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Though they talk about it a lot in marketing circles, businesses routinely get their tones of voice badly wrong. I’d argue that this is likely to happen when basic thinking about tone of voice is so poor, but it’s also, ironically, because of some confused thinking about brand and culture.

That’s ironic because “tone of voice” is supposed to serve notions of brand. It’s important that it does, but it won’t do if you think tone of voice is a matter of vocabulary and sentence structure.

(I’ve written a short guide to the reality of tone of voice in business communication, which will download automatically if you click this link. There, among other things, I argue that tone of voice is fundamentally about sensitivity to context, while your underlying identity will be projected primarily by what you choose to say about yourself, rather than how you say it.)

How not to do it

Let’s take a real example. It’s from Microsoft, partly because it just happens to have fallen in my inbox the other day, partly because Microsoft is rich enough and sophisticated enough to do better. “Kevin Turner”, the company’s chief operating officer, wrote this to me.

“Listening to customers and partners is a top priority in every activity we do. By taking this 5 minute personalized survey you help us to better understand the needs of our customers and partners in our ongoing efforts to improve experiences across all products and services.”

Behind this text is a conversation Microsoft is having with itself. I don’t need to know about Microsoft’s management priorities in this context, so why does Turner start by telling me about them? The first sentence is redundant, which is a problem when you’re writing in a context where people have very limited attention spans. The second sentence is on the face of it strangely verbose: what’s all this stuff about improving “experiences”? Actually it’s about Microsoft’s internal change narrative, because CEO Satya Nadella wants his engineers and support staff to focus on customer experience.

I can’t quibble with that ambition, and there’s some legitimate thinking at work about the importance of repeating an idea a lot in order to embed it in people’s consciousness. But it needs to be “repeated” in the right way in the right contexts. This isn’t the right context. This is a piece of marketing communication, where verbosity is deadly.

I’m sure I’m giving this far more attention than the average reader, and probably more attention than Kevin Turner’s office gave it, but since someone somewhere apparently decided the mailing was an opportunity to say more than “please complete our survey”, then it should have been done properly. I happen to like what Microsoft is doing generally with its Windows system but it’s got its work cut out to win less interested hearts and minds. It doesn’t advance that cause by sounding like a management robot.

The robot croak

I’ve argued in my guide that there are only five desirable tones of voice (which represent a spectrum of desirable possibilities). Among the less desirable tones of voice, by far the most common is “management robotic”.

What I think Turner wants to say is something like this.

“We appreciate that you’re bombarded with feedback requests all the time, but please help us with this one because it really will make a difference: we want to make our products and services work brilliantly for you and all our users, and we can’t do that unless we know what you think and want.”

My alternative text is written so it reads as something any of us might ordinarily say. Its tone of voice is relaxed, friendly, a little casual (hence the word “brilliant”), and human. It’s based on some thought about the likely states of mind of likely readers.

Every group has its jargon. It’s how the members of the group recognise each other. But it can create real communication problems when we need to reach beyond that circle. This is why even our routinely dumb tone of voice guidelines almost always warn of the dangers of jargon, and the most pervasive jargon of the moment is management speak.

If managers want to speak in these strange terms to one another, there’s little harm in it, but depressingly it’s become the way their businesses routinely speak to everyone else.

Management speak is most easily recognised by its vocabulary, like any other jargon, but that’s not all there is to “management robotic”, which indeed can plague us even using everyday vocabulary.

Corporate narcissism

The problem with jargon is that you’ve failed from the outset to consider your listeners, not just who they are, but where they are in relation to you. Similarly businesses seem to slip into management robotic when they’re not really thinking at all, or it may often be because they’ve fallen into the comforting embrace of corporate narcissism.

That narcissism is the bastard child of brand thinking. Businesses have been encouraged to get their “message” across at every opportunity for internal and external audiences, following the assumption that if you say something often enough it will at least start to be perceived as true, and become embedded in the minds of customers or staff. The trouble is this means they talk about themselves instead of thinking about what would make for a useful or even interesting conversation, then wonder why they fail to engage any possible listeners.

So although Kevin Turner’s thoughts are not couched in obvious buzzwords, they’ve come out of the same unreflective space, where a management agenda has obstructed necessarily sensitive thought about how to have a conversation with people outside the management bubble.

Being human

Perhaps some managers go home and speak to their families in much the same way, but I doubt it. At some level I’d guess that management robotic is a tone adopted to help its users behave in what they see as a necessary work-like way, but then it’s also about putting up barriers which effective business needs to do without.

In our language, as well as our behaviour, we need to learn to be human again. Nothing else will do.

Our language and our behaviour are mutually influential. By “human” I don’t particularly mean humane or kind, though I think both are desirable attributes. I mean thoughtful, careful, concerned to listen properly, and concerned to behave properly (so we’re not boastful or talking stupidly about ourselves), in the hope that we’re better placed to move things forward in whatever ways they need to be moved.

By “human” too I want to emphasise the truth that for better or worse business is a social construct. It’s embedded in society. Management speak, like other jargon, encourages the belief that you’re operating in a closed-off space, where normal rules don’t apply, but this is an illusion, and a very damaging one when it comes to communication.

If you want to avoid the management robotic tone of voice, the first step is to recognise it. The second is to take a formal stand against it, to invest both in training and internal communication materials designed to help people think about better, more human ways of thinking, and speaking.

You might be able to do much of this yourself. After all, it’s about re-learning to be yourself. But most would find it helpful to have some help along the way. I can help, in many different ways, so if all of this rings true and you’d like to change it, then we should talk.

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