Find out what makes people tick, and find the words to move them. As the first people to combine behavioural science and tone of voice, here are our thoughts on both.
Why having fun when you learn is not just for kids
Remember trigonometry? Nope, me neither.
To be fair, being a writer rarely tests my maths skills. And I don’t need to call on chemistry very often. But even the stuff you’d think I’d find useful, like grammar, I’ve basically had to relearn on the job.
But don’t feel bad; there’s good reason your mind draws a blank.
Here’s the science to prove it.
A brief history of Sarah
I’ve been the wordsmith for museums, art galleries, pension funds, architects and a massive inflatable alien. I’ve also been the head of PR for a major global law firm. You didn’t expect those sentences together, did you?
The real reason you’re always redoing your website
“It’s got messy and there’s too much on there.”
“We’re getting a new CMS, so we might as well refresh the copy.”
“It’s a bit out of date.”
We’ve rewritten websites for all sorts of reasons. But it usually comes down to one big one.
New Schwa: same as the old Schwa (ish)
We’ll cut straight to it: we’re part of Definition Group now.
That’s a big deal for us – but for the most part, you probably won’t notice. We’re keeping the Schwa name, brand, people, ways of working: all the things our clients tell us they like about us.
The IKEA effect, or why we like what we make ourselves
Where should your tone of voice start?
With a flashy new marketing campaign? With the ‘about us’ part of your website? How about by rewriting every single customer letter, email or text?
Nope, nope, nope.
Adding lyricism to one-liners
Vision statements, slogans, claims. Whether you’re trying to make an idea stick internally or sell your wares to the world, one-liners are useful in all sorts of business writing contexts.
But here’s my intelligent insight: they’re hard! You’re trying to boil a complicated message down to its simplest form. You’re trying to grab attention without losing meaning.
Conveniently for us all then, the queen of the one-liner – yes, that’s Taylor Swift – has recently released her ten-minute version of All Too Well.
Time for a check up?
We spoke to 200 brand and marketing bigwigs across the world to find out how they tackle their company tone of voice. More specifically, how do they get everyone in the business on board?
From that cold hard data, we’ve created this nifty little test to show you how you measure up. Ready to read a few home truths?
From Billboards to Behaviour Change
How do you turn your tone of voice into a company-wide movement?
Start a revolution
The spacing effect, or why you should spread out learning
Schwa’s tone of voice bible
Everything you ever wanted to ask about tone of voice. And some things you never thought to ask.
As part of our Tone Test, we ask people what they want to know about tone of voice. We get a lot of questions. So we thought we’d answer every last one, once and for all.
The Empathy Gap
How do you make the language and behaviour of big businesses more empathetic?
Read the report
What does writing style say about Q (or you)?
Who puts the Q in QAnon? That’s what the podcast Finding Q is all about.
The team try lots of different things to piece the puzzle together, like interviewing acolytes and tracking IP addresses. But as a writer, I found their linguistic detective work most interesting.
The End of the Hunch
Change people’s behaviour by changing your words
Read the booklet
Look, there’s a time and place for a good chicken pun.
And although KFC got it wrong - really wrong - with their recent rejection letter, there are still lessons we can learn from it.
Good writing doesn’t just happen
Everything’s in place. A distinctive tone of voice. Killer key messages. A top-notch team of writers. But there’s a snag. (Maybe even several.)
And that means it’s time for a process overhaul.
Social proof, or why we follow the crowd
Why the curse of knowledge kills empathy – and how Zen Buddhism might bring it back
Looking for empathy? Don’t ask an expert
Lots of clients tell us they have an empathy problem. No matter how instinctively empathetic their people are outside work, they struggle with it in their day jobs. Especially if they’re talking to customers about tricky subjects that really need it, like death or debt.
So, what goes wrong?
Building a bot? Beware system-speak
Does this sound familiar?
