Are you speaking your clients’ language?

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Article by Chris West

Have you ever noticed yourself in a meeting with a client, being so tuned into them that you find yourself mirroring their body position? Even your breathing’s in sync.

When it’s not a conscious, crappy sales guy technique, it’s a sign that we are giving a client our full attention.

It’s a powerful bridge creating a sweet spot of connection that makes communication happen more smoothly and instantly.

In a meeting, it often happens naturally. But what about in a written report? Can we do something about our writing that creates the same kind of instant understanding?

We always want to maintain the authority of our knowledge and experience in order to be able to convince our clients. But is there some fine tuning we can do with our language to give it more impact?

Before setting up my consultancy, I found a professor of linguistics to tutor me and followed up with reading some of the big thinkers of language, like Harvard’s Stephen Pinker (and especially his book, The Language Instinct).   

Language is much more than grammar and the meaning of words. Even on the most basic level, English is such a rich language that our choice of the words alone reveals our deepest thoughts.

Are we jargon-heavy to show our superior technical knowledge or do we keep it simple to show that we’re not overwhelmed by the technicalities?

As I mention in my own book on language, ‘Strong Language’, The American Press Institute studied what effect sentence length has on comprehension. Here’s what they found  when they rewrote a newspaper article by varying the average sentence length.

At 8 words, readers understand all your text.

Even 11-word sentences are easy for you readers to understand.

At 43 words, the average readers’ comprehension wavers as they have to wade through your extended thought, which probably has lots of sub-clauses and ramblings, leaving them remembering only a little and comprehending less than 10%, which isn’t very good news at all.

When we are conscious of how we style our language (and we should be, we’re conscious about every other way we style our impact) , we can create understanding and  empathy with our clients.

But the Ground Level details, I realised, through my tutoring and subsequently as I built my business, are only a reflection of another, higher level: the personality that we are trying to communicate.

There are very few, true uniques in business. What we invent today can be copied by everyone else tomorrow. So, it’s often our personality that differentiates us. And if our firms and teams are differentiated by personality, so should our language.

Your tonal values might be ‘reasoned’ or ‘assertive’, ‘engineered’ or ‘simplified’. Sometimes, finding the right tonal values is like a moment of therapy – it clarifies why you do what you do, and suddenly makes a lot of decisions in the business easier and faster.

This expression of personality in your language, you could call the 1,000 feet level, giving you enough of an overview but keeping a lot of the richness of what makes you different.

Think of how Warren Buffett uses language in his Annual Letter to express a distinct, quirky personality for his business, giving the sense that he is still in control of it all, and making decisions based on his unique mix of highly analytical yet strongly intuitive reasoning.

Finally, there’s a layer that operates above the tone of voice in all our language. At 10,000 feet is your  overarching world view: What do we believe in? And if we believe in that, what do we stand for? And equally important, what do we stand against?

This dictates what you write about (and the angle you take on what you do write about).

When you are aware of the 3 levels on which all language is working, you start to notice it everywhere: how the London Underground struggles to understand  its authority at the 10,000 feet level, and so has to resort to a childish personality (1,000 feet) and infantile rhymes (Ground Level) just to ask you to keep your shoes off the seats.

Most of us stop learning about language when we’re 16. But that’s grammar and can be taken care of by whatever software you’re using. New software like Grammarly will stop you sounding like an idiot.

To truly communicate at the highest level of your experience and knowledge and to build real empathy with your clients, some simple choices about how we construct our language make a huge impact.

Chris WestAbout the author

Chris West is the Founding Partner of Verbal Identity and author of Strong Language: The Fastest, Smartest, Cheapest Marketing Tool You’re Not Using. Available now and an Amazon #1 best seller.

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