I recently spent most of an entire day at something called a “Human Era Language Summit.” As you might imagine, the topic of the day was: How do we make our corporate communications sound more human?
Several very well-known agencies were represented, and the event was held on behalf of a Fortune 50 company. The names aren’t important; the point I’m about to make applies to anyone in the same type of scenario.
There was the obligatory parade of PowerPoint presentations and before-and-after examples and rewriting exercises, of course. But what struck me most was that when I asked a simple question to about a half-dozen of the key presenters and organizers — Have you read The Cluetrain Manifesto? — the response was universal: “The what? Huh?”
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger don’t have a patent on the idea that companies need to communicate with people in a human voice. But they were among the very first in the modern digital age to articulate the idea in a way that predicted how companies everywhere would try to embrace that idea. For example, let’s review the first six of the 95 theses put forth by Cluetrain:
1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
But there’s also this:
14. Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.
33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can’t be “picked up” at some tony conference.
34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
35. But first, they must belong to a community.
36. Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.
38. Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.
There’s more, of course (95 theses in all, plus a lot more to the book), but you get the idea.
My point is this: The Cluetrain Manifesto, which was released in 1999 and rereleased in 2009 in a 10th anniversary edition, is one of the seminal digital marketing books. The idea that no one at this day-long “Human Era Language Summit” had even heard of it was stunning — akin to someone in the theater world having never heard of Shakespeare. Or Andrew Lloyd Webber.
As Michael Jordan once said, “You can have all the physical ability in the world, but you still have to know the fundamentals.”
But don’t just know the fundamentals, go back and refresh them once in a while. The best writers go back and reread The Elements of Style every year or three. Business leaders tend to reread books like Wooden on Leadership and The Art of War every so often.
Anyone and everyone working in the realm of business communications on any level needs a copy of The Cluetrain Manifesto — and needs to read it (or, for God’s sake, at least skim it) every once in a while.
Takeaway for marketers: Reading The Cluetrain Manifesto won’t cost you a dime: It’s available entirely for free right here.