Welcome to XCo. To hear your balance, press 1. To change your account details, press 2. For our business accounts, press 3. To talk to one of our advisors, press 4.
These were the dark old days of ‘voice user interfaces’. Sitting on a phone to your bank or energy company for hours, being forced through phone trees until you were eventually allowed to talk to someone (or lost the will to live).
Framing, or ‘it depends how you put it’
Write right, then worry about culture
Ok, brace yourself. We’re about to say something you might not want to hear.
Your values, behaviours and corporate purpose won’t change a thing about your company culture.
Whose job is empathy?
Most businesses invest heavily in training their frontline teams. After all, they’re the ones speaking to customers day in, day out. Leadership typically get a decent slice of the empathy training pie, too.
If you only train the top and the bottom, that’s a whole chunk of people missing out. And these are the people who play an important part in defining your company culture.
The generation effect, or learning by doing
The Stickiness of Stories
How stories help you remember
Read the booklet
Enough with the empathy signalling
I’m in the midst of the second of the now bi-annual parades of brands falling over themselves to let me opt out of their marketing emails about Mother’s and Father’s Day.
Both my parents have died, and I really appreciate it when friends recognise that those days might be a bit tricky. But I’m a bit more conflicted when it comes to brands doing it.
Serial position effect, or why structure matters
The problem with sounding professional
Loads of us, it seems, spend lots of time worrying how to sound professional – when we’re writing to customers, say, or to a colleague having a tough time. The curious thing is that in person, or on the phone, we concentrate much more on being human, and making a connection with the person we’re talking to. So why the difference in writing versus speaking?
The Science of Magic
How behavioural science makes training work better
Read the booklet
Rhyme as reason, or why rhymes chime
Empathy can be about ‘wow moments’, too
Empathy is still big news for businesses. A couple of weeks ago, one of Lloyds Banking Group’s directors stirred some fierce debate when he said ad agencies can’t write, citing the e-word in his justification.
So – as many ad execs must now be frantically wondering – what does it mean to be empathetic as an organisation?
Your people don’t need empathy training
Let me save you some time: you don’t need to teach people to be empathetic. You need to allow them to be empathetic. And maybe help them with their writing.
Concreteness, or why you should get specific
How not to do tone of voice guidelines
Between us we’ve created hundreds of tone of voice guidelines for clients of all shapes and sizes. And critiqued a fair few too.
Here are the main pitfalls we tend to see, handily collated for your perusal.
No need to thank us. This is better than therapy.
No more guessing games
Our Tone Test made it to Communicate Magazine
The Von Restorff effect, or why we remember what’s weird
And that’s why you can – and should – start sentences with ‘and’
For some people, starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ is just plain wrong - no matter how long writers have been banging on about it being fine. As part of a team of behavioural science nerds and writers, perhaps I can use a bit of psychology to finally persuade you that not only is it okay – it’s often a hallmark of decent writing.
“It’s 2020. There’s no place for ‘apologies for any inconvenience’.”
Padders talks to PR Moment
COM-B, or sussing out what’s stopping you
Forget the ‘female email’ rules
In a writing workshop last week, someone said to me: ‘I’m trying to make my writing more confident. Particularly my emails. I think they’re too… female.’
I’ve heard this before. In fact, we’ve all been hearing it for years; from an app built in 2015 to a Fast Company article just last month. As women, we’re told to swerve certain ‘female’ writing habits in emails and presentations.
Here’s why it’s all nonsense.
Take your tone out of the drawer
Alex shares her wisdom in Global Marketing Alliance
Status-quo bias, or why we like what we know
Tone of voice: important but impossible?
All through this not-so-quiet news week, our research has been hitting headlines in places like The Drum, Yahoo, and Business Insider.
We’ve uncovered some handy nuggets about tone of voice and how it’s used across the world – so if you didn’t catch the column inches, here are the numbers again, and a bit of thinking on what they mean.
