What’s your language revealing about you – podcast

Maria Franzoni, Speaker Bureau Director, invited me onto her Speaking Business podcast to chat all things language.

What did we talk about?

  • What’s tone of voice
  • Not getting hung up on definitions of what tone of voice is and isn’t
  • How I help businesses with tone of voice and I share a few examples
  • The power of language for change (and why you should think about it first when you’re thinking about any kind of change in your business)
  • Why tone of voice matters so much
  • The upside-down pyramid
  • afiatone and how it helps you think more clearly
  • What companies should think about right now, authenticity, realness and the language you use
  • Using language to diagnose what’s going wrong in your organisation
  • Giving advice to my younger self (tricky to answer, what advice would you give your younger self?)

Have a listen, subscribe to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Scroll down if you want to read the whole transcript.


[00:00:03.480] – Maria

Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Speaking Business podcast. With me your host, Maria Franzoni. It’s wonderful to have you here. I really appreciate you joining me. So what are we talking about this week? Well this week we’re talking about language. But first let me give you a little bit of context. Most organisations don’t connect with their customers and staff half as well as they could. And as a result they’re losing clients and employees at a shocking rate. My guest this week is the Language Strategist. He’s helped companies like Vodafone, Allianz and Google to be more human and make that connection. He’s going to reveal how language is the key that will unlock the door to a more authentic brand and happier customers. Everyone please welcome Ben Afia.

[00:00:50.710] – Maria

Ben thank you so much for joining me. How are you today?

[00:00:53.270] – Ben

I’m absolutely fantastic. We’re completely buzzing from the conference at the weekend.

[00:00:57.490] – Maria

Yes of course. This will go out probably sometime after the conference. But for those who didn’t attend we’ve attended a conference all weekend, surrounded by 200 speakers and we’re both buzzing and both full of full of ideas aren’t we?

[00:01:09.940] – Ben

Absolutely inspired, learnt so much and met so many lovely people.

[00:01:13.300] – Maria

Absolutely. Brilliant. So now let’s dive straight into to you and your area of expertise.

[00:01:19.720] – Maria

You are known as the Language Strategist, which I think is a wonderful title, wonderful name. Have you always been interested in language?

[00:01:28.300] – Ben

It’s interesting. English was always my best subject at school and then for years and years I just forgot about it. So it was only when I arrived at Boots about 18 years ago to manage writing for the whole business that I suddenly remembered that it was a particular skill and that was a special opportunity to get immersed in language, in brands and in tone of voice in particular. So that really got me back into it. And after that I found it just an extremely useful tool to use in all sorts of businesses and my consultancy. So it’s kind of grown from there.

[00:02:01.450] – Maria

It is useful because we use it everyday, everywhere don’t we? So it’s a very useful thing to have. So tell me Ben do you speak any other languages?

[00:02:08.720] – Ben

You know it’s one of my great regrets. I did French and German at school. I went to Paris when I was a student and I stayed with a family who had almost no English. And I managed to get by in rough conversational French but I have to say it’s all gone now and I regret that because I think language is a great way into the soul of a different culture.

[00:02:28.470] – Maria

Yes absolutely. I mean, I know being Italian, there are certain things that you could only express in Italian. And I do like to get angry in Italian sometimes. That’s a different story!

[00:02:41.770] – Ben

More expressive.

[00:02:42.850] – Maria

Yeah. So listen when you when you talk about business you talk about businesses having a ‘tone of voice’. What do you mean by that and why should anybody care?

[00:02:52.270] – Ben

Sure. Well for me tone of voice is really the personality of an organisation coming through in language. So it’s the choice of phrases, the choice of words that express what an organisation stands for. So it really comes from your values, from your culture, from what’s true. And I think organisations that aren’t managing their tone of voice proactively are kind of leaving it up to chance, because language reveals things about us that other human beings pick up on and they might not be the messages that we want to be giving.

[00:03:25.430] – Maria

And what’s the difference or the balance between language and tone or is it all one for you?

[00:03:32.140] – Ben

I don’t get too hung up about definitions of different parts of it. I think of tone of voice as the way an organisation uses language. So I just use it as a catchall for everything that we do in language. So it’s word choice. It’s the words that we decide not to use or the words that we do use. It’s the way we construct our sentences, it’s the way we write our speeches, it’s the way we write our strategy. So really everything that involves language I include in tone of voice. Tone voice can help us with all of that.

[00:04:01.340] – Maria

OK can you give me some examples of the kinds of things that you do with organisations to help them. I suppose one to discover their tone of voice because maybe they’re not even aware that they have one, I don’t know. And to show them why it’s important and then how you help them. A huge question!

[00:04:18.480] – Ben

Okay. So yeah absolutely.

