Three ways to boost your brand’s tone of voice

In this article on tone of voice, you’ll discover:

  • Why you need a compelling tone of voice to catch the attention of customers in 2022
  • Why authenticity beats whacky
  • Why everyone in your organisation needs a shared tone of voice

It’s easy to get so caught up in communicating all the great things you do and forget to pay attention to the way you speak to your audience. 

Read back some marketing copy or that new description you just wrote for your website – how does it make you feel? If you were stifling a yawn mid-sentence, it’s probably time to re-think your written tone of voice. Because if you’re bored, the chances are you’ve already lost the people you’re talking to.

What is tone of voice?

Tone of voice is the way in which you express yourself in writing. It’s your brand’s personality, communicated. Getting the right brand voice is about knowing who you are and what you stand for, knowing who you’re talking to, and working out how to best showcase what makes you stand out.

Why should you care about tone of voice?

Have you ever met someone you thought you could just listen to forever? While they may have had interesting tales to tell, it’s likely that it’s the way they told them that had you hooked. That’s who you want to be for your ideal customer.

Connection 

The main purpose of your written communication should be to create feelings in your target audience (if you missed our blog on creating powerful messaging to trigger emotion, you might want to check it out here). And there’s solid research to back this up: a 2015 Harvard Business Review article found that “fully connected” customers are worth 52% more than “highly satisfied” customers. According to a two-year study of 100,000 retail customers, “emotionally connected customers have a 306 percent higher lifetime value (LTV), stay with a brand for an average of 5.1 years, and will recommend brands at a much higher rate.”

Trust

An increasing number of consumers want to have trust in an organisation’s values before doing business. One survey found that it was important to a massive 81% of respondents that they spent their money with brands that shared their values. One way to build trust is through a consistent and value-driven tone of voice.

Makes your message stand out

There’s no doubt that the UK market in 2022 is challenging: inflationary pressures, availability of experienced employees, energy prices and increased competition were the most significant challenges reported by a recent ONS survey. Brands that blur into the background are unlikely to win new business.

Three tips to get clear on your written tone of voice

Be afraid to be boring

Nick Parker at Voicebox (who was our guest on June’s TPW vodcast ‘Fine tuning your tone of voice’ – catch up here), says that he always makes his clients read their content aloud: “it means that they can have that moment of ‘oh wow, this is extremely tedious’ and they realise they can’t bear to read their own brand’s writing. If content is boring, you might as well not bother writing it in the first place.”

But the opposite of boring doesn’t have to be whacky. “There are more ways of being interesting than being a clown. There are great examples of content out there that’s interesting and still delivering a serious message – take the CIA website for example.” Nick believes you have to dig deep into the impact of what you do in order to find the interesting angles. “People sometimes forget if you make metal alloys that they can be bits in the Mars Rover or a part of a bridge that’s a really essential part of national infrastructure. Get used to talking about what you do, in a way that means people will care.”

Your tone of voice should embody your brand personality

Just as you don’t have to be whacky in order to avoid bland and boring copy, don’t be tempted to be something you’re not in order to become more interesting, because today’s consumers cherish authenticity. In a survey, 90% of customers said that authenticity was an important factor in deciding which brands they like and support. As Nick said on the TPW vodcast, “It’s the Dolly Parton theory of branding. She says: ‘find out who you are, then do it on purpose’.” Let your values shine out so your perfect customers can find you. 

Get buy-in from all your teams and senior leaders

As tone of voice is about your brand’s personality, it should be consistent across literally everything you do. From the way employees speak to customers, to the employee profiles on your website, your marketing emails and the way you write your annual report. It’s not just a way of writing back-of-pack descriptions, but a living expression of who you are as an organisation. And it needs to be at the heart of every part of your business.

Your tone of voice should reflect your brand personality, which in turn reflects the values you hold most dear. This creates the trust that Gen Z and Millennial consumers want to feel. Consistency and buy in from senior leadership, teams across the business and all types of content is crucial. Nick’s advice is “don’t get overwhelmed, but start with the words that are most relevant to customers and go from there.”

