Why language makes all the difference in business

A recent project brought home the impact that language can have when engaging with an audience.  We found that a phrase, which until then was being used as the team name and service descriptor had a hugely negative impact on the main target audience, and was in part the reason why the audience hadn’t been engaging with the service.

The outcomes surprised the project team, and will mean that they need to adopt a whole new vocabulary when talking about their service to their audience.  Whilst I can’t share the specifics of this project, the insight is one which can apply to business communications strategies across industry sectors and audience segments.

Challenge assumptions

You may think that there are some obvious differences in the use of English language to appeal to say younger vs older audiences. However I challenge that assumption as younger people (Generation Y and Z) don’t necessarily want their brands to talk to them in text-speak or use their jargon.  If your brand is delivering a serious product or service then they want you to speak with authority using proper English. If your brand is fun and social, then copy in line with their vocabulary is more likely to be acceptable to them.

Use of younger language could mean that older generations (Baby Boomers) simply can’t understand what message you are trying to get across, but at the same time this generation like their advertising to be intelligent and not patronising.

Gather insight about your audience preferences

It is wrong to assume that all of your audience will have the same reaction to language based on their age.  How often have you understood something different to your friend or colleague, even if you were listening to the same words?  We interpret language differently based on a huge number of factors, such as our age, gender, socio-demographic group, experiences and so on.

green appleAt a team-building workshop years ago the facilitator asked us for our first response when she said the word ‘apple’. The majority of those in the room responded with ‘crispy’, ‘red’, ‘fresh’ and so on. My response was ‘snow white’ – which seemed completely left-field to the rest of the group, but to me demonstrated that I was much more creative than my peers. It also helped us all to understand why we sometimes had difficulty communicating within the group! From then on, we appreciated that we sometimes needed to say the same thing in different ways, in order to get a message across to the variety of personality types in the team.

So, the lesson is to understand your audience in terms of the language they would like you – your brand or company – to use with them. Don’t make assumptions based on their demographics as that could easily lead you down the wrong path. Good market research is crucial, so that you get qualitative information to feed into your strategy.

Adult-to-adult, adult-to-child, peer-to-peer

Without realising it brands can slip into speaking to their audience like an adult to a child. This ‘telling’ way of speaking is rarely successful as the recipient feels patronised.  I’ve often seen it used by professional services firms, where they are trying to impart advice or knowledge, and are therefore the ones in the know (unlike the audience).  Their challenge is to get across that they are the experts, without making the audience feel stupid for not having that expertise.

There are also many examples of peer-to-peer language used inappropriately that make me cringe.  Finding the right relationship with your audience is an essential step in defining your tone of voice. It’s partly about your brand positioning, partly about your target audience. Get it wrong and you could sound like a grumpy uncle, or worse – daddy on the dance floor!

Learn to speak your customer’s language

What can a business do, if the service you offer is legal advice, but your customer research indicates that they feel ‘legal advice’ has negative connotations – for example they may feel that it is likely to be expensive, an old fashioned business, full of confusing jargon…and so on.

The answer is to develop a new set of vocabulary for you to use, in dealing with customers and in your communications.  Find out from your customers what they would want from a business that helps them with legal matters, and how they would like you to speak. Test some different phrases with them, let them create their own, and you will find a direction starts to become clear.  From there you can create new ways of talking about your service which will be in the language that makes sense to your customers, and uses phrases that they want to hear.

Your business should reap benefits in terms of delivering a better service to your customers, and marketing communications will be much more effective as your message will be clearly understood.  Language is a very powerful tool in business, but its importance is often sadly overlooked.


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Filed under Communications, Copywriting, Marketing, Strategy

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