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Ann Handley on Why Jargon Can Be Detrimental to Your Brand Voice & Tone

One of the biggest branding mistakes that companies can make is to not pay enough attention to their tone of voice. “Voice” sounds high-minded, doesn’t it? More suited for the literary world rather than the business world? But tone of voice just refers to how you sound in your writing.

In marketing, your tone of voice can be a significant differentiator. It’s a strong advantage because a lot of companies aren’t yet thinking about it. Businesses often spend a lot of time on their logo and color palette and other things they think of as “branding”—the look and feel of their website, collateral, signage, fonts, and so on. But very few take the time to consider the branding that a unique voice can give a company.

Brand Tone Exercise

Mask the logo on your site. Do you sound different, unique—like yourself? Or do you sound like everyone else… including your competitors? Said another way: If the label fell off… would people know it was you?

Your tone of voice isn’t about what you say but, rather, how you say it. It’s the impression your brand leaves on your would-be customers or prospects. Done right, your tone of voice is truly the secret sauce in your content BBQ.

Here is how to develop your brand tone of voice:

1. Define What Makes You You

Marketers call this developing a “brand positioning statement” or sometimes a “mission statement.” Whatever you call it, the idea is to define who you are, and what makes you you.

Ask yourself a series of key questions:

  • What’s unique to your business?

  • What’s special about your products?

  • What’s special about the way you do business?

  • What’s your company culture like? Are you buttoned-up or playful?

  • How do your employees relax together? Do you play beer pong in the parking lot on Friday afternoons, or do you have morning yoga sessions every Thursday?

  • How do you want to be regarded by both customers and your community? Are you a trusted source for high-level insight, or a go-to source for hands-on, practical advice?

Come up with, say, three words that best define who you are. Write them down. Avoid buzzwords and clichés (like “cutting-edge” or “proactive” or “revolutionary”). I call those words blech. Instead, identify more interesting, specific descriptors that reflect who you really are, and how you want to be perceived.

2. Translate Those Words into a Style

Abstract attributes in isolation don’t mean that much. So develop some detail around them. Make them real and practical. For example, if one of your brand values is “creative”—what exactly do you mean? When and how are you creative? What are you creative about? How does your creativity help clients?

Flesh out those words with a few sentences or anecdotes.

3. Write it Down

I almost wrote “create a style guide,” but I worried I’d lose you there. The idea of a “style guide” might feel both pedantic and impenetrable to a lot of businesses—especially growing, scrappy ones who think a style guide is about as appealing as a History of  Trigonometric Functions (volumes 1-34). (Side note: Keep reading. Volume 35 is a page-turner!)

Style guide hack: Adopt a well-known style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Style Guide or (my personal favorite) the Yahoo Style Guide. Then add your own addendum to it. The benefit of doing it this way is that you’ll have the style basics covered (“email” vs. “e-mail” ) while being able to address more important things like tone. Check them out to steal ideas for inspiration.

4. Sweat the Small Stuff

Don’t think about your voice applied in only the most obvious places—like your website copy and perhaps your Facebook page. Tone of voice doesn’t apply only to those things you typically think of as “marketing.” (Everything the light touches is content, remember?)

Instead, think about how you can use your voice as a differentiator in surprising places—on your 404 page, on your email confirmation page, and on your Thank You page, About Us page, FAQ page, product descriptions, and so on.

5. Include Necessary Jargon

I used to take a hard line against jargon and insider language—I used to say, don’t use it. But lately, I’ve rethought that idea because jargon can signal a shared mindset or can convey a depth of knowledge.

Spell out what jargon and phrases your company embraces and which it does not. And, as with any writing, be sure that its use clarifies rather than gets in the way.

An Example of What Not to Do

A brief story to start: My daughter and I were at a college’s Accepted Students Day, which is basically where school administrators wine and dine prospective incoming freshmen in the hopes they’ll choose that institution out of all those a student might’ve been accepted to.

The “wine and dine” bit would be metaphorical—because there is no actual wine involved. But we did get a nice chicken sandwich and quinoa salad at lunch. The heads of various departments spoke, including Campus Security, Student Activities, and Housing. They were trying hard to make student life there sound awesome: Community! Traditions! Camaraderie! Emotional support!

The panel was in full sales mode. Campus life sounded amazing; the picture they painted was rosier than an actual rose. They were essentially highlighting the school’s best qualities to people they hoped would enroll, and the people they hoped would pay the tuition of those who enrolled.

Then came the Q&A session at the end.

One parent raised his hand and asked a specific question about the dorms.

“You said you guarantee housing for freshmen,” he said. “But what about if too many students elect to go here? I’ve heard about students crowded into small dorm rooms—where rooms intended for two suddenly have three. They call that a forced triple?”

The housing director smiled and didn’t miss a beat.

“Ah, yes,” she acknowledged. “But we call that expanded occupancy units.”

Jargon Misses the Mark

You know that record-scratch sound effect? You hear it in a movie when suddenly the momentum stops dead. That’s what happened in the room when she reframed a concept everyone understood (“forced triple”) with a buzzword phrase intended to make it sound more palatable (“expanded occupancy units”).

Maybe that jargon is the language of her academic or administrative office. But it wasn’t the language of parents or students sitting in that auditorium. In effect, it made me not trust that rosy picture they were painting overall. If she reframed the parent’s question in less vivid language to make it seem less egregious, what else was the school spinning to make it seem less terrible?

Speak, Don’t Spin

By including guidelines for what jargon is and is not permissible, you are able to set out ground rules for content creators. “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear,” political strategist and pollster Frank Luntz wrote. Frank was the guy who reframed global warming as “climate change” and the estate tax as a “death tax.”

Don’t do Frank; do you. Speak the real language of your customers, using their words, not yours. Avoid obese words.

Context Is Everything

If the administrator had been speaking to a room full of other administrators, expanded occupancy units would’ve made sense. But to parents? Not so much.

Jargon is like cholesterol, my friend Doug Kessler says: There’s a good kind and a bad kind. The good kind signals to others than you are an insider and you understand their world. The bad kind is often used when the speaker isn’t creative or smart enough to find better words. Or (worse) it’s used falsely: To elevate the speaker by making everyone else feel dumb or to obscure meaning on purpose.

Don’t Correct your Customer

Don’t use your own language or buzzwords to reframe, because it makes your customers not trust you. In other words, metaphorically speaking: if it’s a forced triple, call it a forced triple.

The point is this, more broadly: What’s your own brand voice? Does it clearly reflect what makes you you? What picture are you painting for your customers?

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