Finding the voice for your brand: A guide to conversational language

Conversational language is on the rise among publishers – and chances are, it isn’t a fad. At a time when audiences are served more content choices than ever, infusing a brand voice with clarity, creativity and concision is becoming a winning formula to delight readers and nurture relationships. Here, we give four tips when it comes to the ‘how’.

“All I do is sit down at the typewriter and start hitting the keys. Getting them in the right order – that’s the trick. That’s the trick.” – Garth Marenghi (From Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace)

Good writing is too often understood as a gift – an innate, almost mystical ability bestowed to a select few. And, granted, some do have a knack. But there are a few basic rules any literate content marketer can use to ensure their brand voice doesn’t feel like it’s blasting a cold series of facts from an automated train station PA system.

With more content being produced than ever before, readers’ eyeballs naturally gravitate towards the kind of writing easiest to consume – that which is personable, elegant and stripped free of jargon. Facing an ever-rising storm of competition from blogs, websites and social media, publishers across the board are increasingly adopting conversational language into their messaging and communications as a means to grab and retain hard-won attention.

The aim is twofold: to keep audiences on-site longer and to better nurture the kind of long-term relationships that don’t resemble that of your first fumbling, dysfunctional highschool romance. Rather than talking down at audiences like a stuffy old schoolmaster, brands are instead talking to audiences in the manner of an informed, playful-minded friend – the kind you’d ring up to shoot the breeze after work, or that you’d always say ‘yes’ to share a beer with down the road at the pub.

Central to this brand language shift too is the growing acceptance that ‘informal’ isn’t the same thing as trivial, anti-intellectual or sloppy. Writing to educate and writing to engage, in other words, are not antithetical. Entertaining writing doesn’t have to be mindless; data-driven writing doesn’t have to be dull. Indeed, when these functions are paired, that’s often where you’ll find content marketing’s crème de la crème.

To supplement Marenghi’s wisdom, here are a choice few from own bag of tricks to help content writers use their words well.

1. Define your brand voice

A brand voice can be defined as the ‘personality’ of a brand as expressed purposefully and consistently throughout content. It encompasses style, phrasing and vocabulary, and is calibrated in such a way to identify with your audience and engage them in a way that meets their expectations and engenders their respect.

A clearly defined brand voice should always sound as though it’s originating from a single, central entity. It doesn’t necessarily have to be wholly idiosyncratic or immediately identifiable. If, for example, you are a traditional insurance broker and want to position yourself as an unimpeachable expert in the field, you may want to hold onto some crisp, formalised language.

Other brand voices are, however, ringingly clear in their brand source. ’10 content marketing buzzwords that’ll make you want to go live with bears,’ penned by Contently’s inimitably irreverent Joe Lazauskas, is for instance an unmistakable Contently piece. Read out of context, one can probably guess the publisher behind sentences like “Listing yourself as a ‘thought leader’ on Twitter or LinkedIn is like listing yourself as an ‘artist’ on OkCupid or Tinder”.

The Content Marketing Institute’s brand voice also has a rather identifiable buzz – a concoction of industry authority and earnest pizzazz. I know, for instance, that any article riffing on “What if your content marketing didn’t have to be this hard?” will very likely be penned by one of their authors.

To distill your own brand voice, write a list of what traits your brand is (e.g. playful, fact-driven, humorous) and what it is not (e.g. sarcastic, snarky, self-serving). Pin this list to your forehead, work desk or any other spot impossible to overlook. Give some time to reflect. If you could stick a competitor’s logo above your work and no-one would notice anything awry, then you’ve probably not carved out a distinctive brand voice.

2. Use complicated terms only when you must

“Language that makes you feel clever has the opposite effect on buyers. These words tell your customers: f**k off.”

This memorable statement came from Georgina Williams, former Group Executive Marketing and Corporate Affairs at AustralianSuper, and a keynote speaker at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in April. Having to suffer phrases like ‘preservation age’ and ‘superannuation guarantee’ as part of her daily work, Williams knows all too well the unhappiness of jargon.