Hone your distinctive tone of voice so your content can shine

Developing a tone of voice that is true to your vision and is authentic will help you engage customers. By making sure your brand voice is consistent, your audience will get a better sense of what you stand for and what they have in common with your brand.

TPW vodcast #2: Fine Tuning Your Tone of Voice

The Power of Words brings you a vodcast or video-cast on ‘Fine Tuning Your Tone of Voice‘ with galvanizing guest speaker – Nick Parker, Creator of Voicebox. Please click on link below to listen.

https://youtu.be/T-ZZdCPG5fo
This vodcast is for businesses (or agencies on behalf of clients) who need help with the following:
Are you struggling to find your tone of voice?
• Perhaps you have one – but it’s not being heard?
• Or maybe you’ve never considered the power the right tone of voice can have?

In this session, our Founder Tessa P-W calls on Nick’s prolific tone of voice expertise.

Please do get in touch with any questions you have after viewing: hello@thepowerofwords.co.uk

Messaging Mastery: How to write to trigger emotion

If you missed TPW’s inaugural vodcast on 𝗠𝗘𝗦𝗦𝗔𝗚𝗜𝗡𝗚 𝗠𝗔𝗦𝗧𝗘𝗥𝗬, with our Founder Tessa P-W and guest speaker Vanessa Cuddeford, Strategic Comms Expert fear not, the recording is here. We’ve also picked the best bits below in a blog.

Read on to discover:

How we make decisions based on emotion, not logic – and why that matters

Why you need to channel your inner Trump (yes, that one)

And how to call on short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words (not Latin)

Intrigued? Then tuck in…

TPW: Messaging or key messages – such incredibly dull words – but why is crafting standout messaging so important in business communications?

VC: There’s just so much noise out there, isn’t there? You can’t move for information in this day and age – whether it’s on social media, emails, newspapers, online, on the radio. And so, we’ve got so many calls on our attention that if your message as a business isn’t super clear the moment people see it, then they’re simply going to bounce off. And the mistakes that people often make is that they talk often about the features of what they do rather than the benefits. One of my favourite TED Talks of all time is by Simon Sinek, and he talks about the importance of having a why – and that people buy into your why and that then appeals to people’s emotional brain. We often think that we make decisions on information, but we don’t. We make decisions on emotion and then we justify with logic. And so, to get a really good message, number one, it needs to be clear immediately. But it also it needs to appeal to people’s emotions.

We make decisions on emotion and then we justify with logic.

TPW: What do you think are some common mistakes when crafting key messages?

VC: Saying too much is a big mistake. We tend to overload people with information and not just keep it simple. You and I, as journalists, know how difficult it is to be simple. And often you’ll get a very complicated story. It’s a journalist’s job is to make it easy and understandable for people who aren’t experts and create a headline so that people can immediately understand what that story is about. Businesses need to do that as well. Another problem that I see is that businesses make it about themselves. They’ll want to say things like: “We’ve got 14 offices around the world. We won this award. We work with these clients.” But your audience doesn’t care about you. They only care about you in so much as you can help them. A feature is – this car has an airbag. A benefit is – this airbag saves your life. That’s the critical difference.

Your audience doesn’t care about you. They only care about you in so much as you can help them.

TPW: Theres often a misconception that colloquial messaging is somehow dumbing down

VC: When I’m training people to speak in meetings, often they’ll want to show that they know all the lingo and all the jargon because they think it makes them sound more intelligent. It’s quite exclusive and it’s a real skill to be able to describe and talk about complicated ideas simply. There’s a big difference between simple and simplistic. One of my favourite quotes of all time is by the French writer Paul Valerie, and he said, “Everything simple is false, but everything complicated is unusable”. And what he meant by that is you’re never going to be able to get all the information across in one go if you make it simple. It is, to an extent going to be false because you can’t get everything in there. But if you try to get everything in there, then it’s unusable anyway. So, you’re going to have to slaughter your darlings and cut stuff out. Painful though it may be.

