How powerful is language – podcast

Fancy a mini-masterclass on the power of language in business?

Check out Robert Craven’s interview with me on his GYDA Talks podcast. It’s part of the GYDA initiative, helping digital agencies grow.

We covered a lot, from afiatone to our donut model:

  • Why words matter and how using the right ones can transform your business.
  • How clear thinking = clear writing and better results.
  • How to get more human by focusing onculture, brand, behaviour and comms.
  • Purpose – does your brand really care?
  • And how you express empathy – why truth matters.

I finished up with some top tips for agency owners, but they apply to anyone who uses language in their business (so everyone). You can watch the whole video here. 

Scroll down if you want to read the transcript from the short video.

Narrator  0:05

In this GYDA Talks Robert interviews Ben Afia, a recognised tone of voice pioneer and global expert. Ben uses language to help companies create culture change, improve performance and forge deeper connections with their customers. Robert and Ben discuss how words matter internally and externally, a model for creating great briefs and how culture determines all, including brand plus much more.

Robert Craven  0:37

Hello and welcome to the GYDA Talks and Grow Digital Agency talks and today I am absolutely delighted to have Ben Afia with me, but I’ve learned Afia, that’s how I remember how his name is. So Ben I mean if you just go right in, his claim to fame is helping Ronseal to work out ‘What to say on the tin’, recognised tone of voice, pioneer and global expert. So this is about language and how we might make businesses tick. Hello, Ben.

Ben Afia  1:12

Good morning, Robert. Great to be here.

Robert Craven  1:13

So it’s lovely to have you so so let’s just get straight in. So briefly describe how you see what it is that you do for people.

Ben Afia  1:24

Well, I suppose my claim to fame apart from the Ronseal thing, which is quite cool, is I help organisations to be more human. And that’s more human when they speak on the phone, when they’re connecting with customers in stores. And more human when they write. So when they’re writing web pages, customer journeys, emails, texts, all of that sort of thing. So I help companies to be more human in their behaviour, and their day to day communication.

Robert Craven  1:51

Okay, so just just explain to us how you got to here. How did you get to 2020 and then we can actually start exploring the idea of businesses which are more human.

Ben Afia  2:05

Absolutely. Well, I had a bit of a lucky break. So I started my career in sales and marketing. About 24 years ago. I know I don’t look old enough. So a long, long time ago. Sales jobs, marketing jobs, and I ended up at Boots the chemist, now part of Alliance Walgreen and I had a really interesting role there. I landed in the design team, a team of about 80 people, 40 designers, 40 accounts people. And my job was to look after writing. And my first thing was to build a roster of copywriters, so that was agency writers and freelance writers. And I can remember my boss saying to me go out and find the best writers in the land and bring them back to work for Boots. It was a really exciting job because I love networking. I love talking to people, gathering resources. And then I got lucky, so this is about 18 years ago and I got to work on Boots first brand tone of voice, they hadn’t done this before. So I worked with all of the agencies that Boots was working with to develop a tone of voice to spread throughout the business. So that was really the way that I got into tone of voice. And it was lucky. It was a lucky timing, because that was the time that this was just emerging as an idea. So, a couple of years later, when I got made redundant, Boots lost quite a few people. I thought, well, let’s go and start an agency. And I went freelance.

Robert Craven  3:28

Right, so let’s just get into this. I mean, it feels it feels like it’s blindingly obvious. Let me just start off with, come on, mate. It feels blindingly obvious that voice and words are important. Of course they are. And that’s that’s, you’re talking to an audience of agency owners who know that by AB testing, they can figure out which words are better, different colour, which one gets a better response, which one gets a better ROI. But I suspect you you’re talking about something a bit more than just look at your words and sort them out. I mean, what’s the what’s the thank you what the drive is behind you and you and words. What I suspect that some passion there, what’s going on?

Ben Afia  4:19

Well the really interesting thing that I noticed that Boots and then I’ve carried through into my work ever since, is I noticed that the the language was revealing things about how people felt and what people thought around the business and how different teams interacted. So whenever you’re approaching a new client, you can look at their brief, you can look at their communication, look at their website, and you can get a sense of where the power lies. And in a company like Boots, it’s the language of the pharmacist, of the legal, of regulatory. And that language snuck through towards customers at times, in places that weren’t necessarily always appropriate. So you could have a lovely sales message. And then it’s underlined by T’s and C’s that are a little bit abrupt and a bit terse.