So for me tone of voice is really about who you are as an organisation and what you stand for. So what I like to do is try to delve into what an organisation is like. So just one example. A few years ago Ronseal came to me. So for those inside the UK will know Ronseal very well from their advertising about 20/25 years ago. “Does what it says on the tin”. So they came to me and the ‘cheeky chappy tradesmen’ advertising from that period got diluted. That personality got diluted because they were trying to appeal more to the growing army of female DIYers. So the personality got diluted, they wanted to regain a sense of who they were and so they asked me if I could help. So what we do is we try to get to what they really are like as an organisation and they had 25 or so marketers in the different regions so I brought them together. We ran workshops to explore what their personality is, what’s true about Ronseal that we can then reflect in language.

We came up with all sorts of different personas. We focused in on what that brand personality is. And then we can explain that in what I call tone of voice guidelines, which are really written guidelines that help people to choose different ways of coming up with language, in writing and in speech. So that’s one example on a small brand that many certainly people in the UK will know. On a wider scale, an organisation like Vodafone for example. So Vodafone, fairly global. I started working with them in the UK looking at European concepts for selling 3G, this is many years ago, because we’re now into 5G. And what Vodafone wanted to do was get in touch with a sense of who they are and then reflect that accurately across all of their conversations with customers.

So it’s in marketing, all the way through to customer service to leadership strategy. All of that kind of thing. And the most recent project with them was actually going out and helping the web chat teams in India, looking after UK customers. The really interesting thing for them is, you know us Brits are quite good at hiding what we really feel, aren’t we? We’re quite passive aggressive and so we’ll not really say when we’re unhappy and this is a challenge for a relational culture like India because they don’t necessarily know when we’re really, really, really angry and many cultures outside the UK don’t know when we’re really angry.

So for them it was really about training them in empathy and understanding cultural difference. So all sorts of different applications but it all comes through in language.

[00:06:49.390] – Maria

I mean you’re talking to the Italian here, you know when I’m angry I tell you!

[00:06:53.890] – Ben

I do know.

[00:06:57.400] – Maria

So you and I, when we’ve spoken in the past you’ve said that language is really powerful when it comes to change. And I think I can see that from what you’re saying here with regards to finding your tone of voice. But obviously change sometimes is not just about tone of voice and there are other aspects to change within an organisation. We’re always dealing with change. So would you advise companies to think about language when they’re leading change as well then?

[00:07:26.590] – Ben

Absolutely. And actually just last week a really interesting example came up. So an organisation approached me and they’re thinking of starting a process of change. The chief exec spoken to the whole organisation and said that there are going be some ‘structural changes’. Now when I say the term ‘structural changes’ what does it make you feel or think?

[00:07:50.980] – Maria

It makes me think it’s going to be some job losses probably or certainly somebody is going to get promoted and moved around. Yeah it’s big, that’s big change, structural is big.

[00:08:00.850] – Ben

Totally. And so what happens is we use euphemisms like ‘structural changes’ to hide the reality. Now what they’re actually saying is that we need to change the business to keep up with the times, our market is changing. We need to stay competitive. And so we need to make some changes. If I was rephrasing that I’d say ‘and we want to evolve all of you in helping us work out what that future looks like and we don’t intend to make redundancies apart from voluntary’ and I would be much more direct about what they’re saying to people.

So using euphemisms like ‘structural changes’ actually just puts the fear of god into people doesn’t it? Because you’re instantly panicking, going ‘am I going to lose my job?’ Now that organisation’s on the defensive and people are worrying about what’s going on. And of course that has an immediate impact on productivity.

[00:08:43.390] – Maria

Absolutely. So you’re brought in not only to help people with change and to help people with finding tone of voice but also to help people communicate?

[00:08:51.250] – Ben

Absolutely. And I suppose communication is the ultimate expression of everything that’s going on within us, within us personally and within an organisation. I think an organisation that comes from the heart, truthfully, and I don’t know many organisations that do but they do exist, will have a positive tone of voice in the first place. The way they communicate matches up with their behaviour. And really this is all I’m trying to do, I’m trying to match the behaviour of the organisation with the communication. And when that happens it means that the marketing and the customer service match up with the product or the service that’s being delivered and customers are happy.

[00:09:30.040] – Maria

You know I’m going to have to ask you now, I have to ask you because you’ve led me there. I do want to have an example that you think of an organisation or business that does it well.

[00:09:40.410] – Ben

Well so there’s a bank, I’m working with one bank in the UK. A bank that I’m not working with but I think it is a really nice example is Monzo. So Monzo are a start-up. I think they’re four or five years old and they have set their stall out in terms of their tone of voice. And they’ve actually published their tone of voice on their website so if you google ‘Monzo tone of voice’, you’ll find their tone of voice. And what they say is that they use language their audience uses, that they’re focused on what matters to people, that they’re transparent about what they’re doing and why and that they’re open and welcoming to people.

