Category Archives: Strategic Communication

You Are What You Say

(and how you say it)

Understanding and Describing Your Verbal Identity

When it comes to brand identities, the visual components, like logos, colors and photos, get most of the attention. That makes sense. About 30 percent of the human cortex is devoted to visual processing, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearingThe human brain processes images 60,000 time faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visualThe eye itself is considered an outgrowth of the brain

But how we recognize, feel about and relate to brands is based on more than looks. The brand’s verbal identity — what the organization says and how it says it — matters, too.  If the visual and the verbal aren’t in sync, the effect can be anywhere from comical to catastrophic.

What’s a Verbal Identity?

Here’s a good enough definition of verbal identity, but when it comes to creating and/or managing one, I think it can help to break it down into these four components: voice, tone, style and message.

Voice: The overarching personality of your brand expressed through words in any content or communication you produce.Tone: The particular mood and feeling expressed through words in a particular communication or piece of content.
Style: Choices regarding writing and speaking conventions, including sentence construction, usage, grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization and pronunciation.Message: The information, idea and/or emotion the communication or content is trying to impart to the audience.

Voice vs. Tone

Let’s take a moment to distinguish “voice” from “tone” because they are often used together (voice and tone, or tone of voice) and sometimes they’re used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Basically, your voice should be consistent, but your tone should change based on the circumstances.

Voice signals identity; tone signals mood.

You can identify who’s speaking by their voice. You can tell how they feel — or want you to feel — by their tone. 

Your mom might have scolded you by saying, “Don’t take that tone with me!” But she probably never said, “Don’t take that voice with me!”

Voice is consistent; tone is contingent.

Changing or disguising your voice from one situation to the next could make you seem shifty or unbalanced. But, not changing your tone to suit the context or channel could make you sound robotic, uncaring or oblivious.

There are many voices; there are few distinguishable tones.

Each person’s voice is unique — at least as far we know. So, theoretically, each organization can have a unique voice as well.

Tone is more limited. According to work done by Nielsen Norman Group, there are only four distinguishable dimensions of tone: 

  1. Funny vs. Serious
  2. Casual vs. Formal
  3. Irreverent vs. Respectful
  4. Enthusiastic vs. Matter-of-fact

Here’s a Quick Way to Tell Voice and Tone Apart 

Let’s say you’re communicating an increase in your company’s 401(k) match. Imagine how you might approach it … 

… Oh, wait. Scratch that. The match isn’t increasing, it’s actually being eliminated. 

The things that would change from one scenario to the next are your message and tone. The things about the communication that wouldn’t change are probably part of your voice and style.

How to Describe a Verbal Identity

Every brand guidelines document I’ve ever seen addresses visual identity, but not every one addresses verbal identity. And, those that do typically don’t do it with the same consistency and precision used to specify the visual. 

This is understandable. Not only do visuals dominate our perceptions, but fundamental elements of a visual identity can be described with scientific precision. Colors can be specified by code numbers. Layouts can be defined by grids and measurements to the fraction of an inch. 

In comparison (and quite ironically) verbal identities can be hard to describe in words. There’s no equivalent of a Pantone number that identifies a word or phrase as being within the brand’s voice palette. That and, since just about everyone has a pen and a keyboard, just about everyone thinks that they can write well enough without much guidance.

Where graphic designers are given measurements, codes, files and photos to work with, writers typically get a handful of descriptors, like “conversational,” “smart,” “trustworthy,” and “respectful.” 

While HR is responsible for a great deal of content and communication that contributes to the overall employee experience, it usually does not own the organization’s brand identity. But, HR can and should maintain its own style guide as a subset of the organization’s brand guidelines.

Based on a review of the many brand guidelines documents we’ve gathered over the years, here are a few tips for creating a useful set of verbal identity guidelines. (The following assumes that your organization’s voice is described, at least to some degree, in its overall brand.)

1. Identify common categories of content and communications.

Focus on categories that make a difference, on those that might trigger a different tone. For example, do you communicate differently to recruits than you do to retirees or to the executive committee? Is there anything different about how you communicate about performance management than about your health and welfare benefits?

2. Provide examples. 

Alone, a few descriptive words or phrases don’t offer a writer much guidance. For example, one of the most common verbal identity descriptors I come across is “conversational.” A conversational tone among physicists is probably different from a conversational tone among web designers. Craft a few “do” and “don’t” paragraphs to clarify what you’re going for in each category.

3. Describe your tone(s) on a spectrum. 

As mentioned above, there are only so many distinguishable tones. You could spend hours combing through a thesaurus looking for the right descriptors, but is a writer going to know how to sound “progressive”? When describing your tone(s), try to confine yourself to the four dimensions below and plot each dimension on a spectrum. For example, “funny vs. serious” could be anything from “laugh out loud” to “pleasant” to “straight-faced”. Even with this more focused approach, there is still a great deal of variety and flexibility. But, be sure the tones you describe are compatible with your overall voice. I recall one of my high-school English teachers, a Jesuit priest who described himself as a “loveable curmudgeon.” His idea of being “funny” was reading a passage from To His Coy Mistress and then muttering that he “lived vicariously through literature.” It was funny in his voice, but it probably wouldn’t be funny in Amy Schumer’s.

