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Talk human

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This is the sixth and final blog in our special series to mark National Storytelling Week 2017, focused on the words companies and brands use to tell their stories.

It’s a strange truism of corporate communications that as soon as they’re required to write “for” or “as” the business, perfectly eloquent individuals adopt a register that’s never come out of any human mouth. It’s as if the spotlight paralyses people to start talking gobbledygook and poppycock, balderdash and baloney. (Find out more terms for nonsense language at the marvellous Phronistery.)

Many politicians and policy wonks are guilty of many or all the missteps we’ve identified so far this week. Fortunately, not all Government departments lapse in this way. Here’s a great example of human chatter from the Home Office’s Fire Kills campaign:

“Test your smoke alarms monthly. Last year over 200 people died in fires in the home. You’re at least 4 times more likely to die in a fire in the home if there’s no working smoke alarm. When you test your smoke alarms, you could test the smoke alarms of an older family member, neighbour or friend who needs help. It only takes a moment to test and gives your family and people you care about a better chance of surviving a fire.” (Flesch Kincaid reading ease score 83.9 – see Monday’s blog for more about this.)

Invoking discussion with neighbours and family members adds a human touch, allowing a serious – and highly important – message to be conveyed simply and effectively.

Cancer Research UK talks human in the next extract. While maintaining a serious tone (as befits a cancer charity), this section has a conversational edge which feels friendly. It’s easy to read and explains facts clearly.

“We want survival in the UK to be among the best in the world. We’re focusing our efforts in four key areas – working to help prevent cancer, diagnose it earlier, develop new treatments and optimise current treatments by personalising them and making them even more effective. We’ll continue to support research into all types of cancer and across all age groups. And we’re keeping our focus on understanding the biology of cancer so we can use this vital knowledge to save more lives.” (FK 54.3)

In the course of this past week’s series of blogs, we’ve identified a number of important principles companies should follow if they want to be the heroes and not the villains of corporate communication. These include: Keep It Simple, Beware the Curse of Knowledge, and observe the Cocktail Party Rule.

But perhaps the most important thing companies can do is to talk human.

To round out this week’s blog series, we’ll close with three great examples of brand narrative. The first one comes from those pioneers of brand storytelling, Innocent Drinks:

“We started innocent in 1999 after selling our smoothies at a music festival. We put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies, and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No” in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking. Since then we’ve started making coconut water, juice and kids’ stuff, in our quest to make natural, delicious, healthy drinks that help people live well and die old.” (FK 77.6)

Second, from new kids on the home security block, Cocoon:

“Traditional home security doesn’t work for most people. It’s too expensive, too complicated, and false alarms happen so often that we’ve learnt simply to ignore them. In 2014, our founding team decided that the future of home security is to make using it as simple and intelligent as possible. We set about creating a technology that would protect the whole home from a single device, and this is how Cocoon came into the world. We believe in making homes safer and simpler. Often the people that need home security the most are the people that don’t have access to it. Whether you’re renting, own your home or travel between homes, everyone should feel safe at home with the minimum of fuss.” (FK 62.5)

And finally, not sounding like a business at all, we have new wave cosmetics business, Lush. The language combines a positive tone of voice with a straightforward line in storytelling. Focusing on the idea behind the brand makes it easy for the reader to forget they’re being sold a product at all.

“Here at Lush we have never liked to call ourselves an Ethical Company. We find the term rather a difficult concept, because it seems to us that it is used to describe companies who try not to damage people or planet with their trade practices – when surely this should not be regarded as ‘ethical’ but as normal business-as-usual. All business should be ethical and all trade should be fair.

“Individual companies should not stand out simply by not being damaging or unfair.  No company should be trading from an unethical position and society has a right to expect as the norm fairness and resource stewardship from the companies that supply them. We always wish to conduct our business so that all people who have contact with us, from our ingredients suppliers through to our staff and customers, benefit from their contact with Lush and have their lives enriched by it.  No company is perfect and we strive daily to get closer to the ideal vision that all Lush people share.  We will always want and demand more from Lush, so that our business practices match our own expectations, our staff and customer expectations and the needs of the planet.” (FK 55.5)

To mark the end of National Storytelling Week, we’re publishing a comprehensive report on the best and worst of corporate speak entitled “Heroes & Villains”. Click here to download your copy today.

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.

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