Talking Like a Literary Genius - Or, How to Get Ahead Through Effective Client Communication
Nowadays, it’s universally agreed that the only way for a business to communicate effectively with clients is for all of its employees to be fully conversant with the Western literary canon. Below is a list of books that all of your employees, should, frankly, have read already, beginning with—
Did I have you there for a second?
Sorry, I couldn't resist. Anyway, we’ll return to literature in a moment, but first, let’s be clear: it’s essential for a business to communicate effectively with its clients, which requires a variety of sales communication styles and tailored marketing messages. Every one of a business’s clients is different—particularly so when they hail from different industries—so communicating effectively with them all is near impossible when using just one voice.
As a quick thought experiment, let’s consider our personal relationships. Most of us have a number of important people in our lives with whom we communicate regularly: wives, boyfriends, fathers, daughters, friends, colleagues, even the barista who makes our morning latte. Do we talk exactly the same way to all of them? No. We might pretend to be a little more interested in sports than we really are to get along better with our father or pretend to be a little less interested in politics than we really are so as not to scream bloody murder at our good friend. We probably try to avoid profanities around our kids, but we may also drop a few more bombs than usual when we’re on a staff night out, just to show that we’re not a working stiff.
Does this make us phony? Some people seem to think so. The idea of the uncompromising truth-teller—someone who uses a single, rigid voice to ‘tell it as it is’—is often romanticized. This article, however, will instead argue that speaking in different voices isn’t a vice but a virtue, both in life and business.
Let’s start by looking at the work of British fiction writer Zadie Smith and, in particular, her exasperation with the stuffiness of her compatriots.
How Great Writers Communicate
Back in late 2007, Smith gave a lecture at New York Public Library titled ‘Speaking in Tongues’, which she opened with an amusing sketch of the voice-related anxieties in her native Britain:
Voice adaptation is still the original British sin. Monitoring and exposing such citizens is a national pastime, as popular as sex scandals and libel cases. If you lean toward the Atlantic with your high-rising terminals you’re a sell-out; if you pronounce borrowed European words in their original style—even if you try something as innocent as parmigiano for “parmesan”—you’re a fraud. […] We feel that our voices are who we are, and that to have more than one, or to use different versions of a voice for different occasions, represents, at best, a Janus-faced duplicity, and at worst, the loss of our very souls.
It is late 2007 and with Smith being in the US, there was an elephant in the lecture hall: the imminent presidency of one Barack Obama. Unlike many a grumpy Brit, the then President-Elect, a man who was born in Hawaii to parents of different ethnicities, spent part of his childhood in Kenya and made his bones as a community organizer in Chicago, had, according to Smith, used different voices as a key to success.
We now know that Obama spoke of Main Street in Iowa and of sweet potato pie in Northwest Philly, and it could be argued that he succeeded because he so rarely misspoke, carefully tailoring his intonations to suit the sensibility of his listeners. Sometimes he did this within one speech, within one line: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.” Awesome God comes to you straight from the pews of a Georgia church; poking around feels more at home at a kitchen table in South Bend, Indiana. The balance was perfect, cunningly counterpoised, and never accidental.
But as an acclaimed fiction writer and a Cambridge graduate with first-class honors in English, Smith was also aware that this technique was nothing new. It’s a current that runs through all great writing, going back to the greatest of them all.
In our artists, we look for the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibilities. The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female—he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliation were ever to arise we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway. Was he, for example, a man of Rome or not? He has appeared, to generations of readers, not of one religion but of both, in truth, beyond both.
Was Shakespeare unable to tell the straight truth? Was he a phony? Surely not—although he did write for money, as we well know. Maybe it could (cheekily) be suggested that Shakespeare knew how to communicate with all of his clients very effectively.
Seeing as we’re broadly on the subject of language, here’s your new piece of vocabulary for the day: ‘limpid’. It’s a beautiful word of Latin origin that, simply put, means ‘clear like water’. A business’s communication should be as limpid as possible in order to find new customers and retain existing ones. Let’s review a few ways to make client communication more limpid, starting with how to handle marketing clichés.
Don’t Be So Cliché, Darling
Let’s quickly turn to another British fiction writer, Martin Amis, for a mini-manifesto on this subject:
To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.
This is heady stuff and, given that it’s an excerpt from a book of literary essays, should be taken with a pinch of salt if applied to the business world. But consider the qualities Amis uses to characterize good writing: ‘freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.’ If a business makes the effort to avoid clichés and instead finds more original forms of expression, its clients will get a transfusion of freshness and energy.
This is why it’s important not to use marketing clichés in some wrongheaded attempt to prove that you’re on the cutting edge of your industry. As an article on elevationb2b.com notes:
Today’s savvy B2B buyer can spot a cliché a mile away. Millennials, in particular, look for authenticity and sincerity from brands and businesses and nothing kills authenticity faster than an overused cliché.
You might be able to hoodwink the odd boomer with generic marketing terms, but you’ll never get the likes of ‘passionate’ and ‘visionary’ past those pesky kids.
Make the Distinction Between Good and Bad Clichés
However, it should also be understood that some cliches—or buzzwords, or pieces of jargon—needn’t be avoided. From the same elevationb2b.com article:
There are […] many examples of buzzwords that are common and used by both a company and its customers. It’s your job, as a marketer, to understand what words are the right words to use in your content.
For example, in high tech, terms such as “net neutrality,” “machine learning,” “voice recognition,” and “personalization” are understood by most people and can be useful as a foundation for blog posts and other content.
Being cliché is a problem, but going too far the other way isn’t effective either. The point here is that a business should remain focused on the needs of the client. A client doesn’t need to be dazzled by buzzwords, but often they do need to be given a clear explanation of a technical, industry-specific concept, as with the high-tech terms quoted above. In such cases, making judicious use of widely understood industry jargon is the most practical way to do so.
Have an Empathetic Communication Strategy
‘How can a communication strategy be empathetic?’ I hear your internal voice asking itself. (Know how I can hear your internal voice? Because I’m very empathetic.) A communication strategy can be empathetic if it’s based on hard knowledge about a client. Earlier in this article, we saw how Barack Obama used phrases specific to particular communities during his election campaign (‘[…] he spoke of Main Street in Iowa and of sweet potato pie in Northwest Philly’). Such phrases may or may not have already been a feature of the former president’s personal vocabulary; in any case, he used them to target voters. The result? He won in a landslide. Understanding and echoing your customers in a similar way will make them more receptive to marketing messages and ultimately drive revenue for your business.
So, in summary: listen to your clients, learn their lingo, communicate with them limpidly, and then speak in as many voices as William Shakespeare.
Is that really so hard?