Few take pleasure in it (we ourselves avoid the phrase ‘thought leadership’ where we can). Yet – while the tide is turning – many brands still default to it. If your audience are lawyers, there is no mandate to bombard them with legalese. If your audience is HR professionals – as AHRI’s is – this doesn’t mean you must parrot the bureaucratic cant that fills the worst of their files. It certainly doesn’t stop Head Editor Amanda Woodward from publishing articles like ‘How to avoid a sh*tstorm’ on the HRM Online content hub. (Full disclosure: HRM is a Mahlab client.)

Esoteric language fills the soul with sawdust and very often produces an alienating effect. Use it only when absolutely necessary (such as in product descriptions or legal documents) – or if research and testing tells you your audience takes in it a peculiar pleasure.

To quote Oscar Wilde, duke of English language: “Don’t use big words. They mean so little”.

3. Kill your darlings

Distinguishing between original creativity and self-indulgent wonk can be difficult. Here, editors and subeditors prove the pricelessness of their chops. Impersonal, surgical and benevolently ruthless, every writer depends upon them to purge their work of hubris and to help them when their writing starts to drift into irrelevance.

Believe us. This piece began not as you see it here.

4. Find clarity and concision

Good writing speeds up understanding. It is able to convey complex ideas simply and economically. Trimmed of all superfluity, its reader knows precisely the direction of their argument and the object of their reasoning. Nothing is repeated. (Small cough.) Nothing is said twice.

Guy Ligterwood’s notes on user-experience writing – taken during the Google I/O 2017 event – are useful here. “Concise doesn’t only mean short, it means something closer to efficient,” he wrote on Medium. “When we are writing concisely, we look at our message and make sure every word on the screen has a distinct job.”

In another related point, we are at pains to point out that conversational language isn’t a licence for sloppy grammar. It doesn’t mean a literal transcription of street slang, with all the ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ and trailings-off that are part and parcel of vocalised speech.

Unless your tactical aim is for satire (and often, even then), proper sentences remain a must.

And now, a few examples

Quartz

From the feed of the Quartz app, the publisher’s 2016-released chatbot delivering users fresh and tasty nuggets of on-the-minute news, accompanied by images, links and GIFs:

“As the Moon passed between the Earth and the Sun on August 21, US viewers did the impossible, looking away from their laptops, TVs, and smartphones to gaze up at the sky. Consequently, Netflix saw a 10% drop in viewership.

“Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the internet, said its US traffic ‘plummeted to some of the lowest levels we’ve seen in years.’”

Contently

From a post entitled ‘This month in data science: how is content changing over time?’, published on the tech company’s ROI blog series:

“In recent months, you’ve probably heard the same trends parroted over and over. More than 70 percent of marketers are creating more content this year than last year. Brands are spending nearly 30 percent more on video. Content marketers are 70 percent more likely to enjoy videos of dogs pretending to play Bruce Springsteen covers. (Okay, that last one might not be true.)

While these stats are useful, they actually don’t tell us much about how brands create content on a granular level. As a data scientist at Contently, figuring that out is a big part of my job.”

Merriam-Webster

From a post entitled, ‘Why is it majorly wrong to use minorly?’, published on the dictionary’s Word at Play blog series:

“So why does majorly get a pass that minorly often does not? Maybe—just maybe—it’s because some people think majorly is majorly awesome. By which we mean that it’s used in phrases like ‘majorly awesome’ and ‘majorly bummed’ as a slangy synonym of extremely.”

Okay, content writers. You’re set. Sit down at that typewriter, laptop, tablet or desktop computer. And start hitting them keys.

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About the Author

Job Title: Group Managing Editor

About James Chalmers: James is the Group Managing Editor at Mahlab. With a background in journalism, he has helped lift the content marketing game of universities, associations and myriad more organisations besides. If he had his own way, he would do all business from his bike – even after it catapaulted him over its handles last year and planted his face in the road. To the distress of his colleagues at conferences, he does not have a Twitter account.

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