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The Turing test for business

"Businesses don't know how to sound any more. This is because they don't know how to *be.* And this is because the scene in which business happens has been switched. It's like lifers who have been only able to communicate by tapping on the walls being taken one day to a prom where they're told, "OK, the walls are down. Invent a new way to communicate." Do they make small talk? Do they dance? Do they go straight to the dirty parts? Or do they find a hard object and go back to tapping?

Lots of forces have conspired to change the scene, but the Web is foremost. It's given the market a way to talk with itself, to discover that it really does consist of individuals -- real people -- and that we no longer have to accept the old common denominator view of us. We've discovered that we can support each other better than the vendors can because not only is our knowledge born of experience, we tell one another the truth. We've discovered that in talking with one another, we do more than swap information. We actually have contexts -- AKA lives -- that engage in unpredictable ways that range from the amusing to the stirring.

Now we go to talk with our vendors, the people selling us the stuff we care about, and we hear the same old patter, although sometimes it's been repackaged in a one-to-one manner that says: "Choose us. We're the company that really, really pretends to care."

Businesses haven't figured out how to talk to us because they haven't figured out how to *be* in this new scene. "What's my motivation, CJ? What are my lines? And what are we trying to achieve with this scene, CJ?"

Some things are clear, however. The paper wall that companies have erected around themselves are being knocked down fast. The marketing literature, sales guides, corporate slide shows and happy-face t-shirts designed to keep customers from seeing what's really going on inside the company are all looking pretty pathetic. And companies erect exactly the same paper walls inside so that their own employees won't penetrate to the secret truth.

What is that truth? Get ready for a shock: Businesses are run by fallible humans who don't really always know what they're doing, who are frightened, who make mistakes, who are blind to their own faults, and who -- less forgiveably -- think that greed is a virtue and admitting fallibility is a weakness.

The paper wall is tatami: it only keeps us from hearing what's going on in the next room so long as we've willed ourselves into not hearing. And we, the market, the people, have lost our will to be deaf.

One great virtue of the paper wall is that it allowed companies to master a single type of rhetoric that would be acceptable for all occasions and all listeners. That this rhetoric is highly artificial and just plain weird -- as fake and contrived as the badinage in a French court -- won't really strike us until we've all stopped talking that way. In other words, 23 skiddoo, kiddo.

Now businesses are going to have to learn to speak the way humans do. Not in any one voice, but in many voices.

In case you've forgotten, here's what human voices sound like:

  • - Each has a point of view that may be in line with some corporate interest but isn't identified solely with that interest.
  • - They have attitudes that are embodied in things like rhythm, word choice, pitch, hesitation. There's not a richer human medium, except maybe for the human face.
  • - Voices talk for a reason, not just to fill the space between cash register rings. The reasons are hugely varied and deeply inform the content that is being conveyed. It is only very rarely that humans speak merely to convey information...and even when they're pronouncing their credit card numbers digit by digit, they're doing so not merely for the joy of transferring data.
  • - It follows from this, by the way, that the voices you hear are almost always inspired by a basic optimism. They speak because they think that by so doing, mere voice can bring about success. And the project they want to succeed with is a collaborative one with you. Do you think maybe there's an economics that can be built on this fundament?
  • - Human voices don't speak all the time. They sometimes do this thing where they stop speaking. We call it "listening," but it really is more than just being silent. It means trying to learn what the other person's interests are and understanding how the world looks to them. But this is an advanced topic that we should save until you've gotten your feet wet.

Now we get to the really, really hard stuff. Voices come from individual humans. Everything else is just the sound of a voice, an imitation, a trick. But corporations aren't individual human beings. So how can a corporation have a voice?

Don't despair. It can be done.

First, try letting people speak for themselves as well as for the corporation.

  • Let your customer support people admit in frank words, in embarrassed words, in funny words -- in their own words -- that your products don't always do what they should. Let them become advocates for your customers.
  • Take the Powerpoints away from your sales folks and give them corporate mythology, history and narrative they can speak in their own voices.
  • Tell your marketing people that nobody believes their brochures anymore. Customers want lots of information, and then the opinions from people they trust. Maybe ... it'll be hard, but just maybe ... some voices in marketing can gain customer trust by speaking as humans proud of the company they work for.
  • Oh, and smash the printing press that publishes the corporate newsletter. It's just embarrassing you.

Second, let your corporate personality emerge. It's there. It may be frightening and you may feel like Sybill for awhile, but ultimately the cacophony of voices will result in a look, a feel, a sound, a style, an approach, a point of view, an attitude, a sense of humor, a sense of decency, a sense of outrage.

Third, listen. Your market is just beginning to find its voice, too. Do not be ashamed.

Begin with the sound of joy

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