See the stats
Death to euphemism
Kirsty Hunt of charity Cruse Bereavement Care has a problem with the way we talk about death. Or rather don’t talk about it.
The mere-exposure effect, or ‘the more we see it, the more we like it’
Death, debt and serious stuff
From sign-up flows to shiny new websites, businesses spend months polishing the ‘wow’ moments in their customer experiences. But what about the trickier times? Like when customers owe you money? Or when they’re trying to close an account for someone who’s died?
We think these moments might be the real make or break of your brand, and so do the experts Hannah chatted to last week.
Read the write-up
Live chat sans frontières?
According to Erin Meyer in The Culture Map, good communication isn’t one-size-fits-all across the world. Different nations have different styles: how much context you use in conversation, how formally you address people.
It’s all making me wonder: is it possible (and fair) to hire an overseas contact centre, then tell them to ‘sound British’?
The curse of knowledge, or why no-one cares as much as you
How language lifts your customer experience
Padders on magic moments in Customer Experience Magazine
What does English stand for around the world?
As the world’s lingua franca, English pops up in just about every country around the world. But as an English-speaking Brit, I’m too immersed to know the job it does beyond these shores. So I asked the experts
Can leaders bottle what they’ve learned in lockdown?
Our latest round table was all about what being the boss looks like in this brave new world. We were joined by two insiders - Suzy Truckle, head of talent and leadership at Dixons Carphone, and Miguel Premoli, one of Walgreen Boots Alliance’s VPs of HR. And one expert observer – Joan O’Connor, executive coach at Think Purple.
Will brands need a new tone of voice after covid?
Padders talks to Just Marketing
‘You can’t just copy and paste your training into the virtual world.’
Alan talks to TrainingZone about learning in lockdown
The three paradoxes of virtual training
Last Friday we gathered together three wise heads: Wilhelmina John, L&D manager at PepsiCo; Ann Bridges, head of L&D at Marks & Spencer; and Trina Smith, whose job is to get the whole of HSBC around the world communicating in a more human way (and who’s responsible for lots of training).
Will coronavirus make contact centres more human?
Read Neil's piece in MyCustomer
Is a distinctive brand more trouble than it’s worth?
We’ve always said that it‘s a great way to stand out from the crowd.
But can it backfire?
We had a hypothesis that a distinctive tone is only worth it for brands people already like.
Neil talks lockdown language with the Evening Standard
Listen to the podcast
Can you Zoom with more oom(ph)?
Presenting everything virtually has certainly given us plenty of food for thought in the learning and development world. Has it changed everything forever? Is it the answer? Or another problem?
And most importantly: can we get better at it?
‘The power of free’, done properly
I have a complicated relationship with ‘free’.
Before I started at Schwa, I’d swerve the word as much as I could. To me, ‘free’ felt like word confetti: cheap, flimsy and absolutely everywhere.
Should you stay true to your brand in a crisis?
There are all sorts of benefits to being consistent. Which is why it’s weird that so many brands build the F-word – flex – into their guidelines. More on why that’s a terrible idea in this rant blog.
Can you nudge your way out of a crisis?
Couldn’t make our last coronavirus comms coaching session? Here’s what you missed.
All eyes have been on the behavioural scientists lately (and not always in a good way). Does behavioural fatigue really exist? Can a slogan keep the nation indoors? Arguments abound.
We need to talk about Sir David Attenborough's voice
Of course, we love him. And we trust him, too.
Five behavioural nudges keeping us busy in Animal Crossing
It makes perfect sense that the game of choice while we’re all stuck indoors is one where we can roam freely on a very socially distanced island. And while all games are designed to keep us hooked, Animal Crossing has kicked things up a notch.
It’s not about you
My inbox, probably like yours, is groaning under the weight of emails from business and CEOs about coronavirus. Some of them have important stuff to say – like supermarkets, airlines and banks.
