Verbal identity: you can be consistent without being monotonous

Verbal identity: you can be consistent without being monotonous
February 27, 2015 Beth Nyland

This week I spent some time advising a communicator who’s working to improve her company’s understanding of verbal identity.

Many organizations have visual identities that specify how people must convey the brand through color, type, and imagery. The details in these visual branding guides are astounding—down to half a point in type and a fraction of an inch on the page.

Verbal identity doesn’t get so much love. Some companies have a customized style guide. Others at least specify whether to follow AP Style or The Chicago Manual of Style. Most have a list of acronyms somewhere, so you can interpret the alphabet soup of terms like KPI, ROI, and API.

But a full-on guide to expressing a brand in words? What a rare and wonderful thing!

So, how do you do establish a verbal identity?

How do your get people to communicate with one voice, to convey a consistent image and unified message? And then, if everyone uses the same voice, how do you avoid monotony?

A_picture_is_worth_a_thousand_wordsYou can be consistent without being monotonous. But you may have to give employees permission to expand their vocabulary.

Wait. What?

Your company leadership has probably never restricted anyone to a limited lexicon. In most cases, the employee handbook doesn’t say, “Use these words, not those.”

But your organization’s most fundamental messages could be sending signals about the words employees believe they are supposed to use.

Look at your company’s statements about mission, vision, and values. They’re loaded with general terms—on purpose. We craft these messages to appeal to virtually any audience, whether internal or external. We want them to have a long shelf life. As a result, we construct them as big tents that shelter a host of scouts and a lot of ideas and behaviors.

And because those statements are approved and widely published, employees look to them as a source of vocabulary.

Suppose your company values statement includes words like “integrity” and “innovation.” Trust me on this: Every day, employees force-fit those words into presentations, emails, and other documents. They drop them into their messages as a signal that their ideas and actions are in line with company direction.

But in day-to-day business, writers and speakers can’t afford to use general terms and broad statements. They need specifics that result in shared vision, accurate understanding, and motivated action.

We need to give people permission to use their own words.

Let everyone know it’s okay—in fact, it’s expected—to think past predictable keywords and in-house lingo. Tell them they need to convey messages in their own words, with specifics that no one else could give.

Don’t tell me your project “supports the company’s innovation agenda.”

Instead, show me how “our team of engineers brainstormed 67 alternative formats for the widget and chose the one that wowed customers three ways: it’s faster, it’s easier, and it’s downright fun to use.”

That first, generic approach makes your message sound like any other. You blend in with the rest. You’re “supporting” an “agenda.” What does that even mean?

The second message is distinct because of its details. “Engineers.” Ah, you have skilled people at work. “Sixty-seven formats.” You did your homework. “Customer feedback.” You sought external perspective. “Results in three categories.” I’m listening!

What does it take to make this difference? Just genuine details about the work, rather than a few forced words to match the company’s catch phrases.

Have you given people permission to use their own words? Tell me how you did it, and what happened next.

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