What are you actually saying?
I’ve been out of the office for a little while. I’ve just had a baby. It’s awesome. But it does mean I’ve spent the last four weeks at home almost exclusively wrestling poop-filled nappies off a screaming milk gremlin and trying to sleep whenever possible.
Which means I’ve not read a single piece of B2B content in a month.
And coming back to work has been a bit of a shock. Not because I’m getting screamed at less (although I am), or because I have to wipe fewer butts (just my own), but because I’d forgotten the act of translation needed to read B2B.
It’s an odd sensation where you’re reading something that’s definitely in a language you understand, but it takes a couple passes before you can figure out what it says.
Tone of what now?
I know we bang on about tone of voice a lot, but the way we use language in B2B seems kinda crazy to me. I feel a little like I’ve had language Stockholm syndrome and it’s only taking a break from it that’s released me from the delusion.
This isn’t tone of voice in the sense of: ‘reading it should remind you of having a comfortable conversation with an expert’. This is tone of voice in the sense of: ‘reading it should remind you of reading human writing’.
B2B copy is rife with sentences like “The application of contiguous best-practice methods create best-in-class results.”
Uh huh. Yup. Yeah. Great.
Of course that’s the best way to say…whatever it is that says. You’re just expected to smile and nod. And no one wants to be the schmuck that puts their hand up and goes ‘I don’t understand what this means’, because what if they’re just exposing that they’re an idiot?
It would be all too easy to blame this phenomenon on bad marketers. But I know first hand that it’s not, because I see great marketers make this mistake all the time. We are always (and I do mean always) getting requests from clients to put this kind of language into assets.
These are some of the smartest people I’ve ever spoken to. They’re good at their jobs. They’re confident. But give them 20 minutes and a keyboard and you get copy that sounds like it’s been dragged through a B2B glossary backwards.
These people don’t talk like this on the phone. They don’t write like this when they’re writing emails. I’m sure they don’t talk like this in their lives outside work.
Marketer’s husband: “Honey, do you know where I left my car keys?”
Marketer: “Recall of all activities partaken between last usage and now will deliver greatest probability of the valued item’s return.”
So why do they write like this when it comes to copy?
I have a theory about what makes good marketers write indecipherable garbage. I think it’s that they want to get it right.
It’s like that thing where you go into an interview and you want so badly for it to go well that you end up trying too hard and it goes terribly.
This was a thing I encountered all the time back when I used to be an actor. The jobs I really wanted I didn’t get because I was too nervous in the audition. The ones I didn’t really want, I was laid-back and relaxed, I walked the audition, and got the job.
For a long time I thought it was just that desperation smells bad, confidence smells good. And while I’m certain that’s a part of it, it’s not the complete reason why.
What’s more accurate is that relaxed, confident people sound like themselves. Tense, stressed people try to sound right, and end up sounding like everyone else.
And it’s the exact same thing here. By trying to sound like good B2B marketing, people end up sounding like all B2B marketing. And it doesn’t sound like anything.
The marketing that really works, that really resonates, is the marketing that sounds unique. That sounds human. That sounds like someone just relaxing, and saying what they actually mean.