Our beloved foreign secretary was all over the media recently for describing Jeremy Corbyn as a “mutton-headed old mugwump”.
Other people have said basically the same thing before – that Corbyn might be a bit thick, and a little aloof – but they didn’t get nearly as much attention.
That’s the benefit of a really distinctive tone of voice – how you express yourself in words.
One of the things that’s different about Boris is that he doesn’t sound like other politicians: he stands out from the cacophony of identikit political blah. And businesses, and business leaders, can use language to do the same.
Avoid formulaic response
On its website, McDonald’s says “Find a McDonald’s near you”. Pizza Hut says “Find a restaurant”. But Wahaca’s app says “Take me to the tacos!” It’s a tiny detail, but it gives you a sense of its spirit, and tempts you just a little more Wahaca-wards with its Wahaca words.
So if you’re emailing a customer and find yourself writing, “please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any further queries,” have a think if there’s a less formulaic way of saying it. Likewise, if you’re a chief executive about to slip into the cliche of, “in 2017 we have faced challenging market conditions”: stop. Maybe you could find a phrase that feels more genuine – and more likely to get listened to.
Stick to it, even when things get sticky
People are often happy to put their personality into the good news, but if they have to deal with something negative, they lose their nerve. When people – even chief executives – have to deliver unpalatable messages, they often subconsciously distance themselves from it. Their language becomes impersonal, passive and formal. They stop using their own tone of voice and hide behind the corporate line.
United Airlines received a Twitter roasting when its chief executive Oscar Munoz described dragging a paying passenger off a plane as “re-accommodating” him. And again when he said United had: “followed our involuntary denial of boarding process … in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft”.
And it’s why it was a breath of fresh air when Volkswagen’s US boss Michael Horn admitted it had been rigging emissions tests by saying “We have totally screwed up”. In that situation, you’ll take some flak, but most people will also give you points for honesty.
Think of your English GCSE
Lots of the tricks you learned when being forced to deconstruct poetry will stand you in good stead in business or politics. One of a leader’s main jobs is to condense complicated ideas and strategies into simple phrases that stick in people’s heads.
So the Tories are relentlessly repeating “strong and stable leadership” and “coalition of chaos” right now. And – assuming they don’t completely overdo it – those bits of alliteration (the repeated “s” and “c” sounds) make for earworms which will burrow into our brains. Tony Blair loved repetition; that’s why lots of us still remember “Education, education, education” and “Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime”.
There’s even research that shows we find phrases that rhyme more believable than those that don’t. So mountaineers will tell you “cotton kills in the hills” (apparently in cotton you get hot and sweaty on the way up, and then freezing cold at the top). Until your rhyme gets too cheesy, that is.
Then it stops working.
Neil Taylor is creative partner at The Writer.