Does an R look like a head?

I’ve seen what happens in companies when you change the language you use: happier customers, improved NPS scores, fewer complaints and increased click-through rates.

But its power is more fundamental than that. It’s baked into who we are.

This week The Secret History of Writing on BBC dug into why it’s the most important intellectual innovation ever.

Every society writes, in one form or another, it’s what binds us together and makes us part of the tribe. My fascination with the bonding power of language started out long before I set up Afia. My degree was in archaeology and what I found interesting was learning about how early humans evolved.

Over time we developed language because it helped us negotiate,cooperate, and compete effectively. As hunter-gatherers being part of a tribe meant you survived. So we adopted the language of the tribe to get along with everyone. To belong.

And we do exactly that today, in business. Each department in a company has their own internal language, brands have their own jargon. And often our customers don’t understand it, we don’t give them a chance to be part of our tribe.

But if you take a little walk through history you see language has an amazing ability to create cultures and bring people together.

So why are we ignoring it in business? If we tapped into it, we could create cultures where all our customers and employees felt part of our tribe. If we made changing our language a priority, to simply be more human, then we’d see phenomenal change (just like our ancestors did).

The Secret History of Writing is a great watch and there are two more episodes to go.  But if you don’t have time, here’s a quick seven-point rundown of the last 5000 years of writing history.

  1. We started communicating orally, then in pictures. Those pictures started to represent things, and so could represent a word.
  2. You should love accountants; they have a lot to do with why we write. Cuneiform writing and the distant ancestor of spreadsheets were born in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, to help people keep records.
  3. Then some clever person figured out that signs could be used for a sound too. So, a barley ear picture could also be the sound ‘sheh’. This is called the Rebus principle.
  4. The Rebus principle was a game-changer, rulers could write down their history, draw up laws, administer their empires and build impressive monuments.
  5. There are two rivals to the first writing system, Egyptians and Chinese. They both used the Rebus principle.
  6. But there’s only one invention of the alphabet. It happened during a cultural exchange between Egyptian scribes and illiterate Canaanite migrant workers. They created a new simple script, adapting hieroglyphic pictograms to represent the sounds of their own language.  
  7. The Canaanites took it back home to the Phoenicians, traders who carried it to the Greeks, then Romans. Nearly every language today can trace back to this original invention. Our letter R actually comes from the hieroglyph for a head.

What are the tribes using jargon in your business? And do customers understand that language?

If you’re ready for change and you want to talk differently to your customers and employees (with awesome results) drop me a line.