Robert Craven  5:07

I work with an accountant once and it was like, “Are you interested in growing your ROI? Or when you look at your p&l account? Do you sometimes wonder what the fundamental components of the accounting matrix are?” So what you’re saying is that you shouldn’t be using your language, you should be using the words that your client uses, but there’s more to it than?

Ben Afia  5:35

There is. So yeah, interesting question. So, we are taught as marketers, I suppose, to use the language of our customer, aren’t we? What I’m interested in doing is finding the true language of the organisation, the heart, the human heart of the organisation. And, you know, with all the clients that we work with, we realise that they they’re clouded with the language, the jargon of their professions. So I’ve worked for many years with Aviva, for example, and that’s the language of the actuary. I worked with E.ON for years and years. It’s the language of the engineer. So this professional language overtakes the language that consumers and business customers are likely to understand and be receptive to. So what the language is doing is it’s revealing something about the power dynamics within the organisation and about the culture. And when I realised that at Boots and started trying to change that some quite interesting things happened. And one of the big parts of this was about how you develop a good brief, which I’m sure all agency owners and freelancers alike will resonate with. How often do you get a really, really good brief?  One of the problems that Boots had at the time was that nobody had taught anybody to develop good briefs for copywriting. And I don’t think I’ve ever come across an organisation that trains its people to write good briefs. The thing is, as we know, rubbish in gives rubbish out. And as agency owners on the receiving end of these briefs, we know that if we don’t get good information, we can’t represent the brand faithfully, can we? So there’s a subtle dynamic going on, it’s about the nature of the conversation inside the organisation that leads to a brief that we take as agency people, and then interpret and turn into communication into websites and so on.

Robert Craven  7:24

Okay, so I’m going down a rabbit warren, but I’m kind of thinking, NLP neuro linguistic programming. I’m thinking, psychotherapy. I’m thinking, can we train ourselves to avoid you know, can you stop someone when they see something shocking to not go “Oh my god” or to not swear? Could you just separate out for me a little bit more, because you’re saying, if I understand you rightly, that a business has a particular culture, and therefore it talks in a certain manner. So accountants talk in accountants speak, pharmacists talk in pharmacy speak, then they are trying to communicate with the outside world. And we all know that, as I tell my wife on a regular basis, communication isn’t about you saying something, it’s about saying in a way that the other person understands it and hears it. You haven’t communicated unless they’ve understood your message. So are you talking about reframing how people look at you? Are you talking about language frames? How we see ourselves? Is this an internal thing or extrenal thing or is it both?

Ben Afia  8:49

It is both, but my emphasis is on internal. So it’s a really interesting question because I often talk about language and tone of voice as a form of organisational therapy, if you like. Which might sound a bit overblown, but what we’re doing when we’re asking people to look at language in detail is that they’re interrogating what’s going on in the organisation. So a simple example, let’s take a customer journey that ends up on a website, for example. The customer journey will be defined by the systems and the processes that are going on within the organisation. And if those systems and processes are not as customer friendly as they could be, the communication that we receive as agencies, and we have to produce then doesn’t make as much sense as it could do. So one thing I urge people who are writing people are taking briefs to do is when when they’re receiving things that don’t quite make sense to push them gently and to coach your client through making changes within the organisation. So to give you an example, we’ve been working with Aldermore Bank, a mid-tier bank, as startup about 10 years ago, they rose out of the last financial crisis. And with all the other banks, they’ve been offering mortgage payment holidays to their customers. So about a month ago, they came to us and they had a lot of people coming off the mortgage payment holidays, although that’s it’s been extended. And the concern was that some people weren’t going to be able to pay because some people weren’t back at work, they may not have been able to be furloughed. So there were two questions here that were really interesting, that they had for us. One was can you help us to design and write this customer journey, so that every web page, landing page, email text letter is first of all clear, but second of all empathetic, so that it feels like Aldermore are looking after you as a customer. And so that you feel that you can make an educated decision without having to pick up the phone. That then frees up the contact centre for the people who really do need help, who need individual help, who maybe need to make other arrangements because they’re not back at work yet. So this was a matter of designing the customer journey and redesigning a process internally, and changing how things were done internally, which they had to do on the fly. And to their credit they did incredibly professionally. But then also providing skills for the people on the phone,  receiving people who haven’t been looked after by that customer journey and still have a question. And so it was a customer journey, but it was also some empathy training for the contact centre people and express empathy training to help them relate to people more personally. But that empathy training is based on who Aldermore are. And the Aldermore than I know is a very caring organisation, they’re not a Goliath bank that doesn’t really care about or doesn’t appear to care about its customers. And that’s one of the problems that larger organisations have is they don’t seem to care as much as smaller organisations do.