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


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:



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.


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.


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?

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute