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Do the words of superstar CEOs add value to a business?

Written by Chris West on Thursday, 06 January 2022. Posted in Insight, Analysis

What does it tell us, that every Christmas there’s another best-selling book about language?

Do the words of superstar CEOs add value to a business?

What does it tell us, that every Christmas there’s another best-selling book about language? From “Eat Shoots and Leaves” (more than 3 million sold) to this year’s “Word Perfect” by Susie Dent, it seems we’re all intrigued by the subtle magic of language. If reading about language can keep us all quiet for a few days after Christmas, is it time to start thinking about what language can do for us (and our businesses) for the rest of the year? 

In particular, is it time CEOs and leaders started to think about their own language? Can they add value to their own business just by crafting their language more carefully?

And perhaps just as importantly, can they wipe value off their business, just with words?

Leaders are often brilliant with their language: they get to the top because they have great persuasive powers.

But even the best of us can learn something from how the very, very best of us use language to launch a product or grow their business.

When Steve Jobs spoke at product launches, it wasn’t just the calm of his delivery: he really crafted his company’s tone of voice to create an impression of mastery and technological insight. And he didn’t make the one classic mistake we see a lot of business owners make.

As we say, ‘No one wants a friend with features…everyone wants a friend with benefits.’

So, when he introduced iPad, he didn’t talk about battery life in mAH. Instead, he said the amazing battery meant you could watch movies on iPad all the way from Silicon Valley to your holidays in Hawaii. 

Not all great leaders’ voices have to be modern. Who outside of small financial circles reads Annual Reports? Quite a few of us, it seems, when the author of the annual report is Warren Buffett. Through a careful polishing of his own tone of voice, he’s able to create a lasting impression of a straight-forward, traditionally wise, wealthy yet still down-to-Earth kind of guy. 

When you and I make mistakes, we might struggle to find the right way to explain it. But because of Warren Buffet’s investment in his tone of voice, even when one of their deals might not have worked out as the deeply wise persona would have suggested, he still comes out sounding, erm, deeply wise: 

"As is the case with marriage, business acquisitions often deliver surprises after the "I do's."

Every time we open our mouths, we have the chance to use language to reinforce our company’s values. 

Of course, that means we also have the chance to undermine our company’s value with language as well.

In 2021, it’s hard to say whether Elon Musk’s language added more value to TESLA than it took away. Certainly one impetuous outburst wiped $140b off TESLA’s value.

With 2022 looking like it’s not going to be any easier than 2021, what does a leader need to think about in their language and the tone of voice of their business?

In our work with businesses around the world (from Alphabet in Silicon Valley, to start-ups in London, via luxury jewellers in India), we’ve found that all language works on 3 levels, and defining those levels means your communication is clearer, faster and truly adds value.

Pulling the strings of every great business or leaders’ voice is a distinctive world view: What’s the world we believe in? And as we believe in that world, what do we stand for? And if we’re going to stand for that, what must we stand against?

You can consider this a 10,000 ft, over-arching narrative. It sets the limits of your and your company’s communications. It makes clear not just what you’ll be talking about, but the angle you’ll take on it.

At 1,000 ft you have the tone of voice. It’s that plain, folksy style of Warren Buffett or the modern, easy-to-understand style of Steve Jobs. Or the frank, confrontational style of Oatly.

The tone of your language is the way you choose to humanise your narrative and it creates a picture of you and your business in your team’s and your customers’ mind. 

Finally, there are the Ground Level Details: these include things like the words and phrase you do and don’t use.  

We’ve found that defining the Ground Level Details can save large companies hundreds of hours. And it can save CEOs from having to repeat themselves!

It’s language which made homo sapiens the most successful species. Why?

Because language is the way we can amplify our ideas and build relationships.

And what else is a CEO there for, than to amplify ideas and build relationships?

About the Author

Chris West

Chris West

Chris West is the Founding Partner of Verbal Identity and author of Strong Language: The Fastest, Smartest, Cheapest Marketing Tool You're Not Using. Available now 

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