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That overlooked dialect of “human”

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.

As creatures, we’re hardwired to pay attention to and respond positively to stories and story structure. It’s how we make sense of the world.

Stories about people who battle to triumph over adversity.

People like us – facing problems like the challenges we face – who use their ingenuity to find their way through to smart and uniquely human solutions.

Solutions that are often elegant in their simplicity, eliciting “Doh! But of course!” type responses. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

This is true just as much for business as it is for affairs of the heart or family strife. Indeed, in the social and digital era, in which anyone with a smart device connected to WiFi is an editor with an opinion, it’s never mattered more. To cut through the clutter and make our signals heard above the noise of our competitors, storytelling is the key to communications success.

Last week was National Storytelling Week, the seventeenth annual celebration of the power of the oral storytelling tradition run by the Society for Storytelling. With events in schools, care homes, hospitals, theatres, and museums, the week-long festival turns the spotlight on storytelling. At Insight Agents, we commissioned researchers from the Catalyst scheme at Sussex University’s Innovation Centre to uncover the best and worst of contemporary corporate speak.

We found that many businesses with their roots in science and technology – particularly those working in the fields of genetics and genomics – can find it very hard indeed to avoid using complex, often impenetrable jargon when explaining their amazing breakthroughs to a lay audience. They suffer from what psychologists call the Curse of Knowledge; the more you know about something, the less clearly you write. You can’t imagine others don’t know what you do, and that is reflected in your prose.

We found that lawyers – lampooned for the smokescreen of legalese – can find it hard to resist showing off. Often, their language may be relatively straightforward to understand, but they use a lot of fine and flowing prose to say very little. Stating the obvious to fill space and waffling to mask a lack of substance are crimes against language that few will readily forgive. Legal eagles and some professional services businesses are also more likely to break the Cocktail Party Rule – the rule of empathy and understanding your audience – which 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.” Otherwise, they’ll turn off and pay attention to someone else. Like a competitor.

But our research didn’t only uncover villains. We also found many examples of heroic corporate and brand language online. From McDonald’s explaining the progress it’s making on salt reduction, to innocent and Lush Cosmetics who write as people speak; in that strange and often-overlooked dialect of “human”. What’s more, while some government departments and charities like nothing more than obscure, legalese, others – notably the Home Office’s Fire Kills campaign and the pioneering Cancer Research UK – express and explain complex, emotional topics with facility and an easy bedside manner.

All these heroes know that data and statistics are necessary to build the evidence base you need to make a compelling case, but they don’t show their workings. They know – like Chip and Dan Heath, the brother-authors of the excellent Made To Stick – that “After a presentation, 63% of attendees remember stories. Only 5% remember statistics.” The same is true of Dove with its Campaign for Real Beauty, Persil for Dirt Is Good, and AVIVA for its Safest Driver campaign. All examples of data-driven storytelling at its very best.

And whether a company sells to other businesses (often called B2B) or to consumers (B2C), what matters is that companies speak like people speak. Indeed, business strategist Bryan Kramer says the terms B2B and B2C are past their use-by date. What matters is that corporate communication becomes genuinely H2H, or human to human.

Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of corporate and brand storytelling consulting Insight Agents. Find out more here And download Insight Agents’ new report on the best and worst of corporate speak, Heroes & Villains, here.

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