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This irresistible book with the charming title floats a simple answer to a difficult question. Your organization is struggling to emerge from an overcrowded marketplace and forge a separate and unique identity—to create an enduring and powerful brand. How do you do it? Simple, says the UK's John Simmons. In We, Me, Them & It: How to Write Powerfully for Business, Simmons suggests: Write differently.

Beyond the basics that most firms lean on to distinguish themselves—graphics, colors, logo's, essentially a visual identity overhaul—language, and more specifically tone of voice, is a powerful way to forge a distinctive identity, writes Simmons. Branding, after all, is about differentiation. And describing a brand begins with words.

Yet time after time, company after company, the same tired and worn-to-the-bone words and phrases keep showing up. So your audience (a word he prefers over stakeholders), faced with a company that has failed to engage, stimulate, humor, or excite them, will decide for themselves who you are. Not bloody likely they'll decide in your favor. Major opportunity lost.

"The basis of the tone of voice process," Simmons writes, "is a determination to use words that really mean something and take a risk."

We | The Company: the collective group that 'you' as a writer work for

So how does Simmons—a well-established brand himself—get his message across? A deeply personal, knowing, and assuring tone of voice. Strong openings. Dramatic closings. Risk.

Chapter one is a jazzy tour of the Simmons working process. We open with the acerbic Dennis Potter: "The trouble with words is you don't know whose mouth they've been in." And with that, Simmons is off and running like a passionate band leader, improvising here, reading the charts there, moving his audience through short solos on literature, advertising, politics, culture, and creativity. Here's David Ogilvy —"People who think well, write well." And there are classic openings from Jane Austen, Joseph Heller and from Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Love in the Time of Cholera. There is much, much more.

All of which is designed to push the boundaries of language. To lead, liberate, excite, educate, and inspire readers (and, of course, writers)—to toss aside the shroud of dreadful conformity that blankets most business writing. Words are living, breathing entities. They have a life and mind of their own. Inspiration is all around us, and there for the taking. And yet anyone who admires Dennis Potter knows words can cause trouble.

"Words are your children," he cautions. "They can inflict small unthinking acts of cruelty on your neighbors." Key takeaways: Listen. Read out loud. Speak the words inside your head if you must, but careful listening will kill off a lot of bad writing. And this will surely unsettle as many as it will thrill: "There is no such thing as correct use of language."

Me | My Individual Personality as a Writer

"The places where water comes together with other water. Those places stand out in my mind like holy places." —Ray Carver, from the opening of chapter two

The tone-of-voice approach asks that we develop a more personal writing style, within the overall framework of the tone of voice, for whoever we are writing for. We know there are limits to how much individuality can emerge within any corporate or organizational narrative. Obstacles abound. So chapter two is about finding ways to do it, it "gives permission" and offers several case studies (Oxfam and Royal Mail) that Simmons and his former company Interbrand worked on.

One method that Simmons created to help bridge the personal and public was to introduce poetry into the workplace. Why poetry? "What we show at work is the outer person. But what is really interesting in the inner person. Can we find ways to bring more of the inner person to work? If so, will we be more fulfilled in our total life? If so, will we actually do better work because much of our work needs to have an emotional content?"

He offers poetry as just one method, but advises against trying to franchise the approach. It worked for him. It may or may not work for you. The bottom-line idea is that people are happier when they can be "more themselves" at work. People who are happier do better work. Bringing more of yourself into your working life is a good thing, but no small trick. Poetry is one way. For people who write for a living, reading poetry is a way to stay fresh, to create anew, and to think about and use language in new ways. Poetry may open pathways to emotions, and depending on the kind of work you do that can be a very useful thing.

Why is so much business writing bad? Neglect. Indifference. The corporate voice dominates the airwaves. Aversion to risk. The fear of offending. The turn of phrase or idiosyncrasy that might signal an individual voice—emanating from family or personal history, cultural tastes, a playful sense of humor, simple, plainspoken honesty (or, god forbid, poetry!) have been deleted, scrubbed clean. And "because all writing is conversation, not monologue," a growing, long-term relationship with hordes of potential customers entranced by your unique and engaging way of speaking with them, slips from view.

Them | The Audience

The core idea here is about expanding traditional notions of corporate identity to include language, the words a company uses, and tone of voice, the way that language is spoken as part and parcel of an organization's identity. As the definition of "brand" has expanded in recent years to now mean the company itself, rather than particular consumer products, then the company's values, behavior, and priorities, as expressed by the people within this company, are central to the brand. If the company is the brand, and the people are the company, then tone of voice becomes an essential mechanism through which to define, enhance, and clarify the brand to the core audience.

"Them" is about a deeper understanding of that audience. For Simmons, tone of voice signifies understanding. For him, identity and brand differentiation through tone of voice includes everything. He considers every form of communication—signage, public service announcements, collateral—an opportunity to strengthen the bonds of loyalty between you and your customers. Why? Because brand attachment today is about repeated experience. Think Apple, Starbucks, Google. The quality and nature of communications—word choices and tone—need to emerge from everyday performance and practices, values and belief systems, not a passing fancy for the latest "branding idea."

What company these days doesn't want to be relationship based? Yet how many examine whether the links between products, services, culture, and language help establish, or hinder, the relationship they hope to create?

It | The Message, The Stories We Tell

Synchronicity, heaven-sent. While working on this article I received a project to edit (a better verb might be "fell") a huge manual that is masquerading as an encyclopedia. Here's a sampling: "Opportunities for program immersion" and "The application of a system of organization within the infrastructure as a whole is indispensable to effective presentation." For 300 pages, a disembodied voice carries on, strangling every last ounce of life out of a pretty interesting subject.

Corporate identity in the Simmons universe is really about possibility. It's about understanding that identity—that profoundly complex mix of positioning statements, values, graphics, culture, colors and language—can help companies and organizations see themselves and their mission in entirely new ways. The collective stories that live within any organization can form the basis for regeneration and re-imagination. That entails some measure of risk.

On the subject of risk (and of dramatic endings), one of the best stories ever told is of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his race to the South Pole. Scott (an exemplar of the stiff-upper-lip British explorer brand) died tragically on his return from the Pole after discovering that his rival, Roald Amundsen of Norway, had bested him. As he and his men lay dying in their snowbound tent just 10 miles away from a supply depot, Scott wrote long, moving letters home to family and friends. When he finally reached his end, he scratched out his final words. "It seems a pity," he wrote, "but I do not think I can write more."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Richard Pelletier

Richard Pelletier is a writer for business. He's from the East Coast but now lives in Seattle. He is principal conductor at Lucid Content. He is one charming cat living with two sometimes difficult kitties.

LinkedIn: Richard Pelletier

Twitter: @lucidcontent

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