Finding the organization’s voice

It was simpler back in the day.

If you were a kid growing up near New York City, your favorite music came with a voice. In the afternoon, after school got out, the voice belonged to the wisecracking Dan Ingram. After dinner, it was the voluble, high-energy Bruce Morrow.

(There were other voices, in the morning and on weekends. But for most of us, Big Dan and Cousin Brucie stood out.)

A simple, effective brand voice

daningram

Dan Ingram held down the 2-to-6 time slot.

Amplified by a microphone that lent a slight echo to every word, those two human voices combined to give WABC a distinctive and recognizable brand voice. The voice told us that WABC was fun, in the know,  up to date.

What was the hottest music? Every Tuesday night, we listened as Cousin Brucie counted down the new Top 20. Where to hang out? Palisades Amusement Park swings all day and after dark.

WABC’s distinctive, instantly recognizable voice, known to millions of people, came from a couple of voices. Simple.

Later: More content, still simple

When I started my technical writing career at IBM, things were still pretty simple. We didn’t produce voice content, but we did print shrink-wrapped technical manuals that all looked the same. Marketing created print ads, white papers, and spec sheets that shared a common design. IBM customers got lots of content, but only a few kinds of content. And with one glance, they could tell it came from IBM.

Today: Many sources, many outlets, jumbled voices

Today, your organization’s voice is delivered through advertisements and social media — and also through product screens, technical manuals, help systems, blogs, chat sessions, datasheets, videos, conference presentations, and probably dozens of other ways.

What do your customers, partners, and employees hear when they interact with all of this content? What messages do they receive? What’s the image of your organization that forms in their minds?

Chances are the image is blurry.

WABC’s voice was crystal clear and recognizable. IBM’s voice, though very different, was also recognizable. Most companies today have jumbled voices — reflecting the priorities, values, and attitudes of content creators who work in silos all over the organization. Or who come from other organizations, through mergers and acquisitions, lending their voices to the din.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

For a select few companies, it isn’t like that. When you hear from one of those companies, you recognize its voice.

We can lead the way

I’d like to see more companies find their voices. And I think that technical communicators can lead the way.

Technical communicators? Why not marketers? Isn’t this part of the marketers’ job? Isn’t this their area of expertise?

Yes, it’s part of their job. But if it truly were their area of expertise, frankly, they’d be doing a better job of it.

Think about it this way: where does most of your organization’s content come from? In terms of sheer volume — words, pictures, minutes of video — the technical communicators outstrip the marketers. Since we contribute so much, doesn’t it stand to reason that we can lead the way in defining the organization’s voice?

For that matter, some Tech Comm departments are already leading the way — for example, at Red Hat and in the Cisco Stealthwatch product area.

What do you think? How important is it for an organization to find its voice? Are technical communicators up to the challenge?

Let me know what you think. Ask a question or leave a comment.

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4 thoughts on “Finding the organization’s voice

  1. Mark Baker

    I don’t think it was ever true that organizations spoke with one voice. I think the voice of the organization may have seemed more consistent because we mostly only heard its voice from one source. This was because each part of the organization was dedicated to addressing one part of the audience, meaning that people only heard the voice that was directed to the audience segment they belonged to.

    What the web does is sort content according to its subject matter rather than its audience. (Content strategy thinks this is a scandal and is trying desperately, and mostly in vain, to turn to clock back to a time when content could be organized by audience.) This means that today you hear all the varied voices of an organization on the subject you searched for.

    This change from organizing information by audience to organizing it by subject is one of the most revolutionary, far-reaching, and underappreciated aspects of the Web revolution. Its effects are wide-ranging and profound, and for technical communication as much as for any other aspect of the organization.

    Reply
  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    Mark, thanks for commenting. While I don’t question the trend toward organizating content by subject, I maintain that it’s still possible — and desirable — to maintain a consistent voice throughout. Unfortunately, I can’t find the article or presentation, but Sarah O’Keefe once cited an outdoor-equipment manufacturer: while their website did a marvelous job of appealing to its customers — outdoors enthusiasts — the ordering experience was obviously reflective of internal processes and not of customers’ needs and expectations. By speaking with discordant voices, the company seriously undermined its brand image. I think that’s a big problem, one that we see again and again.

    Reply
    1. Mark Baker

      Larry, I don’t think that example matches what I take company voice to mean. An ordering process, no matter how easy or difficult, is not a reflection of the company voice. It is really something more basic than that, an evidence of its competency.

      True, a company generally wants to project an air of competence, and failure to do so will reflect badly on that. Voice is really something more trivial than that. As the Cluetrain Manifesto pointed out, your brand is what the marketplace says you are, not what you say you are. In that sense, speaking with a consistent voice is a much more trivial problem than acting in a competent and consistent manner, because it is not what you say but what you do that will shape how the market thinks about you in the long run.

      This is why I feel that people who worry so much about a consistent organizational voice are both underestimating the difficulty and overestimating the importance of creating an consistent voice. You will be judged by your actions, not what you say about yourself, and the effort should probably go into making your actions consistent rather than your words.

      Indeed, a consistent message that does not match your actions has the potential to open you up to more distrust and ridicule than if your message were less consistent — something we see in politics all the time.

      Reply
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