So those are some pretty bold claims aren’t they? So I was really interested to understand whether they’re actually following them through in terms of service. So I joined Monzo several months ago. I’ve just left one of the big four banks and moved my personal accounts over to Monzo because I want to experience whether the service really matches up. And what’s really interesting is when you go into the chat on the app, it’s all app based, you go into the app, the people talk as the tone of voice says on the website. So for people who aren’t as obsessive about languages as me does that really matter?

Well I think it does because I think the language gives us human beings clues as to the service and the product that we’re going to get and those clues are crucial. And we know whether we trust or don’t trust the company. Companies feel somehow that they can just carry on what they’re doing and we’ll believe them and we just don’t, do we? We can we can sniff out insincerity.

[00:11:12.280] Maria

I mean that’s true dedication to the cause to actually change your bank in order to check that they’re fulfilling their mission. I read somewhere that more people are prepared to get divorced than will actually change bank. I mean I know I’ve been with my original bank since I was a child. People don’t change banks!

[00:11:33.610] – Ben

But you know what’s interesting about the bigger older banks? So I was with one of them for 30 or more years probably. Like you I joined them when I was a student and they’ve been fine. But they haven’t been anything more than fine. And the thing is that there are new competitors coming into the market who are doing more interesting things. They’re using artificial intelligence to help you to budget. They’re giving you alerts when you spend so that you’re more conscious about what you’re spending. They give you pots so that you can sweep into pots for holidays or for your house insurance or whatever and you can make those sort of habits automatic. Now surely a big bank with all of its intelligence, knowledge and expertise ought to be able to provide those services but they’re not. And so that’s why I think the new brands are really interesting.

[00:12:25.590] – Maria

It’s really interesting, I’m going to go and check some of these new ones out. So I want to dive a bit deeper into some of the things that you do with companies. And I know you have something called an upside down pyramid. Are you able to tell us a bit about that in the short time?

[00:12:41.890] – Ben

It’s actually quite a simple concept and it’s the sort of thing that journalists learn in journalist school all the time. So it’s an upside down pyramid and you’ve got the base at the top. And the base has the essential information that you’d need to communicate to your audience, the middle of the pyramid has useful information. And the bottom has things that are nice to know. And the idea behind it is (and journalists are trained to do this, as are copywriters) is to put the information that your audience needs to get right to at the top, in your subject line, in the heading, in the first paragraph. And the idea from press days is that if you’re scanning through a newspaper, if you just read the headline you get the gist. If you read the first paragraph, you get the story. And if you’re interested then you can read on and you’ll get more of the meat. I find this really useful when I’m doing writing training, because it helps people to focus on what is the single most important thing that you need people to get.

And the mistake I’ve come across most often with people when I’m running training is that there are so many things in their head that they want to say they lose sight of something single minded that will capture their audience’s attention. We’re communicating from our own perspective rather than thinking from our audience’s perspective.

[00:13:54.000] – Maria

Yeah the audience is so important. Absolutely. I mean a lot of the things that you’re saying actually apply not only to clients in talking to their customers but I hope speakers listen to this. Because everything you’ve said applies to the business of speaking. Let’s be honest here. All of those things.

[00:14:09.700] – Ben


[00:14:12.630] – Maria

You also have a formula for writing, which you call afiatone.

[00:14:16.570] – Ben


[00:14:17.350] – Maria

Can you give us a little summary of that? And it’s a good name by the way because obviously you created, it’s yours. Tell us about afiatone.

[00:14:25.290] – Ben

Well there’s an interesting story that illustrates the previous point about the pyramid in a way. So I was giving a workshop for a university, some marketing MSc students a few years ago now. For 10 or 15 years all of the work that I’ve done has been in corporates and so it’s been based on an individual companies tone of voice, which I was involved in creating. For the students I needed something more generic, something that I could apply to anybody, that anybody could use.

So I thought long and hard and I came up with five canny questions and it was something like ‘who what where how when’ or something like that. And you can hear in my voice I find it hard to say. And I realised after a few times of trying to present it I couldn’t remember what it was. So the memorability wasn’t there, so I scratched my head and I thought what could it be? And could I make it fit my name because then it reinforces the training that I’m giving.

So afiatone is AUDIENCE, so who are your audience? F is for FOCUS, which is what do you want them to think or feel or do as a result of the thing that you’re communicating to them. This applies as much to speakers as it does in writing. INSPIRE, so what thing is going to hook them in? What’s in their interests, what’s going to excite them? ARRANGE, is how you’re going to tell that story. So how are you going to arrange those points, going back to the pyramid so they make sense, so somebody can remember and work their way through them effectively.

