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The power and the drabness of words in corporate communication

Is there a web page, an article, a report, a piece of news that can resist using the same worn terminology and language when articulating corporate policies, approach or strategies?

What I am about to say here is likely to have already been said by someone else on the other side of the world. So, if you are in a hurry or if you have more interesting reading matter, stop here.

However much we try to say something smart and new or however much we speculate, for instance, on business trends from different angles and original viewpoints, you can be sure that whatever you publish has already been explored, explained, tweeted or posted by numerous alter egos around the web. You will not be the first.

The problem here is not the lack of new and interesting ideas. If you feel the urge to share your point of view, it is very likely that you do have something exciting to express and something worth reading for your social network community.

It is more a question of words. Since you read a lot about what is interesting for you because it concerns your business sphere or stimulates your cultural inclinations, you get used to a certain vocabulary. Then, when it is your turn to be productive, you tend to use the same lexicon and find it difficult to move outside your word stock.

What we unconsciously (or consciously?) tend to do is use the same wisely re-mixed words. The result of this is that there are many posts, articles or statements on a particular topic, each of which explore a new or hidden side of it, but the main concept or lesson that lies behind doesn’t really change much.

Take our world for example, the corporate communication world. It is (very often) the triumph of stereotypes. Is there a web page, an article, a report, a piece of news that can resist using the same worn terminology and language when articulating corporate policies, approach or strategies? Adjectives such as transparent, responsible, committed, integrated ... Nouns such as trust, respect, integrity, challenge… Compounds such as stakeholder engagement, value creation, customer satisfaction, operational excellence, competitive advantage...

In addition, there are a number of words and topics that suddenly reappear from the past to become the following years’ communication mantra. We seem to have fallen in love with these words from which we fear to part in case people don’t understand: innovation, global, story, talent (you are not hiring people anymore, you are looking for talents). By contrast, other practices or disciplines gradually fall into disgrace. Whatever happened to “team building” or “knowledge management”?

Let’s do an exercise. Try visiting a couple of corporate websites of international groups and find the pages devoted to mission, values or purpose. Read the “Our mission” page of Company 1. Then read the same page on the Company 2 website, also surprisingly called “Our mission”.  Now, try replacing the name of Company 1 with that of Company 2 in “Our mission”. It works all the same, doesn’t it?

The problem is that we are all attempting to be similar. We want to be accepted and are afraid of being perceived as the odd ones out by our clients, investors, peers and our community in general.

But if the mission and the aim of the business is the same, i.e. making society better, making cities more liveable, making people happier, why should there be any difference between what Company 1 and Company 2 declares?

This vicious circle has brought us back to square one: the big idea behind is the same, the purpose is the same, the words are the same. So how can I, either as a company trying to explain why it exists or as a person willing to share ideas on social media, be different?

I have no magic recipes. Neither do I have the “how-to-renew-your-corporate-image-through-language-revitalization” killer idea.  It’s hard to be assertive in this case as content marketers suggest.

I can only appeal to common sense and, with regard to corporate digital communication, think of a few ways for communicators to differentiate their message, re-acquire their company personality (I was going to write identity J) and say something more captivating that would be unmistakably connected to the their brand:  

  • Your history (yes, I said history, not story) is, by definition, different and unique. Your company history with its success, its mistakes, its impacts on society and its intertwining with the history of the country. Your history, whether exciting or not, belongs to you. I would not hide it under three layers of content (home> about us> at-a-glance > our (hi)story)
  • Facts, reality, events help avoid the rhetoric of principles, values and missions. That’s why I like those corporate home-pages that are not just a re-directing map but connect visitors with what has happened or what is happening now: business cases, projects, reports on industry dynamics and stories. Yes, I said stories: “A story centres on a certain event in one’s life or any incident pertaining to his or her life. It gives a unique message at the end” (source: differencebetween.com).
  • Open the borders of your vocabulary territory, allow free circulation of words from other spheres such as philosophy, art or even physics. This would throw a new light on the way you describe (or I might say depict or portray) your models, your business and your people. I like the definition of a company as a “movement”. And referring to market developments, it doesn’t have to always be “outlook”. I like “perspective” as well. Why not call your team a cast? When interviewing, we examine how flexible and open-minded the candidate is, in other words we are assessing his/her ability to be interdisciplinary. The cultural change in an organization is also at a change at a language level.
  • Go back to the etymology of words. For instance, the word “respect” comes from the Latin RE (behind) + SPICIO (to look), to look behind. While your strategy is all projected in the future (more revenues, more margins, more products, etc..), RESPECT is a moment of doubt, of searching for and of thinking about what has been left behind (source: unaparolaalgiorno.it). It is a very intimate concept. You don’t just go ahead with your business without caring about your footprint. So, when referring to respect, why not talk about what we won’t leave behind?

In all these cases, even the most abused words will regain their dignity and the same old company profile and (digital) presentation will be pervaded by a new spirit and life.

At the heart of the poetics of an Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912), was the belief that:

“A poet is someone who expresses the words that everyone has on their lips but would never pronounce”. 

Aren’t great poets, comedians, artists or scientists so because they are saying what we have always thought and felt but that nobody before them was able to put into words?

What’s new in all this?

Nothing really.