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Observe the cocktail party rule

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This is the fifth in a series of blogs to mark National Storytelling Week 2017, focused on the words companies and brands use to tell their stories.

Corporations that grow and endure over time can be justifiably proud of building a sustainable business. But boasting about how brilliant they are to demonstrate their superiority over their competitors breaks the Cocktail Party Rule. This states: “If you want to be boring, talk about yourself; if you want to be interesting, talk about the issues that matter to those who are listening.” That’s one reason why content marketing has grown to be so popular and successful: businesses talking about what they know and so why they’re in business, rather than what they do.

Boasting can be perfectly comprehensible – like this passage from Norton Rose Fullbright (another law firm) – though the rambling sentence scores poorly on the Flesch Kincaid reading ease score (see Monday’s blog, Keep it simple).

“We are highly regarded for our work across all aspects of contentious and non-contentious employment and labour law around the world. With dedicated teams in Europe, the United States, Canada, Latin America, Asia, Australia, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, we offer a full-service, cross-border employment and labour practice. We have substantial transactional experience, and regularly advise on the employment and labour law aspects of multi-jurisdictional corporate reorganisations and mergers and acquisitions.” (Flesch Kincaid reading ease score 14.9)

One of the reasons it scores so poorly on reading ease (see Monday’s blog) is that the writer felt compelled to mention every single region in which the company operates … which is almost every major region in the world. Similarly, saying ‘highly regarded’ and ‘substantial’ when providing a brief overview of the company’s expertise feels like overkill. This particularly true when those familiar with the industry are likely to be the main readers.

A good definition of both brand and reputation is “what other people say about you – particularly when you’re out of the room”. Lawyers Bird & Bird don’t make any grammatical or comprehensibility blunders with their text from their homepage. It’s more that the self-congratulatory tone makes this a good example of corporate brand language gone sour.

“Bird & Bird is an international leading law firm in business sectors where technology plays a key role. So, it’s no wonder we support innovation, regularly organising events and sharing our insight about groundbreaking ideas and developments.” (FK 40.5)

A little more modesty, a little more letting others say why they’re so brilliant (case studies, anyone?) wouldn’t go amiss. A little more understanding and application of the Cocktail Party Rule. It’s not as if lawyers as a profession are unfamiliar with the cocktail party …

In tomorrow’s final blog in the series, we’ll look at how and why brands should talk human. We’ll also be sharing details of how to get hold of our full report on the best and worst of corporate speak entitled “Heroes & Villains”.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.