There’s a big difference between simple and simplistic.

TPW: Going back to the emotional part of our brain the EQ can often be left out of messaging, cant it? But strong key messages are all about the feel

VC: Emotion is key and there are some really great examples when emotion has been more persuasive than the fact. If we think back to the London 2012 Olympic bid, it should have gone to Paris. Paris was the shoo-in; it was assumed that Paris would win that bid. But when it came to that presentation to the IOC, Paris really majored on the logistics – the fact that they had hotel rooms, they had all the transport infrastructure, they were very well set up for it. Whereas London talked about the legacy, the sporting feeling and how this would be so great for generations to come. And ultimately, at the last minute, that’s why London pipped Paris to the post, because the feels worked.

TPW: What kind of language works best for key messages?

VC: It was Winston Churchill who said that short words are the best; the old words best of all. English is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Latin – from when the French came over. If a word has more than three syllables, it’s probably Latin derived, rather than Anglo-Saxon. Day-to-day, we tend to speak in Anglo-Saxon. If you’re writing in formal language – like legalistic language – it’s more likely to be Latin. If you’re writing in words with more than three syllables, then you’re probably speaking in Latin. In that case, go back to the drawing board – the shorter, the better.

TPW: Do you have any good books people can read to get advice on messaging?

VC: There’s a great book called ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath. They talk about what makes a message sticky and have impact. And they came up with an acronym – the ‘SUCCES’ formula. Simple. Unexpected. Concrete. Credible. Emotional. Stories. And if you can include some, if not all of those then you’re going to be creating a good message. I remember reading about Margaret Atwood describing how to tell a good story. And she said: “If you were telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood and you started with ‘Once upon a time, there was a little girl’, we’d all go – boring! We’ve heard that story 100 times before. But if you start from the point of view that says, ‘It was dark inside the wolf’, you’re taking people right into the middle of the action”. Now we’re intrigued…

The SUCCES formula: Simple. Unexpected. Concrete. Credible. Emotional. Stories.

TPW: What famous person would you say is good at messaging?

VC: Controversially, I think Donald Trump is a good example of someone who was quite surprising in his messaging. And that’s why he was so successful; he would say things that people didn’t expect and they couldn’t quite understand in the moment. So, when he said, “We’re going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”, how does that add up? How the heck is Mexico going to pay for it? Now, that turned out not to be true, and obviously we want to be truthful in our messaging. But what he did was created that intrigue. He piqued people’s interest and they wanted to find out more.

TPW: To wrap things up, what three things should businesses do to crack the messaging nut?

VC: Speak to the benefit for your audience, not the feature – it’s not the what you do, it’s the why you do it. And really to find that out for yourself again, look to your own values. Why did you join this organisation? Why did you set up this company? You will have had a why. Most of us want to get some kind of benefit. That’s your why. In terms of the writing of your messages, use short Anglo-Saxon words. And then finally, less is more. Better to say one thing and it really cut through, than say five things and it all just gets lost.

Omne trium perfectum: everything that’s perfect comes in threes…

We couldn’t agree more.  Especially when it comes to messaging or key messages.

Here are three reasons 𝗮𝗹𝗹 𝗯𝘂𝘀𝗶𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗲𝘀 𝘀𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗹𝗱 𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗿𝗮𝗰𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗿𝘂𝗹𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗿𝗲𝗲 in their messaging and copy:

✍️Three is the smallest number required to make a pattern. Our brains like patterns. 𝗦𝗵𝗼𝗿𝘁, 𝗺𝗲𝗺𝗼𝗿𝗮𝗯𝗹𝗲, 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗽𝗲𝗿𝘀𝘂𝗮𝘀𝗶𝘃𝗲.

✍️We’ve historically 𝗯𝗲𝗲𝗻 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗶𝗻𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝘂𝗻𝗲 𝗶𝗻 to groupings of three:

𝗥𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗴𝗶𝗼𝗻: The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

𝗖𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

𝗦𝗰𝗶𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲: Newton’s Three Laws of Motion.

