Verbal identities

Write how you speak!

Corporate communications do not seem to me to have the courage of their own words. Often, putting it in writing softens the force of a verbal image considered inappropriate for reading, tones down a message that could be perceived as being too strong, erases the expression of a position or a belief that had been spoken simply and directly. Worse, writing sometimes doesn’t bother saying what the spoken word makes obvious. This results in implicitness and ambiguity: you’re no longer saying what you mean, which means that no one hears you any more.

The spoken word is crushed, “humiliated”[1], in favour of bland, disembodied writing. The effect can be chilling. During face-to-face exchanges (in workshops, at steering committees or more informally standing around in corridors), I often hear real verbal nuggets – in distinctive and vivid language – that are true echoes of a corporate strategy and a strategic vision. And it’s only this genuine language, one’s own language, that can bring to life a shared value or create the pith and authenticity of speech. “Language is essentially presence. It is alive, never an object.”[2]

Why should writing deny itself such riches on the pretext that a metaphor is too strong, the style shaky or the register not elevated enough? Wouldn’t you rather have writing that may be imperfect, but which carries strong meaning with panache and authenticity? Recycling speech as writing also means taking better care of your verbal resources, being aware that they are as valuable an “asset” as any other. It is bringing the circular economy to language – and, by a retroactive action, prevents you speaking off the top of your head.

There is a kind of disconnect between certain corporate texts and our era: the social networks have changed our relationship with writing, verbalising our messages through online conversations (live chat and real-time comments). Intonation and intention have become palpable: you can hear the writer and feel you are being addressed.

The recipients are all too often conspicuous by their absence in corporate writing. “A text with no specific recipient is guaranteed to be imprecise, vague and impersonal. How can a single message suit everyone? Even a letter is inferior to any conversation: it is written in a particular context but read in a different one.”[3] The British and Americans deal with this better than the French.*

Writing as you speak can help to personify the recipient. Allow for the texture and musicality of your own voice. Write as though you’re speaking to those you are addressing. The “vacant seat” exercise is useful in doing this. Apparently Jeff Bezos always leaves one chair empty at important meetings: it’s the customer’s seat and he speaks to him directly to ask him what he thinks and to make sure no one forgets that it’s for him that ultimately everything is decided.

And did you know that the right and left ears respond to different stimuli? The right ear, linked to the left brain, is more receptive to language that is sung; the left ear, linked to the right brain, is more receptive to rational language. You prefer to take in information through your left ear, and you like to hear sweet nothings whispered into your right ear. Write as you speak, and you’ll be more likely to appeal to your readers’ innermost brain: write orally and tell them you love them!

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* Compare Greenpeace’s English and French websites, for instance. On its corporate site, the Innocent brand uses an oral tone in French to discuss ethics, albeit through stylistic caricature.
[1] To borrow the term used in the title of a book by Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, Paris, Seuil, 1981.
[2] Jacques Ellul, op. cit., p. 28.
[3] Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language, Paris, Grasset, 2015, p. 197.

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Sophie Chassat
Director of the Identités Verbales division
schassat@angie.fr

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Sophie Chassat, a graduate of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and a qualified teacher of philosophy, created the Identités Verbales division at Angie, after teaching, writing and acting as a consultant in corporate and brand philosophy.

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