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Words mean numbers

The language a business uses is pretty low on most FDs’ list of priorities. But changing how you communicate can make a big difference to the bottom line, argues Neil Taylor

IF YOU’RE reading this, chances are you think of yourself as a numbers person. I’m not. I’m a writer (a writer who is invariably struggling by page two of my tax return). And for most of my life, I’ve worked with people like me, from the worlds of brand and marketing.

But at the moment I spend my time with numbers people; I’ve been travelling the world training accountants to change the way they write. I’ve been trying to convince them that they need to break out of the formal, corporate, complex, dry, expected language of their industry, and switch to something more human, more relaxed. Closer to how we speak than how we’re used to writing.

Why? Because it helps you get your message across quicker and easier. Because it means the people you’re writing to like you more, and want to work with you. And also because, wielded well, words mean numbers. The effect of changing how you write is often really measurable – often far more measurable than factors such as advertising and sponsorship.

What are words worth? Here’s an example. If your business has call centres, you know that time is money. ‘Call handling time’ is a precious resource. Every extra second you’re talking to a customer is an extra second another customer is waiting. And the more these seconds add up, the more people you need to employ.

Someone from BT came along to one of our writing workshops, and decided he could improve a bit of a script they use on millions of sales calls every year. You’ve probably heard something like it – it’s the bit about checking your credit history – and they’re legally obliged to get that message across. But the words they use aren’t set in stone. So our hero, Marcus, decided he was going to rewrite this section of script – to make it clearer, more human, but also, crucially, shorter. Not only did the employees in call centres sound less bored, and customers pay more attention, but he shaved a few seconds off the script, and off each call.

And those few seconds, multiplied by the number of calls, saved BT hundreds of thousands of pounds in the first year after it was introduced. So naturally, they rewrote the rest of their scripts, too. Now they have happier customers, happier staff, and millions of pounds in savings. Suddenly, changing your language becomes a no-brainer.

You can do the same trick in other ways, too. Change how you reply to customer complaints, and you’ll cut the numbers who keep writing in. Write better product instructions, and fewer customers will ring in confused. Words really do mean numbers.

Inside and out

A new approach to language doesn’t just work with customers, though. I was once asked to do a 10-minute presentation to convince a sceptical finance director that his brand team weren’t frittering away cash on fluffy marketing nonsense by embarking on a ‘tone of voice’ training programme. And boy, was he sceptical.

Until I showed him a bit of his own writing. The day before our meeting, he’d sent an email to hundreds of his colleagues about a new approach to procurement (not the most scintillating topic to most of his readers). This was his first paragraph:

This year, we will be evolving new procurement processes in the UK so that our business can benefit from global procurement synergies that are achievable as a company in the global Group. We anticipate driving incremental annualised savings in excess of £40m for the UK business as a result of the planned changes. The evolution starts on 16 February.

Even his top team, in the meeting with us, thought it pretty hard going. So we, lowly suppliers, took our corporate lives in our hands and had a go at rewriting it in line with the brand tone of voice. It now said this:

This year, procurement is changing.
Now we’re part of a big group, we have big buying power. And we need to make the most of it. We think the changes will save us more than £40m a year. It all starts on February 16.

We looked nervously at the FD. After quite a pause, he said, ‘it says the same thing’. Then after a few minutes (and a little cajoling from his colleagues), he had to admit that it said the same thing, but in fewer words, and with more impact.

And pretty quickly he sussed out that if you really could say the same thing better, and shorter, then that would save the writer time. It would save hundreds of readers time, too. And that if you did that to every bit of communication his team produced, they’d be far more efficient. Before the end of the meeting he’d booked us to train his 100 top finance people at their away day the following week. He now refuses to look at emails that aren’t in the same style.

Most businesses have these kinds of time and financial savings waiting to be unleashed; they’re just hiding in the wording of documents no one’s ever questioned.

Get it wrong and pay the price

‘Bad language’ winds your customers up, too. In a survey we did recently, 58 per cent of people said the letters they got from businesses were barely – or not at all – effective. And that they were filled with annoying stock phrases such as ‘Your comments are very important to us’ and ‘As a valued customer…’. Language people find generic or insincere gets in the way of a closer relationship between brands and their customers. And stops you selling them more stuff. Again, words mean numbers.

Now none of this means FDs should be swapping Excel for a thesaurus. But it’s worth asking your colleagues in customer service or marketing how hard their words are working. Because if they’re spending their time just worrying over the colour palette of your reception desk, you’ll never reap the rewards. And then have a look at your own writing. Is it as efficient as it could be?

Neil Taylor is creative director of language consultancy The Writer, and author of Brilliant Business Writing

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