Now that you know what you want to say, you need to learn how to say it. This is your “voice”. When people read or hear things from your company, who do they imagine saying it? In a small company, this is often very simple: It’s the owner. Since those individuals are the ones who makes the decisions in the company, it’s rather easy to just let them stand up and be themselves. There’s a reason Steve Jobs was the spokesman for Apple.
Most of the time, however, that’s not an option. The owner may be too busy, in another country, or just terrible in front of crowds. That’s where your PR and Marketing teams come into play. They will build an “archetype” spokesman. At least they will if they’re any good at their jobs. They might not say it in just that way, but it’s what they’re doing inside their heads when they write copy or speeches.
Voice is where you really start defining your company as a “personality”. Are you “young and exciting” or “wise and well-established”? Are you “Calm and reassuring” or a “daring risk taker”? If your company was a person, who would that person be?
What to Leave In…
Voice is where you start deciding which words you will use–and which you will avoid.
You need to choose your words carefully, because words have history. I call it “semantic value”. A word with a “high semantic value” is one that comes with a lot of history and subtext. Choosing a strong word can make your job easier, as all that value comes with it. However, it also brings with it the risk that your history with the word is not the same as others’ history.
This is one of the biggest reasons to have a diverse group working with you–especially in marketing and PR. Different social groups and subcultures may have significantly different histories with various words and phrases. A diverse staff helps you to avoid problems.
…What to Leave Out
Even where a word has a “low semantic value”, it still might bring with it a little baggage. Let me give two examples: Fine and Free. Those sound like okay words, right? Well… it depends.
In China, students are taught one–and only one, it seems–greeting in English:
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”
Setting aside the fact that nobody says that in the US, there’s the problem with the word “fine”. It’s what your girlfriend says when she’s angry at you and expects you to know why. It doesn’t mean that 100% of the time, but there’s always that ghost hanging around in the back of our minds asking “Is he really fine? Or is he just saying that?” You need to find a response that it appropriate to the voice of your company, be it “Terrific!” or “Very well, thank you”. Something that small already starts to define who you are.
I recently consulted with a company that operates on a commission basis. They take a portion of the transaction as their fee, so there’s no initial cost for anyone using their service. The management kept talking about how their service is “free”. That’s a word to avoid. If something is “free”, it has no value. If someone is offering something for “free”, we start to question why. It’s better to say “no up-front costs” or “we work on commission”.
As with Message, Voice needs to be consistent. The entire company–and everyone who speaks for it–must speak with a similar voice. Not exactly the same voice, but one that is consistent. If you’ve decided to be “young and exciting”, then everyone from your CEO to your receptionist need to be their own version of “young and exciting” in all their interactions.
How the 50-something CEO shows “young and exciting” will be different from how the 20-something salesman does. How your company presents “young and exciting” to your suppliers will vary from how you present it to your customers. But it’s still a single voice.