Alan Siegel on how to embrace simplicity in communication and build a distinctive brand voice

Over the past five decades, Alan Siegel has become one of the best-known figures in the branding business. A pioneer in brand identity and the creator of the concept of "brand voice", he has devoted his entire career to helping organisations achieve greater recognition and relevance.

In 2011, Alan founded Siegelvision to focus on solving tough branding and communications problems for various household names – Xerox, American Express, Caterpillar and the Girl Scouts of America have all benefited from his expertise.

One of his most notable achievements was pioneering the practice of simplification in communication, bringing clarity to such daunting and complex documents as insurance policies, bank loan notes and tax forms. Alan’s book, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, which he co-wrote with longtime colleague Irene Etzkorn, was released in 2013 to critical acclaim.

Now he's back with a new book, Voice Lessons – Navigating the Complex Cultural Landscape to Build a Brand Voice. We spoke to Alan about this and much more.

When it comes to communication, why do you think so many get it wrong and over-complicate things?

There are multiple reasons. They are lazy and don’t take into consideration who they are addressing. They might be scared or incapable of being simple and clear. They could be trying too hard to be original or clever. Or they use the technical language used by specialists in their business or profession.

You're a champion for simplicity and clarity – how did this begin?

Citibank asked me in the late 1970s to redesign forms and contracts – mortgages, instalment loan notes, applications – to conform to their graphic standards manual. These documents were written and designed by lawyers and frequently updated. They were scary looking, incoherent, full of illegal provisions and impossible for customers and even employees to read. I never found anyone in the bank, including their law staff, who actually read any of these documents.

I convinced Citibank that being the first bank to create and use simplified legal documents would reinforce their reputation for being a leading-edge financial institution. They reluctantly gave me a small budget to demonstrate that this could be accomplished given the violent objections from their distinguished law firm. So, I locked myself in my cellar with Dr Rudolph Flesch, a linguist who wrote a book on simplifying writing, and we created a simplified instalment loan note that could be read and understood by anyone with a 10th-grade education. The result converted the consumer credit lawyers at the bank and they worked with us to get this note into the marketplace.

The principles we used to simplify this complex mess involved reorganising the document into sections, presenting them with bold headings in the sequence people would read them, using personal pronouns for the parties to the contract, using short sentences and clear language, defining legal terms when they were required and developing a visual format that projected the dignity of a legal contract while signaling that this was something that was accessible and easy to read.

The most compelling insight was that you have to streamline the content before you start organising and writing. We translated a 278-word section describing the conditions of loan default into "you will be in default if you don’t pay on time" when we learned that the bank information systems couldn’t track a whole range of events that essentially led to not paying on time.

A before and after comparison of the old note and our simplified version was very dramatic and attracted nationwide attention in the national and banking press. It was the foundation for my becoming the spokesperson for simplification as I built and trained staff, taught a course on drafting simplified contracts at Fordham University School of Law, co-founded a graduate programme at Carnegie Mellon University focusing on simplifying communications, and wrote and published a The Wall Street Guide to Understanding Finance that was used as guide by media companies.

Have you seen communications improve over the years, or do we still have a long way to go?

These are challenging times with the Internet and social media replacing traditional media, dramatic advances in technology that are bringing dramatic changes in our lives and introducing a massive new vocabulary, a publish or perish mentality fostered by the Internet and the focus on politically corrective language.

All these disruptions stand in the way of improving communications. I require anyone who applies to my firm for an internship or a job to send samples of their writing along with their resume. Recently, their samples have confirmed my suspicion that communication skills have again begun to erode over the past five years.

As you say, communications is now spread across many different platforms. As creatives, how do we ensure we keep things clear and consistent?

You have to create a comprehensive communications programme – what I call "Voice" – that integrates a distinctive character for the way you speak across all platforms, your messages, visual language and guidelines for delivering what you promise to all audiences. When we present the programme, we demonstrate how it will work across all platforms.

Rather than just training the communications executives, designers and advertising team, you must train the entire organisation, including the senior executives, on how to work with the voice programme since everyone is communicating daily with email, adding information to the website and actively participating in social media.

A distinctive, compelling and clear voice is the critical ingredient in attracting attention, connecting and generating supportive behaviour with your internal and external audiences.

You have a new book, Voice Lessons – Navigating the Complex Cultural Landscape to Build a Brand Voice. Can you provide an overview?

Over the years, I've watched corporate voice pushed into the corner of being about the writing style used by the communication and design staff while I was having great success elevating voice into the primary deliverable for my clients. The book provides six guidelines I’ve used for creating expansive voice programmes paying particular attention to the issues of senior management and marketing and communication executives.

Some of the issues I address relate to how building an organisational voice programme that expects the unexpected and responds quickly and effectively.

Was there something in particular that sparked this latest book?

When I introduced the concept of "Voice" in connection with the corporate identity programme I developed for 3M, a printing company asked me to make a speech to present the concept and produce a book that identified corporate voices that were instantly recognisable. I presented voices that fused language, design and content to convey their distinctive personality, culture and communications. Over the years other branding consultants put voice into their list of deliverables for their clients. They developed four or five words to describe the voice and if pushed to take it further, they concentrated on the writing style.

In the last couple of years, I have learned that voice is a powerful concept that integrates and expresses all of the components that make up an identity. When my team presents an identity programme we find that forging the strategy, positioning, messaging and experience into a voice in one full step expedites the development period and provides the client with an accurate and understandable presentation of their identity.

I learned that you don’t really understand a concept until you write about it. And this has been validated for me once again as I’ve been writing this book.

What is a key lesson you would like people to take away?

A distinctive, compelling and clear voice is the critical ingredient in attracting attention, connecting and generating supportive behaviour with your internal and external audiences.

You've studied hundreds of companies to learn how these distinctive voices emerge. Can you elaborate on how the most effective are created?

I spell out six guidelines in the book:
1) define your purpose
2) develop a distinctive, bold positioning
3) prepare a set of core messages
4) create a voice that is human, personal and responsive
5) make sure your voice is authentic, personal and responsive
6) plan for the rapid emergence of communications driven by AI.

What steps can creatives take today, right now, to improve and define their own brand voice?

There are a number of distinctive qualities to Siegelvision’s solutions:

  • Use what I call "the inside out approach" to developing findings and recommendations – building the solutions from the knowledge base of the clients.
  • Replace generic and predictable mission and vision statements generated by a committee with dynamic purpose statements that drive decision making and generate passion with employees.
  • Build identity statements and bold, distinctive positioning.
  • Translate these strategies into a corporate voice programme integrating how they speak, their messages, a visual language and guidelines for delivering what they promise to all audiences.
  • Ensure the voice is clear (people understand it), credible (it delivers what it promises) and most important generates supportive behavior (people will try the product or services, want to work there, support the company in a crisis, buy stock, etc.)

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