𝗔𝗿𝘁: Aesthetic composition in thirds. 

✍️In marketing, there’s also a belief that this system of steps engages audiences the most effectively: 𝗖𝗼𝗴𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 (𝗮𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗲𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀 / 𝗹𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗻𝗶𝗻𝗴), 𝗔𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗰𝘁 (𝗳𝗲𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗴, 𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝗲𝘀𝘁 𝗼𝗿 𝗱𝗲𝘀𝗶𝗿𝗲), 𝗕𝗲𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗶𝗼𝘂𝗿 (𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻).

So, why not 𝗝𝘂𝘀𝘁 𝗗𝗼 𝗜𝘁! Give it a go…

HOW TO CREATE KEY MESSAGES FOR EFFECTIVE CONTENT MARKETING – WITH EXAMPLES!

An effective content marketing strategy is one of your most valuable business assets. Research shows that content marketers with a defined strategy in place drive 7.8 times as much unique traffic as those without.

But how do you know how to write the messaging for an effective campaign? We take a look at some examples of key messages and how you can develop your own to speak to your ideal consumers.

What are key messages?

There are two main types of key messages:

  1. The core message, which is how you talk about your business as a whole.
  2. Audience-specific key messages, which build relationships with each of the different kinds of people you do business with.

These messages are ‘key’ to your business, because they should be part of absolutely everything you do. Key messages must form the backbone of how people within your organisation answer the phone, communicate in emails, post on social media, greet people in the lobby, respond to complaints, present at conferences and talk to each other in meetings. They aren’t sentences that sit in a content strategy document on a shelf – they’re out there, at the very front of everything your organisation says and does.

TPW’s top tips:

  • Know who you’re talking to. You have distinct groups of clients or customers (a bank might be talking to fund managers, retail customers and consumers, for example), so make sure you can picture who they are. 
  • Once you know who you’re talking to, work out what they care about. What keeps them up at night, what would they never compromise on, what do they want in life?
  • Now you know your audience and what they care about, you can start to look for the why behind your message. Simon Sinek famously said that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. You have to find the why behind what you’re selling. People think that they buy based on logical decisions, but research shows that 95% of purchasing decisions are subconscious. In other words, 95% of the decisions we make are based on emotions, gut feel; everything except logic. So don’t sell someone the technical specifications of your brilliant product, tell them how it will make their life better.
  • Your key messages should be short and concise. You need to be able to sum up the problem you solve for your consumer in one simple sentence.
  • Maya Angelou is famous for saying that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Make your prospective customers feel welcome by using language that everyone can understand. Replace jargon, industry speak or technical language with the same plain English you’d hear in the pub (follow our TPW crusade to ban jargon on our blog!).
  • Your company has a personality, so let that shine through. Go through the story of how your brand came to be and see what themes pop out. Focus on what makes you unique and then put that out front and centre. This sense of your own personality will become your tone of voice, dictating whether you’re formal, chatty, casual, edgy or downright rude in your communications (we don’t recommend this, but there is a restaurant in Boston, USA where all the staff are encouraged to be as rude as possible to their guests. It is, surprisingly, packed!).
  • Once you’ve created your key messages, give proof and examples of your products in action. The very best proof is user-generated content, such as reviews, product pictures on social media and unboxing videos. Companies such as Marmite are great at encouraging lovers and haters of their brand alike to contribute content to their marketing campaign in a playful way.

In summary, your key messages should connect with your target audience and motivate them to act. It’s all about creating emotion and demonstrating how you can solve their problem, rather than the nitty-gritty of what you do. Only 66% of B2B marketers think about their audience’s needs, choosing instead to prioritise the sales message – get ahead of the game and put your ideal client first!

Examples of key messages

Core message: Apple’s ‘think different’ 

Apple’s long-running campaign celebrates “misfits” and people who think outside of the box. It doesn’t tell you what the products do or their technical specifications, but creates a feeling of belonging and desire to break the mould. This core message sells a powerful idea of Apple consumers as ‘people who don’t follow the crowd, people who challenge the status quo.’ Using personalities like John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix and Amelia Earhart as part of the campaign adds to the allure of being a misfit.

