Use the human voice
Published (updated: ) in work, working in the open.
Not the corporate voice
Too much official communication is written in a tone I call “the corporate voice”.
By “corporate”, I don’t just mean the voice used by companies, I mean any organisation. You see this formal tone everywhere. I see it in things written by local and national government, in letters from my child’s school, on bills and bank statements and signposts.
Here’s an example:
“You will be asked to sign a form to confirm that you understand the commitment that you must make in order to to successfully complete a course of treatment and the potential risks associated with such treatment.” — A private healthcare company leaflet.
“I am writing in relation to your registration at the above address. To ensure the register is accurate I am required to review registration in cases where circumstances may have changed.” — Letter from a local authority.
It’s a dull dirge. It’s burdened with unnecessary words. It’s boring. People find it hard to read. So a lot of the time, they just don’t bother.
If the audience can’t be bothered to wade through to the end, the communication – be it a reminder of the intricate scheduling of a Sports Day or a call to sign up for a new credit card – has failed. Readers might smile and nod, but the message didn’t get through.
Why is this corporate voice so widespread? I think it begins with the people working in those organisations. People find it hard to write with their own voices, especially when they’re writing to represent their employers. Employees and employers share the same misconception: that corporations have to sound corporate to communicate successfully. They quite naturally feel the need to shift into a different mode, a different persona. Sub-consciously, they think: “I have to come up with words that sound official.”
I disagree. I think corporations have to write clearly to communicate successfully. But writing clearly is not the same as writing formally. Just because something is “official”, it doesn’t have to sound “official”.
Corporations don’t have to communicate with that corporate voice. They can use a more natural, simpler human voice.
The human voice is written as if spoken. It uses the words normal people would use. It’s written for simplicity and clarity. It’s what one person would say to another person, if the two of them were looking at one another, face to face.
Organisations can use the human voice too. And they should. But it’s hard.
Public writing is scary
Writing for the web is writing in public. It’s just like standing in front of an audience. Public writing is just as frightening as public speaking.
Think about the best presentations and speeches you’ve heard: they weren’t given in a formal tone either. They may have conveyed a very serious message, or covered a very important issue, but the best public speakers can do that with their own voice, and their own personality, showing through. They speak like humans, even though they’re representing organisations.
Good public writing works the same way. Even very large organisations can sound human, and can make themselves easier to understand and relate to, if they abandon the corporate voice and adopt the human voice instead.
That won’t happen on its own, though. Someone has to destroy that misconception about sounding corporate. Someone has to tell everyone in the organisation that it’s OK to sound human.
Let your organisation speak with a human voice
The way to get people in your organisation writing more clearly is to give them permission to write as themselves. Not just in blog posts (although that will be a good place to start), but everywhere else too. In memos and emails and meetings and presentations (especiallyin presentations): free your team from the corporate voice. Don’t just use the words normal people use, use the tone normal people use too.
Be explicit about it. Say out loud, to everyone: “Use the human voice. Write as if you’re talking to someone.”
Rather than accepting documents written in the corporate voice, send them back and ask for a clearer, more human version. And ask your team to point out when you make the same mistake.
Using the human voice will not make you sound ill-informed. It will not make you sound less important than your rivals. It will not make difficult or controversial topics sound trivial. It will not damage your reputation.
It will make what’s happening in your organisation easier to understand. It will help you communicate things to customers, partners, clients, stakeholders or anyone else faster and more effectively. And as a result, those people will probably be less likely to contact you over the phone or by email because something wasn’t clear in the first place.
Using the human voice will be tricky at first, but it’s the right thing to do. Granting permission to do it, to everyone in your organisation, is the courageous first step. After that, communicating clearly and simply will become much easier.
- Thanks to Ella Fitzsimmons for reading the first draft of this, and making it better.
- See also: Use the words normal people would use.