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The spontaneity of voice

To promote its new subcompact, the Ford Focus (original name: The Ford FocusGroup), designed for first-time car buyers, Ford Motor is going to start running live television ads. Ford says that it hopes the inevitable errors and rough spots in live ads will cut through the cynicism of its target demographic, i.e., college grads realizing that their major is actually an embarrassment on their resumes.

Ford is right. Spontaneity is everything because voice is everything.

The Web is teaching us to talk in our own voice and to distrust and then disregard those who do not. Your voice, in this sense, isn't the product of your vocal cords. Your voice is how you present yourself in public. It includes the words you use, your attitude, your sense of humor, your body language, your courage, your doubts. And since we are social beings, your voice is you (although we often prefer the safety of thinking that our real self is the one we keep hidden, a bizarre notion).

Business, on the other hand, for the past hundred years has tried to define itself by presenting a uniform corporate message via brochures and legalisms mouthed by all employees. If you do not mouth the words carefully crafted for you, you face the firing squad.

We call this corporate fascism "marketing" to make it seem OK.

The way to get voice back into business is not to encourage people to mouth off by giving them a corporate bulletin board, a corner of the corporate portal or a bin in the centralized knowledge repository. Ghettoizing voice is a bad and dangerous thing to do.

A better way to help return voice to the workplace is to encourage spontaneity. Yes, spontaneity, the scourge of business because business is all about control, management, and predictability. Allow spontaneity and voice will emerge.

Without spontaneity, there can be no human voice. When you're staffing a booth at a trade show, if you're only saying what you've been told you're allowed to say, if every answer has to be yes, then you're not speaking in your own voice. If you're doing technical support and are not allowed to tell the customer anything not previously vetted, you're not speaking in your own voice.

Permit and encourage spontaneous talk inside and outside your corporate walls, and people will find their voice.

And what an impact you'll have! We have all gotten used to speaking in the corporate voice and hearing the corporate voice coming through every medium, from television to magazines to ads pasted on the escalator risers. We've learned to tune as much of it out as possible. So, hearing a human voice coming from a corporation is as surprising as having a sparrow perch on your knee. We respond with warmth, with glee, with increased customer satisfaction statistics.

Voice is viral and will infect every type of communication, from telephone calls, to meetings, to stand-up presentations, to E-mail, to Net discussions, to corporate awards presentations, to the look and feel of the cubicles where the lifers are doing time.

But can a business afford to give up control? Let me put this differently: Should we agree to let the sun rise tomorrow? Business has lost control. The Web already exists and it routes around censorship. Attempts to limit Web access to achieving business objectives are as hopeless as corporate directives dictating that workers shall not use the phone for personal calls.

Ah, but if you're not going to discipline everyone to always say exactly the same thing in exactly the same words ("No, Jenkins, for the 100th time, it's 'The world's leading manufacturer of enhanced software for maximizing supply chain relations' not 'We help you screw your partners!' "), then how does the company stay "on message?"

Rather than training people on scripts, you need to develop a corporate story from which all people can speak with authority, each in his or her own way. A corporate story isn't fiction. It's the narrative that explains who the company is, what it stands for, how it got that way. That will probably mean helping people un-learn the bitter, cynical story they've picked up during their time at your company.

You may also have to actively start prodding people to drop the corporate monotone and start talking like a real person. We've been way too successful in training ourselves to sound like everyone else.

You'll also have to raise your tolerance for mistakes. There is no spontaneity in a perfect world.

And if your portal is just another way for you to push information to your company and to broadcast happy messages from The Management, it will smell like the Roman galleys that were characterized by silence, teamwork coordinated by whips and the fierce resentment of the "team" being so efficiently "managed."

So, go ahead, say something unexpected today. And savor the shocked pleasure of those within hearing distance.

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