Key message: Yorkshire Tea’s “where everything’s done proper” 

This core message is re-purposed for different audiences and pain points. For those interested in sustainability, the message becomes, “makes a proper difference.” For tea-aficionados, there’s a message about “how to make a proper brew.” This is an excellent example of a colloquial, playful tone of voice that’s proud of its regional heritage. The host of famous Yorkshire-bred personalities who’ve taken part in their video adverts also acts as proof and endorsement for both the brand and their social aims.

Struggling to create effective key messages?

If you feel like you can’t see the wood for the trees, invite people in from outside. And we don’t just mean hiring a content specialist (although we’re here if you ever need to talk to us!). You can get a fresh perspective just by inviting colleagues from different parts of your organisation to throw ideas around with you. Key messages are important for the way the whole business runs, so schedule a day where people from across the company get together to create new ideas.

If you fancy finding out how we’d tackle your key message dilemma, get in touch for a chat. Or join our monthly newsletter at the bottom of TPW’s homepage, for more tips, tricks and techniques.

TPW vodcast #1: Messaging Mastery

Welcome to TPW’s inaugural vodcast: 𝗠𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗮𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗠𝗮𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘆. This was first shown live on LinkedIn – but you can watch the full recording below.

This is for businesses having a messaging lull, or in need of some strategic advice.

TPW’s Founder, Tessa P-W is joined by 𝗩𝗮𝗻𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗮 𝗖𝘂𝗱𝗱𝗲𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗱, 𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗲𝗿 𝗷𝗼𝘂𝗿𝗻𝗮𝗹𝗶𝘀𝘁 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗦𝘁𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗴𝗶𝗰 𝗖𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗔𝗱𝘃𝗶𝘀𝗲𝗿.

In this vodcast, you’ll discover these three things (and much more):

𝗪𝗵𝘆 𝗺𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗮𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝗺𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘀

𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝘁𝗼 𝗮𝘃𝗼𝗶𝗱 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝗼𝗻 𝗽𝗶𝘁𝗳𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘀 𝘄𝗵𝗲𝗻 𝗰𝗿𝗮𝗳𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗸𝗲𝘆 𝗺𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗮𝗴𝗲𝘀

How to move from boring and bland key messages to standout ones that pack a punch.

Just click play below…

Why the word stakeholder must die…

First published April 2019 and republished on Procopywriters September 2021.

Tessa P-W, TPW’s Founder, first wrote this blog in 2019. It went down a storm with clients and content specialists alike. Three years later, we felt it remiss not to resurrect this cautionary tale, as the messaging is as pertinent now as it was then. So, if you’re an aficionado of the word stakeholder – read on, and report back…

OK, hands up, I got my 6-year-old to draw this picture. But there are surprisingly few images out there with vampires and stakes that are appropriate for this blog. Anyway, it’s got your attention – right?

It makes my eyes bleed

I digress. This is not a piece about images, but – and the clue is in the title – it is about the word ‘stakeholder’, and why it needs to die. Preferably forever, in a vampiric way, worthy of The Lost Boys. It’s a word that almost every client utters to me when we have content briefings. It also worms its way into my copy during amends. Blogs, articles, reports, interviews, video scripts – you name it. It’s always there, staring at me, making my eyes want to bleed. Although you’ll never see it in my final draft. Ever. Here’s why….

Apart from conjuring up the above image in my mind whenever I hear it (less important), it doesn’t truly mean anything (very important). Sure, I get the concept. But it’s alienating language and should be firmly placed in the extra-terrestrial realms of jargon.

Does what it says on the tin

If they’re investors, say investors. If they’re employees – why not, ‘our team’. Employees is also fine, of course. Suppliers? Sounds ok as is to me. And customers – well, I’m not sure they ever refer to themselves as stakeholders. The whole shebang? Well how about: ‘anyone with strategic interests in our business’? Or: ‘people involved in this particular project’. Ok, it does go against the grain a bit. As in, it’s swapping one short-ish word for many. This is unusual advice for me. But these are unusual times, and the struggle is real. At least the alternative does what it says on the tin. Everyone’s in on the conversation and understands exactly what you’re talking about.

