Marketing Communications Word Choice and Voice: Your Corporate Persona’s Inner Khakis or Suit



Marketing Communications Word Choice and Voice: Your Corporate Persona’s Inner Khakis or Suit

This is part two of a four-part series on marketing communications style. For more information on the subject, please visit parts onethree, and four

Your marketing communication tone is more than a choice of pronouns or level of formality. Specific word choices (diction) and writing style play a big key in communicating a unique corporate tone-of-voice. In fact, these stylistic choices in words and sentences could be considered the volume or amplification of your corporate tone-of-voice. Let’s take marketing communications word choice as an example.

Marketing Communications Word Choice

Mark Twain once said that “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

English is a complex and often confusing communication tool. You can expect that from a language cobbled together from two other major languages, with core influences from two or three others. The two major components of English—Latin and Anglo-Saxon—are at polar opposites in terms of what we now perceive as formality. Here’s an example: English speakers have at least a dozen of ways of expressing walking, such as: strolling, strutting, sauntering, stomping, etc. These each have a different twist on the meaning of walking that conveys more precise meaning but also tone. It’s no wonder, as they all derive from Anglo-Saxon—a language which often used sound-rich words that mimicked in pronunciation what it expressed in meaning: stomp…whisper…munch…and many others mimic in sound what they actually mean. Our Latin-derived words are often far more formal-sounding to modern ears. As far as we can tell, through cursory research, the only Latin-derived word for walking is ambulate. But when was the last time you heard someone say they ambulated to Starbuck’s for coffee?

So Latinate words, which often end in regular, common endings such as “ion,” “ate,” and others, will give your communications a more formal sound. You know Latinate words when you hear them. You can think of this more formal language as you would a dress code—it’s like wearing a suit instead of khakis.

Here’s a look at a few of the common tech terms we use on a regular basis, which cross a range of formality—each with nearly identical meaning:

Marketing Communications Word Choice

Casual verbs (such as do, make, put, come, and go) give your tone a more energetic, casual, and approachable style, if that’s your intent (like you’re wearing khakis). More formal verbs (such as initiate, intensify, codify, envision) convey a seriousness, formality, and a respectable deference to the audience (like you’re wearing a suit).

Active or Passive Voice in Marketing Communications?

Another “rule” you may hear a lot about is “avoiding passive voice” in sentences. The bottom line on passive voice is the initiator of the (verb) action is not the subject of the sentence or is entirely missing. Passive voice is a less precise, looser language, because you don’t know who or what is doing something. Active voice is more informational and precise because you know who or what is performing the action. See these two examples:

Passive Voice: “Voltage from the transformer was passed to the collector bus.” Who or what did the passing? Well, it’s not in the sentence. Passive voice sentences sometimes attach the initiator at the very end of the sentence using “by” [1].

Active Voice:“The XPLE cable passed voltage from the transformer to the collector bus.” That’s better. Now we know the PCM cable is responsible for passing the voltage. Glad that’s cleared up.

But let’s face it, passive voice is unavoidable in some cases, especially in long stretches of a technical paper where the initiator of the action is present and understood in the entire section of exposition, or the initiator is not important (as in the case of our lowly XPLE cable) to the core information communicated [2]. Otherwise we’d be mentioning that XPLE cable at the beginning of each sentence, when our focus should remain on what happens when that voltage hits the bus.

So here are tips when it’s appropriate, especially in highly technical writing, to use passive voice:

  • When the subject (initiator) is known, and already identified. (This avoids repetition.)
  • If the object of the action is of prime importance.
  • When the initiator is unknown.

Conclusions

In most marketing collateral, active voice—and those crunchy-sounding [3], Anglo-Saxon-based verbs and words—can bring energy to your communications that purely Latin-derived verbs cannot. You can be more precise, provide more information, and save pixels. On average, Anglo-Saxon-derived words use far fewer letters and syllables. Yet more formal word choices and elevated (Latinate) language show a respect for an audience’s intelligence, sophistication, and position (a C-level executive, for example).

Average sentence length, word choices, and even the length of paragraphs also play a significant role in an audience’s perception of your corporate tone and style. Use of acronyms, jargon, punctuation, contractions, ending sentences in prepositions, beginning sentences with conjunctions, and even capitalization also play a key role. This list is getting long.

So how do you maintain a consistent corporate tone yet address the inevitable variations you need to communicate with multiple audiences? Well, that’s the subject of our next post. In the meantime perhaps you can share your favorite Anglo-Saxon or Latinate words in the comments section. Or better yet, the words in contemporary tech marketing you wish would just go away, regardless of where they came from. Show of hands here: anyone nominate “mission-critical?”

Footnotes

  1. Passive voice is any use of the past participle of a verb plus a form of the verb “to be.”  Such as “was passed”: was (form of to be) passed (past participle of the word “passed”).
  2.  University of North Carolina Writing Center.
  3. Combination first used in 19th century derived from combining the Middle English word from Old French cruissir ‘ gnash (teeth) and the late Middle English word munch. Munch probably derives from 14th Century Anglo-Saxon word mocchen. Entomology Dictionary.

For the last 30 years, Hoffman Marketing Communications has created white papers, collateral, and more recently multimedia, on complex business issues and technologies. Sign up here to get your free copy of our White Paper on White Papers to learn the ten best practices for creating effective white papers.

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