What to watch for when you have emoji in your tone of voice
We often get asked if emoji belong in a tone of voice. And of course they can. Monzo is one of the best examples of getting them to fit right in. Once you’ve defined your tone it should be fairly obvious whether you’re the 🎉 type or not. But how you use them, well, that’s a bit more nuanced.
Is virtual training even better than the real thing?
I confess: I always thought that virtual training was second best. And often second rate (ouch). It’s okay. But not your first pick – right?
Wrong. Being forced to do it by what Harold Macmillan famously called ‘events’ (and what we call real life) I’ve completely changed my mind. Why?
Bad writing is bad for business
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: buzzword bashing season! This year it’s Vulture and the Atlantic; a few years ago it was this wonderful piece from the Guardian. But I wonder if we can get beyond ‘aren’t buzzwords annoying?’
The Boris Johnson tone of voice guidelines
‘Politicians all sound the same’, or at least that’s what people told us when we did some research at election time into the way they communicate.
Well, that’s not true of Boris Johnson. He doesn’t sound like anyone else, and that’s because he sticks to a tone of voice formula with a calculated consistency that most brands would kill for. (It’s a consistency no doubt honed by churning out column after column for the Torygraph.)
What makes training stick? We’ve got a few ideas.
We do a lot of training workshops. And we know sometimes – like great writing – great training can seem like magic.
But it’s not good enough to have a hunch (especially when people are paying for your hunches). We want to know why things work. And we’ve found behavioural science has a lot of the answers.
Be polite, please (and why rules are there to be questioned)
We do lots of work with people who write to customers. Especially angry customers who’ve had a lousy ‘customer experience’ and have put pen to paper, or typing finger to Twitter, to rant and rave. (We’ve all been one.)
You don't know how much you don't know
How well do you understand a toilet flush? Your kettle? The fridge?
You pull a lever and water runs. You flick a switch and water boils. You open a door and it’s cold. We get these things; we use them every day. Right?
Why learning about storytelling isn’t learning to tell a story
Everybody’s a storyteller now, aren’t they?
Brands. Corporate leaders. Content channels. Multi-platform experiences. They’ve all got a story to tell. Or at least one to sell. So it’s not surprising that we get asked to run storytelling workshops all the time.
Don't let your brand story become a bland story
Let’s play a game of ‘guess who?’. Here are three brand stories from three startup type companies. I’ve anonymised the giveaway bits, so you tell me: who’s talking?
No, Mr Trump. I expect you to lie.
Here’s a thing Trump tweeted today:
Why a flexible tone of voice is a waste of your time and money
There are a few questions tone of voice agencies get asked a lot. But there’s one that comes up way more than the rest: how do we build flex into our tone of voice?
My answer’s always the same: don’t.
Your tone of voice can shine when you say sorry
Picture it: some friends without kids have invited you round for a lovely grown up birthday party. You’ve brought a present, but the real gift is two hours minus Pokémon and plus wine. Red wine. Which you promptly spill all over their beautiful white sofa.
Why storytelling is for grown ups (and babies beat bullets)
When I tell people I run storytelling workshops they often look a bit incredulous. Why would something so childish be useful for serious work people with proper jobs?
Brain-hacking, I say.
Why brand consistency matters (it’s nothing to do with what all the agencies tell you)
If there’s one thing everyone in branding drones on about all the time, it’s that brand consistency is a good thing.
Time to redefine your brand voice?
When I started as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed business writer, my tone of voice projects felt different from how they feel today. Back then, it was often about proving that almost everyone prefers natural writing to formality, or explaining there wasn’t really that much of a distinction between ‘B2B’ and ‘B2C’.
Do you need a distinctive tone of voice?
Or, should your ideas do the talking?
What sticks in politics
The language of politics is heating up. Does the Prime Minister using phrases like ‘surrender bill’* coarsen public debate?
Trains, cheats and thank yous
Listen to Steve Martin on our podcast
Straws and paws over emissions and politicians
You’re turning down plastic knives and forks at Pret. You’re putting your recycling into the right bin at home. You’re carrying a water bottle wherever you go. Yup, like most of us, you’re probably doing your part to solve the plastic crisis.
