How Can Brands Rebuild Trust? Use Their Words.
Your relationship with your audience is only as good as how effectively you communicate with them.
Gabriel Muller is a creative director, editor, and teacher. He teaches at The School of The New York Times and is an adjunct professor of communication at American University as well as a Long Dash alum.
It’s the headline that seems to resurface about once a month: Trust in our institutions is eroding. The realization is troubling—doubly so when we read all the reasons, most of which seem insurmountable: a “lack of objective facts and rational discourse” and a “growing sense of inequity” top the list. Good luck.
One less obvious culprit for this erosion of trust is one organizations can start addressing tomorrow: Bad writing.
Perhaps George Orwell, one of our culture’s most astute observers of language’s ability to manipulate, said it best more than 70 years ago. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms,” he writes, “like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
We’ve all seen it: The corporate executive desperately attempting to defend the company’s bad earnings with inflated jargon and circular constructions. Or the politician, whose ideologies are no longer politically expedient, leaning instead on empty promises and blathering platitudes.
Orwell’s observations are still relevant today. Bad writing is a symptom of a brand’s inability to build authentic and trustworthy relationships with its audiences. It reveals a failure to say what you mean—or, worse, a tendency to say things that purposefully obscure what you actually mean. Both of these issues tie back to two essential pillars of institutional trust: competency and ethics. To that same end, bad writing is a symptom of organizational misalignment, not its cause. Improved writing, on its own, will not create a better brand, but it may reveal ways you can act in concordance with your underlying values.
Here are some tried-and-tested techniques you can implement immediately to improve the writing in your organization. Taken together, they can dramatically improve your organization’s ability to stand out with audiences amid the pervasive erosion of institutional trust.
1) Use the active voice.
Corporate communications professionals tend to default to passive voice constructions because those sentences are safe and uncontroversial. Take for instance a typical corporate statement:
The decision to increase prices was made to help the company weather the financial fallout from COVID-19.
There is nothing grammatically wrong with that sentence. But its passive construction—highlighting the decision instead of the decider—has two damaging consequences. First, it makes the sentence bloated and confusing, burdening the reader with figuring out who exactly is doing what. Second, and more importantly, it enables the organization to shirk responsibility and deflect from accountability. Who is raising the prices in the above example? The writer conveniently leaves out the actor, suggesting that the increase in prices occurred spontaneously, without the aid of human intervention.
The more courageous communicator might rewrite that sentence to say:
We have increased prices to help our company weather the financial fallout from COVID-19.
Not only is this sentence shorter and crisper than the original, but it gives the reader a very real sense of the company’s agency and role in raising its prices. In this case, writing in the active voice is momentarily more uncomfortable for the writer, but infinitely clearer and more trustworthy to the reader, who is very likely to believe transparency from businesses is more important than ever before.
When in 2017 a passenger was dragged off a Southwest Airlines flight by police in Baltimore, the airline thought it would get ahead of public scrutiny by issuing an apology. “We are disheartened by the way this situation unfolded and the Customer’s removal by local law enforcement officers,” a Southwest spokesperson said the following day. Although the airline offers a more direct apology to the customer later in the statement, the apology falls short during its most important sentence: the first one. Let’s look at why.
First, the way Southwest speaks about “this situation” and its “unfolding” suggests we are all passive observers to a completely independent phenomenon—like spectators watching Old Faithful explode in Yellowstone National Park. That, followed by “the Customer’s removal by local law enforcement officers,” further emphasizes the act of removal but not the removers themselves. Perhaps a more successful apology would have been achieved by simply translating the sentence to active voice: “We apologize for removing the customer from the airplane and exacerbating an already stressful travel day for everybody else.” Simple.
2) Free the verb.
The English language has three primary parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Big brands use nouns all the time—they refer to the policies, products, and processes they are in the business of selling or providing. Nouns are rock solid, stable, and kind of boring.
That’s why, even more than they love nouns, brands love adjectives. Adjectives allow brands to artificially spruce up their products and policies—the nouns—and make them momentarily more enticing to the stakeholder. A company not only has a new vacation policy, but a revolutionary, cutting-edge, and awe-inspiring new vacation policy.
This many nouns and adjectives leaves little room for verbs to appear in our writing. That’s convenient for organizations who often shy away from verbs because they imply actual action.
A recent letter from Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson attempts to outline ways the company will support its local managers in the wake of the George Floyd protests earlier this summer. The statement is written with clarity and compassion, but is curiously slim on strong verbs.
“While we may not have all the answers, we know the path forward requires these courageous conversations with one another. As I shared at the close of today’s meeting it is, in part, our promise to one another as partners to live our mission and values daily.”
