By Michele Linn published January 21, 2016

Focus Your Marketing: Define Your 3(ish) Critical Words

focus-your-marketing-cover

Kind. True. Necessary.

Those are the three words my good friend uses to help her kids understand whether they are making good choices with what they say.

“Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary,” she asks when they may have said something that is rude or unintentionally hurtful.

I initially thought her approach was a bit out there, but I decided to see if it would help my young children think about what they say and how they say it. A few months in, I have to admit that this new system has led to a bit of enlightenment in my household. My 8-year-old now can express why she may not have chosen the right words. And she does seem to share fewer unnecessary (ahem: correcting-people) stories.

I think about these three words – kind, true, and necessary – not only at home but also in the context of content marketing.

What three words describe your content?

Why you need three words

While your three words aren’t magic beans that will transform your content, they will help your brand to have a consistent voice. They can serve as instant reminders to editors and writers of how your content should be written and how your stories should be told.

3 simple words are essential in making sure your #content has its own personality. Click To Tweet

Marcia Riefer Johnston, CMI’s content strategy managing editor, recently published an excellent piece on the steps your organization can take to find its voice. In it, she explains why having one voice is so challenging, yet so important:

“The trouble with companies is that they tend to be full of people, and people insist on having separate personalities and distinct voices … Companies are looking for loyal customers. Loyal customers are loyal because they get to know a company and trust it and like it and want to spend time and money on that company’s products and services.”


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Your voice applies to many aspects of your content. As Marcia explains, your voice includes:

  • Words
  • Syntax – the order of your words
  • Sentence length
  • Sentence structure
  • Punctuation
  • Metaphors

Look at how voice differs in a simple “wait-while-we-search” screen from Spirit and Delta Airlines:

Spirit-airlines

Delta-airlines

Neither approach is better than the other, but each communicates a distinct brand perspective. You get a sense of the airlines simply by observing how different their tones are.

If your #content sounds like everyone else, chances are you haven't identified your 3 words. Click To Tweet

Ann Handley – a proponent of the three-ish word approach – explains voice in another way:

“If the label fell off … would people know it was you?”

Kevan Gilbert offers this explanation of the importance of voice:

“With this deathly dull nonsense [that we often write], we make a universe where meaningless phrases abound, simplicity is avoided, and jargon reigns. It’s time to stop. It’s rude to write like that. Voice and tone guidelines can help establish professionalism without drifting into corporate blah.”

He adds this:

“As a reaction to ‘corporate blah,’ some writers have swung the other way into ‘casual blah,’ where they adopt a tone of chattiness in order to appear more personable, regardless of whether it suits the brand. You should be careful to avoid this.”

Part of the content marketing lens

While an editorial mission statement is an insanely useful lens on its own, you also should ask yourself if your content – from text to videos to podcasts and everything in between – sounds like your organization’s voice. You should be able to ensure that consistent voice and message more easily.

At CMI, we review content asking not only these questions related to our mission …

  • Does this advance the practice of content marketing?
  • Is this for enterprise marketers?

… but also this question related to our voice:

  • Is this written in a way that is authoritative, approachable, informative, relatable, and entertaining?

In full disclosure, we are using these next exercises to update our voice guidelines. Keep reading to learn how to do so for your own brand too.

Your path to three words

There are a few ways you can get to your words. Marcia suggests going through an exercise called, “This, Not That.” In it, you define which adjectives define your tone of voice – and which don’t. We did this exercise when we updated CMI’s blog guidelines last year. (To be honest, we were “inspired” by MailChimp’s style guide).

Marcia also has a few pointers:

  • Don’t use adjectives like “cutting edge” because they are meaningless and unhelpful.
  • Don’t borrow anyone else’s voice.

Another way to arrive at your three words is to use the approach outlined by Micah Daigle in which he explains how Asana (a project management tool) rebranded itself. While this article covers many aspects of rebranding, I adore and often refer to the part about how Asana came up with the words it considers to be the guiding star for its brand: empowering, purposeful, quirky, and approachable.

OK, that’s four words. The idea is to pick enough words to capture a multifaceted voice but not so many words that no one will remember them. Let’s just say that if you want to help content creators express your organization’s unique voice in a useful way, you probably need at least three words – it’s a good start and it may be all you need.

Now, back to what Asana did. Micah Daigle explains,

“That simple metaphor — our brand as a person — became a core aspect of our thinking from early on. We frequently circled back to a simple question when we needed direction: ‘If Asana were a person, what would they be like?’”

