“I’ll make this short: The thing you’re doing now, reading prose on a screen, is going out of fashion.”
An article on the New York Times opened with these words, last week.
The article argues that text and the written word are dying, and Audio and Video will be our new overlords from now on. Or something to that effect: the king is dead, long live the king.
Haven’t read something so wrong in years. Words are great at being words. Or, to paraphrase Douglas Adams: Words are sharks.
The writer once described books as sharks. Sharks were swimming the oceans before there were dinosaurs, and “the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.” Books, he argued, are sharks too. The right size. Never run out of charge, don’t break, don’t crash. Great UX: ridiculously user-friendly.
Words are sharks too.
Nothing is better at being words than words. They are universal. They are easy and practical and cheap. They’re quick. You can make words out of nearly anything. Some words have lasted thousands of years. Some words might, with the internet and whatnot, last forever.
The words Fuck the police sprayed on a wall will give you a pretty clear message. Clearer than, for example, walking into an art gallery to look at pieces that explore the yoke of power authorities in our modern, consumerist society. Sure, we love gifs and emojis – but we’re not going to end up teaching them to kids in pre-school. You can quote me on that.
Facebook bots are a good example of this.
Enter the first 11,000 Bots
When Facebook launched its chatbots for Messenger, it gave the public access to thousands of new bots. This was big news.
You probably remember the bot race. Overnight, every company, startup and agency scrambled to get their own bots live. You didn’t want to be that one company without a bot. 3 months after the Facebook launch, there were 11,000 active chatbots on Facebook.
This was more than just a hype, a bandwagon or a fad. In theory, they were good for customer support. They were good for sales. They served everybody the same way. At the same time. The bots were even good for clients, who could find support immediately, at any hour of the day. And they weren’t particularly expensive to deploy.
In short: they were good for business.
The appeal of these bots, although most people didn’t realise it at the time, was the power of non-voice. Non-voice is good for business.
The thing about voice
Voice is expensive.
Deploying the human voice in your business is really expensive. If the company you work for is truly — or wants to be — global, then you need customer service and sales people that speak 192 different languages, running 24h a day, to give global support to all your potential clients. People that have to be trained, managed, and occasionally replaced.
An artificial voice is cheaper — but not by much. 60 years after the first chatbot was invented, we still only have “functional” voicebots from Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
And if you’ve had any experience with them, it’s ridiculously hard to get right: raise expectations too high, and you’re on a fast track to disappointment. To be global, you need voice recognition to work well (which is hard), on any language (harder), on any accent (epic levels of hard here).
By 2017, Alexa could still only speak one language. Siri speaks 21, but there have been complaints about how she can still be so poor at understanding what the user says in regular English. Complaints about Siri not getting regional accents, from Boston to Southern American to Scottish, have plagued Apple for years now.
So that’s where non-voice comes: where it had always been. As I mentioned earlier, words are sharks.
Non-voice as a silver bullet
Cheaper, quicker, easier to deploy, easier to understand, more versatile and inclusive: all hail the written word!
Some tips to deploy non-voice in your business:
#1 K.I.S.S. me
Most internet users understand basic commands: login, buy, download, upload. Keeping it simple (easy to use and easy to understand) is your first objective.
If what you’re making isn’t simple enough to be used without an instruction manual or if what you’re saying isn’t simple enough to understand without a FAQ section, chances are you might not be saying it right.
So, it might be hard, but you could conceivably craft your company’s website to be so easy and basic even a baby could use it: it has been done before.
The easier it is, of course, the easier it will be to translate (wink). Which means you can reach wider and wider audiences as you go along.
#2 Find your own voice:
“Can you dial up the millennial?”
“Can you make it sound more premium?”
If you’re asking this sort of thing, you might want to rethink.
Get to know your audience. Get familiar with the competition. Get to know yourself and where you want your company to go. Somewhere in the middle you’ll find the sweet spot and speak in a way that will resonate with those you want to reach.
Start speaking like the company you want to become.
#3 Stick to it:
A friend asked me for feedback on their company’s new brand book the other day. On page 5, there was a list of “forbidden words” — words the company would never, ever use.
On page 6, one of those words is used as an example for a print ad’s copy.
Consistency is key. On your website, in your emails, across all your media. If you’re going to surprise, make sure it’s delightful, not because you’ve been neglectful.
[Ed: and now a word from our sponsors…]
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