to meet and you develop brand strategy, you start developing new comms and guidelines and people are busy, they're up to their necks in stuff. So I don't think it's deliberate, I think it happens by accident and that's why I look ... I try to encourage clients to be more deliberate about what they're doing. But it is very much about communication and that starts with engaging the right people around the organization before you even start developing brand.
Mark: Yeah. And I think your thesis really comes down to something we've discussed before and we mentioned a little bit here that is, making business more human because a business is made up of human beings, right?
Mark: So what are some simple things a marketer can do to make their business more human?
Ben: Well, the lovely thing about using language is it's effectively free because you could just take, as a marketer for example, you could take your company email signature and you could look at that signature and you could look at your brand guidelines, the brand values and personality that you've developed. Look at the signature and say, well how well does that signature match up to the personality that you're trying to convey? And if it doesn't, change it. So at its very simplest, you can start looking at simple things like that. If you want to take that a step further, then you might want to do an audit of communications across the business.
Ben: So gather examples of what's going on, what's being said internally and what's being said externally to investors, to leaders, to other stakeholders, to the press and in marketing and in internal communications, your customer letters, customer emails, your web chat, all of that sort of thing. And if you gather all of the communications across a customer journey, you start to get a really good picture of how joined up all of those teams are feeling from a customer's perspective. And I found when I've done this, it makes a very compelling argument. I can remember once presenting one of these audits to a board and when you put these things together in a presentation, people just get it. They see that it's disjointed, they see that it's not the experience they'd want to be giving customers ideally and that motivates them to do something about it and it's very powerful.
Mark: And this is the era of customer experience and this really goes to the heart of that, don't you think?
Ben: It absolutely does. So I've just been working with a bank to review the total customer experience for their mortgage customers. And I've been sitting with the teams at every point in the customer journey. I've been listening to the calls, I've been looking at the emails and looking at the letters they send out. And obviously this is a regulated environment so they have quite tight ... they need to have quite tight control and audit. So the language that's being used throughout that customer experience is absolutely crucial. And what it highlighted for me was that, the experience was consistent actually, but not for the right reasons unfortunately. It was consistently cold, business-like, legalistic.
Ben: And I think ... I mean you know yourself don't you as a customer. I've just been applying for a new mortgage for a buy to let property, going through the process, working with a broker, getting communications from the bank. And it's really interesting, when we put ourselves in the shoes of customers, which we are of other companies all the time of course, the communications feel very different. And I'm super sensitive to the language because it's what I do, it's what I'm passionate about, but I want a company to give me a good experience. I want them to look after me. I want to feel looked after. I want to feel that the company cares or has my interests at heart as well as their own. So absolutely, it comes down to customer experience. It comes down to tying up the customer journey so that the experience is consistent all the way along the line.
Mark: It is extraordinary when you have a customer experience where everything has a nice tone of voice and the website kind of matches the email and the person you talked to on the phone has the same tone of voice and uses the same vocabulary and it all sounds human. That is extraordinary and it really shouldn't be because we're all human beings working at companies and the human side should come through.
Ben: You would think, wouldn't you? And I think it comes back to the thing that I touched on earlier about status quo bias, I guess. Maybe that's what they call it in behavioral economics, is the tendency to continue with the status quo, to fit with the tribe and do what you think is expected and what you see other people doing around you and that is the nature of being human. When we were ... I did a degree in archeology many years ago and what was really interesting about studying that subject was understanding and learning about prehistoric hunter-gatherers and how human beings evolved. And you know that as hunter-gatherers, prehistoric societies, if you were a member of a tribe, you were looked after. But if you were rejected from the tribe for whatever reason, you couldn't survive, you literally couldn't survive.
Ben: So we are ... human beings are hardwired and anatomically we are the same creatures that we were 150,000 years ago. So tribe is absolutely crucial to our survival. We're hardwired to need our tribe, to need to belong. And so if you don't look at language consciously what happens is, people default to wherever the power lies in an organization. So this bank, for example, I could see from the language that the power lies in the very large legal team because it's legal language that gets into everything that's said to customers and so that's where the power lies in that culture. So only by being conscious of that can you then start to challenge that and say, well of course, the lawyers are there to protect the business and this business is all about managing risk, so that's crucial.
Ben: But if we understand that and understand that you don't necessarily control risk by being legalistic and using legal terms and formal terminology. In fact, quite often the opposite because certainly in the UK, if say a letter or an email is litigated, a judge will side with the person suing if it was ... if they felt that that customer couldn't realistically understand what was being asked of them. And that's the problem when the language is very legalistic and formal, it prevents understanding.
Mark: And maybe that's the intent.
Ben: I think it ... I think it probably is actually. Yeah, absolutely. Every profession ... every profession has its own language, doesn't say it. So there's financial language, there's legal language, there's the language of engineers. When I work with energy companies, for example, it's the language of the engineer. In many financial services company, it's the language of the actuary. So that professional language comes to the fore and I think it disconnects people from ... it disconnects human beings from each other and from their customers.
Mark: It should be the language of humans.
Ben: Absolutely. And some might say, well we're all human and we're all using language, so isn't that human language? But what I mean by human is human beings who connect, who connect on equal terms, who use language that their audience can relate to, language that's accepting of them and their difference, rather than trying to push them away, which a lot of language is trying to do.
Mark: And it should be like a conversation that you have with someone that you meet in a coffee shop or something like that, not a stilted conversation that you would have if you were meeting with your actuary.
Ben: I think that's a rather lovely way to think about it. If you focus on what's the nature of the conversation that you're striking internally and with your customers, then conversation's a two way thing, isn't it? And a conversation requires listening as much as telling, listening and responding.
Mark: That's I think a really good point about this is that, when these phrases like your call is important to us come at us, they're talking to us. They're not talking with us, they're not listening to us.
Ben: No. And that kind of phrase I think comes out of this sort of funny idea within business of managing expectations. What a horrible term that is.
Mark: Yeah. It's like the phrase that a lot of companies say, our people are our most important asset that is repeated over and over again on websites and really it's meaningless.
Ben: It is meaningless unless they actually do something about it. If they prioritize their people before anything, then I think it has truth to it, but I'm sure you've not seen that happen very often. It's very rare isn't it, to genuinely put ... to genuinely put employees first. I came across a business just a few weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague who's working with a business in the UK, which is a family-owned business, 35 years old.
Ben: It's grown quite rapidly and they're looking to restructure, to refresh, but they've had some employees there for all of those 35 years and they want to change, but they won't do it without bringing those people along because the ethos is that the people are everything. And as a family-owned ... as a family-owned business, that's very much the ethos. I would love to work somewhere like that, who wouldn't?
Mark: Yeah, yeah. That's great. So is this on benafia.com, the language manifesto?
Ben: It is indeed. It's right at the top of the homepage. You can click on the link to download it. It's free, have a read. I'm interested to hear what people have got to say about it.
Mark: Yeah. We'll also have a link to it in our show notes.
Mark: So Ben, thanks for joining me. I really appreciate it, always great to chat with you.
Ben: Thank you Mark. It's been fun.
Mark: Thanks to Ben for joining me.
Cover image from Flickr, public domain.