This question was the guiding light, and they asked people in their company to answer it. The team culled the responses – there were thousands – and came up with an initial set of six core attributes that they shared with the entire team (you can see below) and ultimately, with the help of their rebranding agency, pared it to four.

asana-brand-voice-attributes.png

Throughout the company, people immediately folded these words into their conversations: “I like that this e-mail (text) is really empowering, but could it be more playful?”

Also worth noting is that Asana gave each word a short description so everyone was on the same page with how the word should be interpreted.

I also like this exercise from Kevan who suggests using this structure to help everyone in the company get on the same page for each word.

Structure-same-page-words

Other examples of three words

At Content Marketing World, we asked a few brands which words they use. Amanda Todorovich from Cleveland Clinic shared:

“[We have] three words: Useful, helpful, and relevant. It’s about content that’s useful, helpful, and relevant to patients. Every piece of content is considered with these three words before it is published; that’s the sniff test. We have it front and center. It’s written on boards and slides. It’s constantly in front of us and at the heart of us.”

While expressing an organization’s voice in three words is not a novel concept, it’s something that can be incredibly powerful as you refine how your brand can sound like you – and like no one else.

I’d love to hear from you: Are you using three(ish) words as guiding principles for your brand voice?

Want to expand your content strategy skills? Register today for the Intelligent Content Conference March 7-9 in Las Vegas.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Michele Linn

Michele is the Vice President of Content at the Content Marketing Institute. She is one of those people who truly loves what she does and who she works with. You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn.

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  • Mike Myers

    This is great, Michele. We, too, try to use three words as a guide when creating content…I call them the TRU test. Is it true? Is it relevant? Is it useful? Amazing how you can start to see many of the same words or ideas appearing in different people’s/brand’s lists. Very interesting post!

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Thanks for adding your three words, Mike. It is interesting that many marketers may be using similar words — but I wonder if the words mean the same thing for everyone? (For instance,m true could be accurate, truthful or true to the brand). I like how Asana defines each of their words. Appreciate the comment!

  • Afryrear

    I love this idea! It’s a great point of entry for creating a meaningful content strategy, particularly if your team isn’t ready to tackle more involved methods like personas or content strategy statements. Going to go see if I can boil our voice down to three words now :)

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Thanks, Andrea. I personally would tackle questions such as audience and mission first, but everything works together. I’d love to hear how this works for you and what words you come up with. It’s a fun exercise!

  • https://primefocuslab.com/ Nigel Merrick

    Hi Michele

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article and great examples. I was unable to keep it just to 3 words, so went with the (ish) version :-) Here’s what I came up with:

    Simple: Clear, concise, and efficient advice that can be implemented with the least amount of hassle.

    Purposeful: Goal-focused, deliberate action aimed at getting results.

    Motivational: Inspiring self-belief, generating confidence, and spurring people into taking action today.

    Disruptive: Bucking trends, ignoring fads, taking a non-conformist, evidence-based approach on a different path to blindly-accepted industry norms.

    Thanks for the much-needed nudge!

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Ooh, I like these, Nigel. So thrilled to hear the post helped you take action — and so quickly!

      • https://primefocuslab.com/ Nigel Merrick

        It did, thanks Michele – I knew I had to do this now before it got put on the back burner :-)

  • http://isitedesign.com/ carmenhill

    This sounds so (deceptively) simple :) It’s incredibly important, but can also be incredibly difficult to get consensus on. Just as the people in your organization have multiple personalities and distinct voices, they also have lots of OPINIONS. So I think it’s important to have a process for gathering that input in a respectful way but then applying the filter of your editorial mission and content strategy. Our company, Connective DX, rebranded last year and landed on these three words: inspiring, personable and direct.

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Ah, yes, deceptively simple, but well worth the effort. And great three words, Carmen!

  • Caroline Holmes

    Insightful. Simple. Shareable. Great post – thank you @cminstitute:disqus . At Stratton Craig, we set our three words, that underpin everything we do for clients, as: Think. Do. Review. – almost always in that order!

    For our clients, we’ve found that when it comes to written communications (or any comms really), success comes from doing the ‘thinking’ part of a project first, then the ‘doing’ (writing), then the reviewing. Each informs the other and keeps everyone on track when it comes to writing briefs, strategy, objectives etc.

    As @@carmenhill:disqus commented – ‘(deceptively) simple :)’

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Love your words, Caroline. Thanks for sharing them!