Tones of Voice

Funny Serious
Casual Formal
Irreverent Respectful 
Enthusiastic Matter-of-fact 

From The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice, Nielsen Norman Group.

4. Have some style. 

If your organization’s brand standards don’t identify a style guide (e.g. Associated Press or Chicago Manual of Style), pick one. Also, make a list of your benefits, programs and key terms to confirm spellings and capitalizations. Is it medical plan or Medical Plan? Is it pretax or pre-tax?

5. Nail down some core messages. 

Over time, identify and catalog certain core messages and descriptors that really nail your voice and clearly communicate your intent. Think about it. How many different ways does Geico say “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance”? There’s very little, if any, variation. Consistent messaging and disciplined repetition can build recognition, accelerate understanding and burn your messages into memory.

Let’s Connect

Are you working on your organization’s or department’s verbal identity? Share your story with us. If you’d like some help, we’d love to hear your voice — no matter what tone you use.

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Read This Before You Order that Champagne

How to Hail Your Champs of Choice (and Get Your Employees to Pronounce Important Words Properly)

Remember last New Year’s Eve when the manager of a Michelin star restaurant tried to uncork a $2,000 dollar of Nebuchadnezzar champagne with a saber, only to shatter the bottle and leave the kitchen floor lathered in bubbles?

Poor guy. While I can’t help you with sabering open a bottle of bubbly this New Year’s Eve, maybe I can help you avoid the linguistic equivalent of this gaffe — mispronouncing your champs of choice.

Even Freddy Mercury Fumbled

Freddy Mercury, the iconic front man of the rock band Queen, is known for many classic lines. 

We will rock you. 

Another one bites the dust. 

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango? 

But among them is one flickering faux pas. In the opening line to the 1974 classic Killer Queen, Mercury sings: “She keeps her Mo-way et Chandon in her pretty cabinet …”  

Mo-way. That’s how I always said it until my wife started working in the spirits industry. Moët is actually pronounced Mo-wet. It’s Dutch, not French

It’s Pronounced Veuve …

Veuve Clicquot is another champagne with an oft-mangled name. Many say it Voove Klee-koh, but it’s more like Vuv Klee-koh.  

My wife schooled me on this one too with this adorable rhyme: “It’s pronounced Veuve like love.” 

After the Ball Has Dropped

Pronunciation may be something to keep in mind if there are any tongue-twisters your organization relies on.

Sure, many common HR terms are easy enough to say. Copay. Performance management. Broadbanding. Onboarding. No problem. But, what about your company’s name, benefit plan names, product/service names, technologies or even the names of key leaders?

Is There Really a Right Way to Say It?

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, pronunciation does not matter when it comes to trademarks. 

“There is no “correct” pronunciation of a mark because it is impossible to predict how the public will pronounce a particular mark; therefore, “correct” pronunciation cannot be relied on to avoid a likelihood of confusion.” 

Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure, 1207.01(b)(iv) Similarity in Sound – Phonetic Equivalents

Further, my own informal tests showed that Siri prefers the “wrong” pronunciations of Möet and Veuve.

But, like any good communication, proper pronunciation facilitates clarity and shared understanding. Saying a word the right way can be helpful anytime real humans speak to one another, when we employ a medium that includes sound, or whenever others need to ask or search for a product/service by name. 

For example, it helps ensure that when one person says Shlum-ber-zhay, the other person knows they’re referring to the French oilfield services company Schlumberger.

Plus, knowing how to say a word or name the “right” way gives people the feeling of being in the know. Once someone has that feeling, it’s unlikely they’ll give it up. It’s more likely they’ll become a sort of evangelist, sharing what they’ve learned with others. (Will you ever order — or let a friend order — a Mo-way or Voove again?)

Getting People to Say it the Way You Want Them To

There’s no way to enforce the proper pronunciation of a word (unless you’re directing a video or podcast), but you can provide guidance, inspiration and knowledge.

Here are some simple things you can add to your verbal identity guidelines to promote your preferred pronunciations.

  • Phonetic spellings when needed. That’s a no-brainer.
  • The actual name or term. This may also sound like a given, but it’s not unusual to come across a client’s health care plan masquerading under various aliases. What the administrator calls “Healthfund” might be known within HR as “the CDHP” and labeled on the intranet as something like “Health Choice Plus.” This isn’t exactly a pronunciation problem, but the outcome is similar. Pick one name and stick with it.
  • A brief story about the term’s etymology. Is it a family name (Moët)? A mythological being (Nike)? A literary character (Starbuck)? A story (like the one about Freddy Mercury) makes information more memorable and sharable. Try using them to align audiences around a common pronunciation.
  • A simple mnemonic. My sister-in-law is a drug rep. There’s a drug in her portfolio called Reyataz. She gets doctors saying it right with this phrase: “Ray of Light, Ray of Hope, Ray-a-taz.” A good mnemonic like this one and “Veuve like love” are quick, memorable and instructive. They have the added bonus of associating the brand with a positive emotion.
  • Embedded video or audio files. This could be an easy, affordable and engaging solution. For a fun example, let’s go back behind the bar. Below are the names of some Scotch whiskies. Can you pronounce them? Click on each name to find out if you got it right. 