The rise of the in-house writing guru
Meg talks to New Digital Age
Lessons from Language & Behaviour Club
On the 20th of June, just as Michael Gove slunk off into political obscurity, we launched our Language & Behaviour Club. Clearly the big news of the day.
An unhealthy obsession
What’s with the latest generation of brand buzzwords?
Only the writers can save us now
I bought some veg from Ant and Dec over the weekend. Well, not directly from them. They’ve lent their voices to M&S’s self-checkout machines. But what they definitely haven’t lent M&S is their personality.
Planes, trains and altering no-deal
During World War II, the RAF were losing a lot of planes to anti-aircraft guns. When they studied the planes that came back from missions, they noticed some areas tended to have more bullet holes than others. So they decided to make sure any new planes were reinforced in those areas.
What a green easter egg made me think about belonging
You might’ve heard it on the news or seen them on the shelves; Waitrose are re-releasing their chocolate avocado for Easter. It looks like this.
No writer’s an island
Growing up, I hated getting feedback on my writing (whether it was something I’d written for school or the latest story I was making up). I’d got it into my head that I had to do absolutely everything myself and that getting help was ‘cheating’. I was convinced you could either write well or you couldn’t. If someone helped me, it meant I wasn’t a good writer.
Why our money's on Up for Review to win the Grand National
Hannah & Nick
It’s Grand National weekend again, which means it’s time for us to use some ever-so-slightly spurious behavioural science to help you choose a horse that’s been underrated by the bookies.
Schwexperiment #1: Does alliteration have magical powers?
At Schwa HQ, hardly a day goes by without someone talking about the rhyme-as-reason effect. In a nutshell: if a statement rhymes, you’re more likely to think it’s true. (Think: A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.)
Could a mantra change your company culture?
Knowing ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ might encourage you to eat more healthily. But could a mantra change the way people behave at work, too?
Hiring managers, don’t lose your best candidates
You’ve got your employer brand.
What's a tone of voice, and why do you need one?
A tone of voice is a way of communicating that’s unique to your brand. Think of Innocent’s friendliness, First Direct’s straightforwardness and Virgin’s naughtiness. The idea is that by using the tone of voice consistently, from TV ads to Ts & Cs, people always get the same impression of who you are.
Who's really reading your writing?
At the start of their book ‘Nudge’, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein make a distinction between ‘Econs’ and ‘Humans’.
The golden rule for choosing a business name
If you’ve ever Googled around for naming advice, you’ll have seen all the usual tips like ‘don’t choose a name that’s hard to pronounce’ and ‘make sure the domain name’s available’. Those are fine, and you should absolutely follow them, but they won’t really help you decide your company name.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Do you remember going out on Christmas morning into the freshly fallen snow? Wearing matching hat, scarf, and gloves? Making snowmen and angels, having snowball fights, and sledding? Seems familiar right?
Steak, and the power of free
Spoiler alert: If you’ve not been to Flat Iron, or Le Relais de Venise, but are going to, and don’t want me to spoil the surprise, stop reading now.
Is following the crowd bad for business writing?
Ah, the herding effect. The idea that we, the human race, are far less free-thinking than we’d like to believe. And that if we see a crowd, we instinctively want to follow it.
Why Gareth Southgate was right to lose
After England lost to Belgium last week, a media debate raged about whether Gareth Southgate, England’s manager, had made the right decision in fielding a weakened team.
Adam’s guide to testing your writing
We’ve just had results back from a trial with a company that helps people get back into work. The sales team cold calls people who’ve been made redundant to offer a get-back-into-work package.
Why SuRie should have sung again
So, that’s Eurovision done for another year. We managed to escape the dreaded ‘nul points’ and SuRie heroically sung through, in spite of the stage invasion.