And the very last step is the tone, so tone of voice, how are you going to sound? How are you going to reflect your brand personality, if you like. So audience, focus, inspire, arrange and tone. And I’ve really just been using this for the last six months, although it’s come out of that approach I’ve used for probably 15 years. And with a recent client I now have people saying ‘have you written your afia brief?’. And we’re coaching people there. And if they haven’t sent us afia brief, so they haven’t got clear on their audience, clear on their focus and so on then we can’t look at it because we don’t know what the context is. So what it does is it helps you order your thinking in a process so that when you get to the actual writing, the thinking is much clearer.

[00:16:38.410] – Maria

I love that. You’re very lucky your name wasn’t Franzoni!

[00:16:40.690] – Ben

If it was Franzoni, I’m sure I’d have been able to make it into some sort of acronym.

[00:16:46.910] – Maria

Yes I’d be interested to find out what the Z stands for!

[00:16:47.010] – Ben

Focus, response, originality, I don’t know!

[00:16:54.130] – Maria

Brilliant, brilliant. So if we’re going to say one thing that companies should be focusing on right now to do better. What would you say that would be?

[00:17:03.830] – Ben

I think there’s a growing desire for authenticity and realness from organisations. And I think that the rising brands, the products and services that are popping up, like Monzo, like food brands that seem to be taking over the world. I think what’s appealing to audiences worldwide is authenticity and realness. And this is why smaller brands I think are nibbling away at the bigger companies. So there’s a need for authenticity. What’s really interesting about language is it reveals whether you are true or not. And we can read in the nuances of language. It’s a bit like body language, you know if somebody’s lying don’t you? You can hear the words but you know they’re lying from their body language. Well tone of voice is a bit like body language, in language. So we know when euphemisms are being used or clichés or weasel words or legalistic terminology, that a company is trying to get out of its responsibility or trying to defend itself or cover itself. We know when that’s going on, we intuit it instinctively. And so I think the biggest thing I would urge organisations to do is to focus on the language as a tool for getting to what’s real.

And the reason for that is, as you said earlier, language is baked into every single thing we do. So we write our vision and strategy in language. We write our strategy documents, our five-year plans in language. We communicate to all of our teams in language, we lead our town halls using language. All of our ideas come through language and all of that language ends up with customers. So whatever you’re saying internally within an organisation ultimately it leaks out. And you may not have intended it but these things leak out.

So language I think is a useful way of diagnosing what’s wrong in your culture. It helps you to understand where things are breaking down, where teams are not necessarily working together as effectively as they could be. Where leaders might be clashing. You know the language gives you clues as to what’s going on there. So I would urge organisations to look at what’s really going on and try to tackle what’s real. And then ultimately that will reflect itself in the language that your people feel and that your customers experience.

[00:19:24.510] – Maria

Fantastic that’s such good advice. I mean I can’t believe that our time actually is coming to an end, which is incredible, it’s just flown past.

[00:19:31.460] – Maria

So I’m going to do what I do with every speaker and I’m going to put you in my time machine. And I would like to take you back to when you started speaking and started running your master classes and workshops and your consultancy. Knowing what you know now and with the experience that you have now what advice would you give to young Ben when he was starting out?

[00:19:54.850] – Ben

That’s such a difficult question. There are so many things. I think if there was one thing…. So in my early years I worked in a range of marketing jobs and I worked for some big companies, who seemed to be on a mission to kind of balance out people’s skills. So for example I joined Whitbread beer company many years ago. I was very strong on English and I was poor on maths. And so they wanted to balance out these skills and make you ‘more balanced’.

And actually with hindsight, I think what I should have done when I realized that I was so strong on English, is to focus in on the thing that you’re really, really good at and just get even better at that. Because we’re in increasingly crowded markets. So as a writer there are so many more people out there than when I went freelance and started building a business. As a speaker, there are so many people coming into the market all of the time. And so what gets you booked as a consultant, as a writer, as a speaker. It’s being really strongly differentiated, being yourself and being brilliant at one thing. So I would say specialise earlier, get really, really good. That doesn’t mean round out your skills, because I love training. In the last year I’ve been learning about Appreciative Inquiry and agile project management and all sorts of other topics that I love exploring. But major on one thing and get really damn good at it.

[00:21:19.310] – Maria

I absolutely love that because I think people should go deep rather than wide. I absolutely agree with you. Ben, thank you so much.

[00:21:27.170] – Ben

It’s been such a pleasure Maria. Thanks for having me on.

[00:21:28.970] – Maria

Thank you very much for listening. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Hope to see you again next week. Take care. Bye bye.