Faceless business-speak just won’t die

Faceless business-speak just won’t die

You may think the message has got through. Businesses no longer talk to people as they were units. Numbers on a spreadsheet. Mere items. Well, the message still needs repeating. Over and over again.

I sometimes think that the default voice of a big organisation – its true, natural voice – is cold and bureaucratic. It’s as if as soon as they stop noticing how they’re talking they slip back into a formal, disengaged, frankly inhuman tone.

Like what? Like this:

I’m a First Direct customer and a pretty happy one. I like their tone of voice, I like they way they talk to me. I like the way they say ‘Because we want to make sure we’re doing a good job, we may monitor or record our calls. We hope you don’t mind.’

So I put in my password and this came up on screen:


Your access to the service will be suspended if there are too many unsuccessful attempts to log on.

Who is this talking? It’s not the First Direct I know. I feel slightly threatened. And I don’t like the way they’re not even talking to me but using the passive. ‘The following errors must be corrected.’ What? ‘Errors’? ‘Corrected’? There are a million better ways of writing this. It’s a fairly spectacular change of tone from how First Direct normally talk, and it’s a fairly spectacular fail.

OK, here’s another example. It’s a letter going to the next of kin of someone who’s just died.

We are writing to you regarding the above life assured as we have matched their name and details to the Government Death Register.

True, they go on to ‘express condolences’ but it’s the ‘above life assured’ that’s really gobsmacking.

You’re talking about a dead mother, father, wife or husband. Not a ‘life assured’.

Perhaps it’s because this is how powerful businesspeople really think. Not a nice thought, and probably unfair to many powerful businesspeople. Or perhaps this is how powerful businesspeople still think they need to talk if they’re to sound powerful and businesslike. Who knows. What I do know is that people don’t like it. I don’t like. Every time First Direct snaps at me because I get my password wrong, it’s like when someone I’m close to snaps at me. I recoil. I’m a little wounded. The trust goes. Part of me feels like lashing out, in fact. If First Direct didn’t have a website that generally works perfectly, and such wonderful people in their call centre, I’d feel like leaving.

And why are those call centre staff so good? They don’t follow a script! They talk like human beings. They actually respond to me as a person. It’s all about using language in warm, humane ways. That’s really why First Direct customers like First Direct. Because they usually talk to us like human beings. Except when they don’t.

The lesson is: if you use warm, human language you have to be even more careful not to slip back into default business-speak.

And if you simply use default business-speak without noticing, then something is wrong with your culture.