Let your body move to the change programme
For the last six months I’ve spent my Tuesday evenings singing in a choir.
Three reasons your next training programme won’t stick
We hate to break the bad news so close to Learning at Work Week. But, as much as people want to learn, they’re also incredibly good at forgetting or resisting new information.
Why our money’s on Ucello Conti to win the Grand National
Hannah & Nick
Ah, the Grand National. The one time a year when people who know nothing about horse racing feel compelled to have a flutter. And if you know nothing about it, how do you know where to put your money?
Why are there always oranges left in the fruit bowl?
Like most normal people, I like oranges more than bananas. But when I’m faced with the office fruit bowl I’ll inevitably go for the banana.
How can you spot a great new hire? Read their emails
It’s not as creepy as it sounds. According to this study from Stanford, changes in a new starter’s emails over their first six months could help you tell whether they’ll make the grade. Okay, it is a bit creepy.
The bald truth about fries
We’ve been chuckling at this story in the New Scientist. Some journalists (and a large number of optimistic balding people) have misinterpreted a piece of Japanese research, which seemed to suggest eating fries could cure baldness. Spoiler alert: it can’t.
What nurseries can teach us about tone of voice
According to this study about parents’ behaviour, mums and dads who once hurried to collect their children from nursery on time were much happier to be late when the nursery introduced ‘late fees’. When the nurseries stopped the fees, the parents’ habits didn’t change. In fact, they were even later collecting their children than before.
Doors, doors, I hate these doors
Do your doors make you feel stupid? Well, ours do.
GDPR: fighting nudge with nudge
Just about every business we work with is stressing about GDPR, not least because they’re worried they’re going to lose great swathes of customers from their marketing databases.
Our printer is smarter than I am
You know this message at the bottom of people’s email signoffs?
‘I’m not going to like this blog.’
‘Schwa? Who calls a company Schwa? I’ve never heard of them. I’ve looked them up and apparently they’re not all qualified behavioural scientists. Some of them are just writers and consultants who read a lot. Besides, I’m busy. Who has time to read blogs these days?’
Why science tells you to write short
There’s something consultants in professional services call the ‘thud test’.
A consultancy by any other name
Uh, what’s Schwa?
A brief history of Chris
From saving the world, to saving your words. Hopefully.
Get to know Chris
A brief history of Meg
I’m Meg, one of the creative directors. Like a true millennial, I don’t like to box myself in when I define what I do, so I normally mumble something about writing, training, naming and tone of voice.
Get to know Meg
A brief history of Pascalle
Organising is her middle name
Get to know Pascalle
A brief history of Alex
I’m Alex, and I’m a creative director. I rummage around brand personalities, which means I’ve been the voice of detergent, ice cream, oil paint, margarine, and dogs, to name but a few.
A brief history of Nick
Although we usually deal in words, there’s no escaping the importance of the numbers, and as a finance guy with a career spent across communications, marketing, and advertising, there’s not much I haven’t come across.
A brief history of Padders
I’m Nick, or Padders (because we have two Nicks), and I do a lot of our tone of voice and naming work, as well as anything that falls onto the wordy side of brand strategy.
A brief history of Hannah
I’m Hannah, one of our creative directors. I mostly talk to clients with knotty cultural problems or tricky technical reports (when I’m not at home writing children’s stories about giants and space pirates, that is).
A brief history of Neil
I’m Neil, one of the founders. I mainly spend my life running workshops and training people - my mum once said ‘your job is just showing off really, isn’t it?’
A brief history of Jim
I’m Jim, one of the founders. I‘ve got a mixed bag of a job, sorting out where the company’s going, how we’re going to get there, and dealing with all the commercial stuff along the way. Oh, and throw in marketing too.
A brief history of Alan
I’m Alan, Mr Training. I’m a workshop junkie: put me in a room with a bunch of strangers and a communication challenge and I come alive. Sit me at a desk in an office and . . . I’d rather not.