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II: Voicing Identity / Voice Is Identity?

Voice, n.

1. the sound produced in a person's larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or song.

"Meg raised her voice"

2. a particular opinion or attitude expressed.

"a dissenting voice"

Google’s English Dictionary, Oxford Languages

Other definitions for ‘voice’ offered by Oxford Languages are, ‘to express (something) in words’, ‘an agency by which a point of view is expressed or represented’ and ‘​​the right to express an opinion’. ‘Voice’ possesses that deliciously slippery quality of being both a noun and a verb. It is, on the one hand, as simple as the product of vibrating vocal cords, and on the other, as complex and rich as identity, agency, human rights and freedom of speech. And sometimes these things overlap. My slight London drawl, for example – which means that any 1-syllable word with a hard vowel slips out, if I’m not focusing, as two syllables (my Hampshire-accented boyfriend finds my pronunciation of the word ‘nice’ especially amusing) – probably helps my fellow conversationalist, rightly or wrongly, make predictions about my occupation, my background, perhaps even my hobbies and interests.

Voices – and identities – are things we celebrate and demonise, we attach considerable value to them and we can’t help but associate certain voices with certain movements, ideas and concepts. So when we are talking about voice, we are indeed talking about ‘the sound produced in a person’s larynx’ but we are also talking about all of these other things. We are talking about politics and persuasion. We are talking about dissension and subversion. We are talking about good and bad, right and wrong. And on Twitter, we are doing all of that but in the strict confines of 280 characters!  We know the pen is mightier than the sword, and on 8 November 2022, we learnt that a tweet was mightier than the stock market when an impersonator’s tweet – “Insulin is free now” – erased over $15bn in market cap for US pharma company, Eli Lily.

In this entry I want to talk about that interesting space between voice and vocal identity; how do the two overlap? How do they reinforce each other? For our purposes, we might consider the larynx our platform – Twitter, television, LinkedIn, radio – and the resulting voice, the content medium – tweet, video, blog, sound. I want to consider the connection between voice and identity in the context of a climate company TFD worked with earlier this year. We supported EcoHedge, a carbon accounting startup in the climate space, with sharing the news of their first significant fundraising and creating content to more firmly establish the company’s identity.

When I first met EcoHedge’s CEO and Founder, Rob Smallcombe, he explained the company and the product to me with constant reference to tone of voice; it quickly became clear that, for EcoHedge, the two could not be disentangled. He explained that EcoHedge is for businesses of all sizes, that their messaging should be jargon-free and without unnecessary and excessive complication, and that their aim is to help businesses measure their carbon footprint effectively and inexpensively. Simple.

Not so simple, actually. The climate and sustainability movements are saturated with incomprehensible language which can feel exclusive and alienating. Rob summarised it well, I think, when I chatted to him about writing this blog: “When everyone is ‘the number 1 platform’ or ‘the most accurate’, no one is. Climate change is complicated enough for customers, without having jargon thrown at them repeatedly by hundreds of vendors”. This can be particularly difficult to swallow when one considers that climate inaction is not a triviality but a literal matter of life and death for a significant proportion of the world’s population.

Did you know there is a ‘Bureau of Linguistical Reality’ who are ‘assembling a new lexicon for people's experience of climate change and environmental upheaval’? (Richard Fisher, BBC Futures). I am fascinated by language and I love watching its evolution but it has to be said, it’s tricky to find your client’s voice when the very language of the industry is strictly TBC. There is at once too much language, too much noise, in the climate space, and not enough.

For EcoHedge, it was important for us to consider both where they were voicing (what platforms) and how to position their voice in a space that some would argue is already overpopulated. Lucky for us, EcoHedge had a strong sense already of what their voice was and how, in some way, it constituted their USP. Rob made that clear when, during an interview with TechRound, he answered the interviewer’s first question with, ‘The last thing the world needs is another carbon accounting start-up’.

Company voice/identity has a flexibility and mutability that it didn’t used to have: now we have different parameters to contort within, whether that is 280 characters, a 15 second Instagram story, a 10-minute TikTok, or a 1000–word byline. Rob explained that, “We start by asking ourselves, ‘why should we be saying anything at all?’. Our voice should be [our customers’] voice. We should listen before we speak. When we speak, we try to be pragmatic, relevant, but most importantly empathetic to their concerns about a serious, complicated and often polarising topic”.

He added, ‘Tone of voice is important at EcoHedge because it allows us to match our messaging to the authenticity of our purpose, which is empowering our customers to get to grips with a complicated topic, whilst they juggle other priorities. We believe that language guides thinking, so getting our tone of voice right is critical to not just engage, but to inspire’.

Getting your tone of voice right, getting it heard on the right platforms, is key; not only to ramp up likes and reactions, but to do what all disruptive and emerging technologies ultimately set out to do: inspire.

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