The verbs in the quoted passage include “have,” “know,” “share,” and “live,” which are verbs one expects to see painted in a yoga studio mural. They hardly suggest actual action and, as a result, do not generate lasting goodwill and trust in the audience, 70 percent of whom want to know what brands are actively doing to address social and environmental issues.
Fortunately, much of our writing already contains powerful verbs. They’re just stuck and hardened in noun form and need to be freed by a sharp eye. Here are some steps you can take to free those verbs up and make your writing move faster.
- Brands often write like this: She oversaw the creation of a new cybersecurity division.
- Find the stuck verb. She oversaw the creation of a new cybersecurity division.
- Kill the existing verb. She oversaw the creation of a new cybersecurity division.
- Enjoy your new sentence. She created a new cybersecurity division.
By leaning more consciously on often-neglected verbs, organizations can get their points across faster and clearer while living up to their commitments to make change.
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3) Translate your jargon.
We often assume jargon is confusing but harmless—just technical clichés that experts use as shorthand among themselves. But brands often use jargon as a cloak to hide behind actual intent. William Zinsser, one of America’s most cherished writing teachers, notes that we are a society “strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.” He ultimately describes jargon as a tool that “blunts the painful edge of truth.”
Few have blunted the painful edge of truth so forcefully as Stephen Elop, a former executive vice president at Microsoft, in a letter to the company’s employees in 2014. For 10 brick-sized paragraphs, Elop discusses Microsoft’s “opportunity to plan carefully about the alignment of phones,” the company’s “strong focus on maintaining business continuity,” and his plan to “ensure that the very best experiences and scenarios from across the company will be showcased on our products.”
By lobbing smart-sounding but ultimately empty marshmallow phrases, Elop manages to lose his readers completely, anesthetizing them with a steady drip of clinical-grade jargon. After the reader’s eyes have sufficiently glassed over, Elop drops the painful truth he was so desperately attempting to blunt:
“We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year.”
Yes, Elop waits nearly 850 words before firing a sizable chunk of the company’s employees in a widely circulated memo. In passive voice, of course.
At best, jargon is lazy. It’s easier to rely on our industry-specific crutch phrases than to translate those phrases into language that readers can immediately relate to. That translation requires us to know our subject matter deeply. At worst, jargon is a smokescreen that leaders use to obscure realities they would rather keep at bay. It is our responsibility as communicators to translate jargon in order to preserve the honest relationships we have with our audiences and customers.
Who’s doing it right—and why it matters
We can look to Ben and Jerry’s as an example of a company that’s used clear, jargon-free, and active writing to demonstrate its values and build strong brand loyalty among its customers. In June, the ice cream company released a statement in response to the murder of George Floyd by police. The statement begins actively and specifically.
All of us at Ben & Jerry’s are outraged about the murder of another Black person by Minneapolis police officers last week and the continued violent response by police against protestors. We have to speak out.
Leading with the first-person plural—us—helps Ben & Jerry’s generate a connection between the brand and the audience. The sentence is also incontrovertibly active: We are outraged. We have to speak out. There is no ambiguity about who is doing what in these sentences. The company then proceeds to offer a series of tangible solutions to the problem it so concisely addressed up front.
Four years ago, we publicly stated our support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, we want to be even more clear about the urgent need to take concrete steps to dismantle white supremacy in all its forms. To do that, we are calling for four things:
The company then proceeds to list four specific actions the nation should take: calling for the president to disavow white supremacists, for Congress to pass H.R. 40, for a national task force to create bipartisan legislation, and for the Justice Department to reinvigorate its Civil Rights Division.
“When your company is acting on its values and those values resonate with your consumers’ values, it’s an incredibly deep connection,” Ben Cohen, the company’s co-founder, recently said.
When Cohen and his co-founder Jerry Greenfield sold the company to Unilever in 2000, they worried the company’s social values might erode under new corporate leadership. But when, according to Greenfield, Unilever hired a new CEO ten years ago, the company was encouraged to revive its resistance mission.
“Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported Occupy Wall Street. Ben & Jerry’s publicly supported Black Lives Matter before most other companies. Now within Unilever, there’s an incredible amount of respect for what Ben & Jerry’s has done,” Greenfield, the other co-founder, said. “Ben & Jerry’s rediscovered its soul.”
Brands and organizations—and critically, their leadership—labor constantly to figure out how to gain and preserve their customers’ trust. While great writing is not a magic potion to resolve an undefined or ill-advised set of values or positions, it is a highly effective means to clarify and amplify your positions on issues that truly matter. Sentence-level improvements in our communication may seem trivial, but they behave like compound interest, with every clear and concise written exchange adding up to a more relatable and believable brand voice that builds trust—even when trust is in such short supply.