Judy Delin: Hail the grammar geeks

Businesses are communicating with their customers via an ever-increasing range of media, which can lead to an ill-defined corporate message, says Judy Delin

We live in a multi-channel world. If a company wants to communicate with its customers it can use e-mail, SMS, phone, Internet, direct mail, extranet, Web In the world of customer communications, there are evermore decisions to be made about how to communicate what message, when. This ought to be heaven. Except in most cases, the e-mail people aren’t the same as the call-centre people, or the people who run the website, or the people who do the customer letters, or the marketing people. To co-ordinate customer communications in such a set-up, even on traditional channels, takes a lot of ingenuity.

Some companies get it wrong, like the bank that sent a colleague of mine who was taking out a new mortgage 11 different communications within two days, from 11 different people. The messages ranged from chatty and friendly, through straightforward, but professional, to downright legalistic. It was hard to get any sense of this bank as a coherent entity, an effect worsened by its use of four different kinds of headed paper. This bank is in need of a communications overhaul. As most large organisations are starting to appreciate, it must adopt a distinctive voice that expresses its identity, communicating its values clearly to customers.

A good place to look for guidance on how to do this would be its brand guidelines. Sadly, when they approach that weighty volume it is likely to be disappointed. For in common with most brand statements, a language gap yawns widely.

Brand identity documents that run to 60 pages on use of colour, images, typefaces and sizes, and so on, typically devote around four pages to the brand ‘tone of voice’. This usually says something like ‘Be straightforward, and don’t talk down to customers’. ‘Don’t use jargon’. ‘Use bright, friendly language’. ‘Our language expresses our brand values: we are warm, expert, and down to earth’. We would never leave a specification of design at this level.

Just as design needs a level of detail beyond brand values to let us communicate adequately about it, so does language. And just as with design specification, language specification requires attentive work. It needs a linguistically informed person to understand the precise structures of the language that position the brand and its customers in an attractive relationship. This means looking at clause structures, at how the customer and the brand are placed in terms of the actions of verbs, how you use metaphors, how noun phrases work to keep the brand in focus, and how people manage the balance of power when they talk.

With a bit of linguistic knowledge, all of this can be specified in detail – and it then acts as a blueprint for a unique voice. Once a language profile is in place, working out what is and what isn’t on-brand becomes much easier. In particular, where an explicit language statement can really earn its keep is in larger organisations with complex communication demands. These are often in the hands of hundreds or thousands of individual staff members, and co-ordinated by a large number of different agencies, internal and external. It’s possible for both language and design in these multi-channel operations to become fragmented and lose focus. A properly defined brand voice can keep everything on track.

It’s time we saw language and design working as two equal parts of a communicative whole. To do this, we need people who can talk the language of both. It’s more than just plain or clear English: for writers with any standing in the industry, the ability to produce grammatical, well-punctuated and clear language is taken as a given. It’s about commitment to researching and defining what will be unique about the way the brand is expressed – an exercise that in itself can help refine the brand as originally conceived, and increase people’s understanding of it.

To do this thoroughly, it’s probably necessary to go into grammar – to talk about relative clauses, nouns, adverbs and so on. These terms correspond in level of detail to things like tints, layers, and alignment in design. At the moment, for some reason, it’s hard to talk about language in this way without sounding like a geek. Perhaps that will change, if it becomes clearer to more people that a bit of grammar geekiness is going to be what it takes.

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