Bunnahabin  |  Caol Ila |  Cardhu  |  Laphroaig  |   Oban

Let’s Connect

Hopefully, that helps you navigate your New Year’s Eve toast … and to foster proper pronunciations of key terms among your employees once you’re back in the office.

Do you have creative ideas for getting employees or customers to pronounce something properly? Share your story with us. If you’d like some help, let’s discuss it in the new year. Cheers!

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Better Headlines = More Readers

Why You Should Spend More Time Writing Good Headlines and Subject Lines

Extraterrestrial Buzz

In 2016, IFLS published the following article on its website.

Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” From Outside Of Our Solar System, NASA Confirms

The story got more than half a million shares. 

The thing is, if you actually clicked on the headline to read the story, you would have realized it was completely untrue.

Don’t Read it, Retweet it!

According to a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on Twitter have never actually been clicked by the person sharing the link. 

In other words, most people appear to retweet news based solely on the headline.

Did You Fall for This?

NPR found a similar result to an April Fools’ Day prank. They posted a headline: Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore? In the body of the article, they wrote: “If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.’”

Nearly 50,000 people commented on the story.

Be Sure Your Headlines Do This

While these studies and pranks suggest how eager we are to share things on social media, they also highlight the importance of headlines. 

Headlines get people—a lot of people—to do things. 

If the thing you want the reader to do is actually read your article or email, you need to craft a headline or subject line that does this:

Make an intriguing but believable promise of benefits to the reader.

The alien DNA story and the NPA article don’t actually do this, of course. They use a different approach. They make a wild or provocative claim. That’s an effective technique for catching attention and generating shares but, if you want people to read your message, you have to catch their attention AND offer them something of value.

Use Headline Formulas

A quick way to improve your headline or subject line is to apply one of several so-called headline formulas. Headline formulas are types of headlines that have proven themselves effective at garnering responses to direct mail and email marketing. Below are a few examples.

How / How to … How to Choose 401(k) Investment Options Based on Your Goals
Numbered List 3 Tips for Choosing the Right 401(k) Investment Options for You
Secrets / Ways to The Secret to Retirement Investing
Why … Why Some Retirement Investors Do Better Than Others
Ought to Know What You Ought to Know About Saving for Retirement
Simple & Direct Get a 100% Match on Your 401(k) Contributions
Yes or Yes Question Do You Want FREE Money for Your Retirement?
News / Announcement Introducing 5 New 401(k) Investment Options

Take the Time to Write a Good Headline

Don’t let your headline or subject line be an afterthought. When I write, I sometimes start with the headline — the promise — and then make sure I fulfill that promise in the body copy. Or, sometimes I’ll write the copy, come up with a good headline, then go back and revise my copy to be sure it delivers on the headline’s promise. 

As I stated in a previous blog, People Don’t Read, your goal is to get people to pay attention to your message. Your headline is what will get them to pay. Just be sure your content provides them a return.  

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Why Urban Legends Become Legends

What Makes a Message Immortal?

  • Is Walt Disney’s body kept in cryonic storage?
  • Does McDonald’s buy their beef from a company called 100% Beef so they can claim they use “100% Beef” in their burgers?
  • Did an attorney really use the “Twinkie Defense” to beat his client’s murder charge?

These are some popular urban legends featured on the myth-busting website We’ve all heard the classics … “A man wakes up in a tub full of ice …” But how do so many untrue stories survive in a society of skeptics? Why do we need a website like to help us separate the “true” from the “false”? 

It’s because good urban legends, the ones that never seem to die, share some important characteristics that, if properly applied, can make a message almost immortal.

  • Details. Details add credibility, and a good urban legend is chock full of them. An effective storyteller includes names, real places, and vivid details to overwhelm the audience’s doubt. That’s why we at Smith generally recommend that clients back up their key messages with examples and facts … in addition to communicating truthfully.
  • Credible Source. Whether we get it through email or hear it at the office water cooler, an urban legend often reaches us through someone we personally know … and why would someone we know lie to us? If you have a message to deliver, be sure it comes from someone the audience trusts.
  • Relevance. “The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views,” says In other words, the moral of the story is something we can relate to; it means something to us. Often, even the details in these legends are updated with each retelling to keep them contemporary and recognizable. Know your audience and make your message relevant to them.
  • Story. Good urban legends are good stories. They have characters, tension and action. Storytelling is a useful tool for connecting with an audience emotionally, and a good storyteller will enhance the message’s effectiveness. Good stories are also more memorable, which means they are more likely to be retold or, in the contemporary parlance, go viral.
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