Corporate management speak

By now you’ll be unsurprised to hear that stakeholder has been added to my dictionary of banned words. Nay, it was probably the word that kicked-off the whole tome. It’s the leader of the gang when it comes to highfalutin corporate management speak that may sound important, but is anything but. It puts a barrier up between you and your audiences. It distances them from what you’re saying, because they don’t know what you mean. It may even be a wasted opportunity to engage (ghost face emoji).

It’s an urban myth, but a credible one (that perfectly encapsulates what I want to say, so let’s go with it), that Financial Times journalists are trained to write so a 14-year-old can read their story and understand it. Well, if that’s the FT’s modus operandi, brands should also try and speak more colloquially and have a conversation with their target audience, rather than shout at them down a megaphone. Did I lose you when I started spouting Latin? Point made.

Don’t get me started…

It doesn’t stop at stakeholder. Alongside it in my ‘Bible of the Banned’ is ‘value added’, or worst ‘value add’. What’s wrong with benefit, or superior? ‘Going forward’ gets my goat too. And don’t even get me started on ‘thought leadership’. It’s possibly, after stakeholder, the most over-used, meaningless phrase of recent years. More on that, though, when I’ve conjured up a viable alternative….

Amo, amas, amat…

I recently found myself caught up in one of those excruciating ice-breaking exercises. “Reveal one surprising fact about yourself!” I’ve been here before – three times to be exact and, once again, I find myself reverting to the fact that I studied Latin for A Level.  At least one person in the room raises an eyebrow in what certainly looks like a mild form of amazement but, on further reflection, perhaps this is not actually so surprising a fact for someone who has carved a career as a freelance writer.

Composing copy

I may no longer spend my days chanting Latin verbs, but I do spend hours and hours agonising over my choice of language.  Day in day out, I deliberate over the merits of using this word or that one and, quite frankly, nothing gives me more pleasure. When entrenched in a piece of writing, I have words constantly flowing through my mind in the same way I imagine quavers, minims and crotchets spinning around a composer’s head.

A quiddling thermopot

In my job as a freelance feature writer, I have had the pleasure of interviewing so many interesting people including lexicographer, Susie Dent, known for being in charge of the Dictionary Corner on Channel 4’s Countdown.  I am a huge fan of her Twitter feed where she reveals ancient words that have dropped out of everyday language. There’s ‘quiddling’ – 18th century speak for paying extra attention to trivial matters as a way of avoiding the important ones and ‘thermopot’ – one who downs a copious amount of hot drinks. I have to confess to being guilty of both of these actions today!

Words of the year

Susie Dent started her career at Oxford University Press working first on bi-lingual dictionaries and then English dictionaries. It’s always intriguing to hear what the different dictionaries have chosen as their ‘word of the year’.  For 2021, Oxford Languages have gone for ‘vax’ while Cambridge Dictionary have plumped for ‘perseverance’, selected because it ‘captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up, despite the many challenges of the last twelve months.’ Never has a truer word been spoken!

Outwordle

Much as I love playing around with words, it would seem this pastime is no longer just the privilege of writers and lexicographers. Since Wordle became the latest craze, nearly three million people from all walks of life are choosing to take time out of their busy schedules to try to uncover the only five letter word that matters that day.  But does my Latin grounding put me at an unfair advantage?  As my mother and three teenage daughters beat me over and over again, clearly not!  Odds on ‘outwordle’ being the frontrunner for 2022 word of the year?

LANGUAGE MATTERS: moving from invalidating to inspirational words…

Themes around gender and how language – and life – have changed have surfaced twice in my work recently. It’s a tricky area; as an editor I need to keep the author’s ‘voice’ and retain the attitudes and spirit of the day and the characters in it – in these cases a 1970s housewife, and a group of lads in the late eighties – but also be aware of today’s conventions, and not upset or confuse readers by language that is now inappropriate. How things have changed in a short time!

