With the arrival of digital, the use of language has undergone profound change. Jeanne Bordeau, an advisor on language and modes of expression, recommends that company heads take stock of this linguistic revolution, fast.
L’Atelier caught up with Jeanne Bordeau at the launch of her manifesto entitled: “Le langage des dirigeants : une métamorphose” (Language of leadership undergoing metamorphosis’). She is the founder and director of the Institut de la qualité de l’expression (Institute for Quality of Expression), which carries out language audits and advises on company language creation for both major corporations and smaller firms.
L’Atelier: How has digital impacted company communication?
Jeanne Bordeau: Digital has liberated words. Up until 1995 or 2000, words were fixed in fairly rigid patterns. Now the language of digital is a composition with a variety of rhythms. In the past, company leaders’ words carried authority. But we have moved from a language of authority to a language of interaction. And it’s this sharing of information which has killed the concept of ‘the little chief’, a fairly well-known figure up to that point. Now what we’re seeing is a sort of verbal traffic-jam: everybody at the company wants to talk, whether it’s the head of the company, the director of sustainable development, or the head of communication. Now the solution is partly to communicate less, but first and foremost to communicate better and more appropriately. Digital is now the beating heart of the company. And of course communication is no longer the job of just one man; it’s the job of the whole company. Language inside the company has also been freed up. An employee can now say what s/he feels, and people talk much more freely and honestly. Digital has created a flow of communication. In the past information always came broken down into small chunks, but now everyone has become a story-teller.
L’Atelier: Are companies responding to these changes?
Jeanne Bordeau: Ten years ago I was already saying that digital would change everything. And we’re only just at the beginning. What has happened is the absolute opposite of what people thought would happen. Nowadays we’re not writing less, we’re writing more and showing more. But we still haven’t invented proper multimedia writing; today the language of the web is still rather stilted and monotonous. But companies are beginning to move on this. What needs to happen is that the head of the company should take on the role of Editor-in-Chief and set the editorial tone for the company. Leaders should speak less, but to greater effect. They need to use language that’s less one-dimensional, and more sincere and clear. Firms should develop their own way of talking and writing and tell their story without ‘telling stories’ – i.e. without lying. Consumers will be drawn to firms that show this kind of responsibility.
L’Atelier: Is story-telling the new communication strategy?
Jeanne Bordeau: We’re seeing companies develop ‘brand content’. Digital has created conversation time and brands are now having to talk about themselves and tell their stories. Take the example of Bobbi Brown, creator of the American make-up brand of the same name. In order to convey information, the brand has posted video tutorials on its Internet site. But that’s not all. The founder tells her own story, because the customer has to be able to relate to the story. The huge range of technologies available to a company means that it can do this. What’s happening is amazing; companies can be purveyors of dreams. In the same way as they have created specific graphical guidelines and charters, each company now needs to create a ‘semantic charter’ to be followed both externally and internally. They shouldn’t try to be too sophisticated but they do need the determination to get the message across. And they need to create their own semantic signature. A strategic language planner can help with this. It’s rather like being a composer, creating a semantic ‘signature tune’ for the firm.
L’Atelier: How do you create a semantic signature?
Jeanne Bordeau: First of all we need to carry out a linguistic audit at the company so that we can see and hear what needs to be done. Then we put our expertise to work, highlighting the good aspects and the drawbacks of the language that the company is currently using. We aim to draw up a list of the pearls and gems which already exist and highlight them. We then draw up a language grid so that companies can get a grasp of their own linguistic grammar, which differs from company to company. For example, the language of l’Oréal would not be the same as that of a smaller business. We further analyse the written language – both that being used with customers and that of employees generally. The findings of these analyses lead to the drafting of a unique semantic charter, the company’s very own charter, which provides the basis for the firm and its people to communicate both internally and externally.