1970s mindset

In 1975 – the year International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the UN, though its beginnings date to the early 1900s – my fictional housewife is a stay-at-home mum. She gave up work when children arrived, never to return. The proud owner of a hostess trolley and a Teasmade (a little machine which automatically brews a cup of tea by your bedside) – how many people have these things any more? Housework is a major occupation, she spends whole days on it, regularly cleaning windows, dusting ornaments, shampooing carpets and washing curtains. While her husband is busy on some DIY project, she will be preparing prawn cocktail, steak and trifle for dinner parties.

Life in the late ‘80s

While this book highlighted the way women’s lives have changed in the last fifty years, another one gave me a different challenge: finding a way for the author to express the language and behaviour of the late eighties. Some of the characters in this book were criminals, some were lads out on the town. The main character was a likeable young man, and we want the readers to sympathise with him, not be turned off by an occasionally sexist attitude which to our ears is unacceptable but was commonplace then.

So, what do writers and editors need to look out for? Language can be alienating and can trip up the reader. While we need to stay true to the era (in fiction), we also need to know the audience and be aware of gendered terms, pronouns, exclusivity and racism in all writing.

Gendered words

Gendered words are so common in English usage they mostly go unnoticed, unless the reader is tuned in. Phrases such as ‘boys and girls’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen’ don’t represent every group, but can be reworked using other terms such as ‘guests’ or ‘friends’. Then there are the ‘invisible’ gendered terms that we use a lot but have already changed to an inclusive alternative – ‘police officer’, ‘flight attendant’, ‘server’. But what about those that might escape notice: ‘manmade’, ‘masterful’, ’manpower’?

Neopronouns

Where once we only used ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ or ‘they’, we now have neopronouns – a category of new (new-ish – some are actually years old) alternative pronouns that are increasingly used by transgender, non-binary people – and indeed by cisgender people – that give inclusion and accuracy for someone who doesn’t identify by the male/female gender classifications. While ‘they’, as a nonbinary singular pronoun, is probably the most commonly used and has become the pronoun of choice if the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant, there are many other neopronouns to choose from.

Male-first language

Even in our natural-gender language, gendered language is prevalent. How we use gendered words subconsciously expresses belief about gender and the way we see the social world. Language has the ability to alter our perception of gender, and to subconsciously indicate who is the most important. Most conjoined phrases put the male first and female second: ‘his and hers’, ‘kings and queens’, ‘men and women’. The use of ‘his’, if the gender of the person in question isn’t known, automatically – understandably – evokes an image of a man.

Blog reach far greater than a book…

While this may be about book editing, it is relevant in all writing and editing. Today, the reach of a blog post is so much further than that of a real paper book, and you never know who will read it. It matters because for some, gendered language is a reminder that they are excluded, or different, or invisible. It matters that we use sensitive, inclusive language because we don’t want to hurt or alienate readers. Language can be invalidating and hurtful, but it can also be powerful, positive and inspirational.

“Does your dad want to accompany you next time?”

In conversation with Julie Perkins, Founder of Wyseminds (purpose-led growth for female entrepreneurs).

An entrepreneur I supported went to venture capitalists and they asked her if she wanted her dad to accompany her on the next visit.” The words of Julie Perkins, Founder of Wyseminds – that supports female entrepreneurs. As part of our Power of Women series, Julie talks about being a senior leader in optometry, the gender lens and why the focus now needs to be on balancing masculine and feminine traits within us all.

Q. How does Wyseminds support women entrepreneurs in growing their business?

Julie: In the world of small businesses, we can get ourselves into a situation where it just doesn’t feel right. It’s not moving forward and growth is inhibited. So, I look at what the blocks are that can be smashed down, to release women with SMEs into their next part of their growth journey. It only takes about three months and it’s hugely liberating and enjoyable.

Q. Why are no men allowed?

Julie: To be clear, there are men in the Wyseminds’ expert mix! But, let’s be real: there are still some big barriers for women entrepreneurs. When it comes to raising investment, for example. An entrepreneur I’ve supported was finalising an investment agreement with a venture capitalist group and they asked her if she wanted her dad to accompany her next time for the details! Of course, this story – although frighteningly real – is hopefully not the norm. And yet, it is a reminder to me that we must seek change in the whole process. Not having access to investment is a problem, but the cause is shared. That’s where I position Wyseminds – to uplift and ensure that entrepreneurs can see themselves and their ideas beyond the bootstrapping stage. This opens up confidence and potential – in an ongoing, sustainable way. 

If we continue to encourage and support successful entrepreneurship and good ideas only with the intention to seek and celebrate unicorns, the feeder pot will be too small. If we want to make change, perhaps the incubators and accelerators that say they are not getting enough female entrepreneurs through their doors should ask different questions (rather than assuming they don’t exist). Why aren’t they knocking on our door?  What barriers do we have in our process that only serve the past. And how can we be more attractive in the future? As for the need for the dad to attend? I suppose in a way he did – he’s a taxi driver, so he dropped her off!

Q. Are gender lenses perpetuating a culture of differentiation?

Julie: There’s a huge gap for female entrepreneurs and we can’t shy away from that. I often hear from women that they didn’t get the funding they needed. Or from the incubators and accelerators that there aren’t many women even going into that environment. We encourage women to grow on their own terms, but also be confident to take leaps. There are masculine and feminine traits within us all – which have nothing to do with being a woman or a man. Wyseminds’ celebrates more ‘feminine’ traits – like broader viewpoints and intuition – and supports them with more ‘masculine’ tools – to structure the business processes to make sure the broader view is channelled and supported effectively. Success is often about balance. When masculine and feminine traits dance together, this is the ideal. And it’s when boardrooms or operations teams perform at their best. Mutual appreciation and respect; masculine and feminine. And when we understand that picture, maybe we can understand each other a bit more – and create a culture with less gender differentiation.

Q. Before Wyseminds, you opened up and ran Specsavers in the Netherlands…

Julie: The Netherlands was the first jurisdiction outside the mothership of the UK. Every day was an adventure because it was all new, working with great people and learning so much of what not to do, as much as what to do. And that forms the basis of Wyseminds. If I could have shortened that learning curve of what it was like to have that start up and grow a brand in a very competitive environment, it would have brought me greater joy and freedom. That’s what I am now passing on to other female entrepreneurs. I’m still involved in Specsavers, but my internal voice was definitely telling me it was time to turn on an additional new channel.

Q. What was it like being in charge of a start-up?

Optometry was historically a very male profession. My mother was one of two women in the whole of her optometry course at university in 1966. That’s not that long ago! And yet now, optometry is brilliant for women and it’s a very mixed environment. At Specsavers Netherlands, we had a very female orientated board (60/40). But if I’m honest, as a woman leading a partnership of 1,000 people, if I look back, I think there were definitely times when I didn’t have the confidence to speak with my true voice. I had believed that it meant sounding like how others wanted me to. Or saying what I thought I needed to say through the prism of other perspectives. And that’s when a misalignment with values can happen. I’ve been lucky to have people around me in my career that have supported me in finding my true voice. 

Q. How can we #BreakTheBias (the theme of International Women’s Day this year)?

Julie:The challenge is vast. However, we have to take steps where we have the power to influence. If everybody is responsible for taking a step, no matter how small, and changing the bit that they can influence, change will follow. Will you ever be without gender bias? Unlikely. But, in terms of welfare, rights and equality, we all need to be striving for better. It’s like my work with female entrepreneurs. I put 12 entrepreneurs back out in the world stronger last year – is that going to make the world more equal?  Not really. But, if many people take similar small steps, that’s when you feel the ripple effects. And I’d rather be a part of the formula that’s trying to make a difference, every day – because only then, change can happen and the bias truly be broken. 

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