One of the many things that I learned when I spent a couple of years working for a small consulting firm in the mid-00s was the importance of the second person pronoun. To be honest, given the paucity of my education in grammar at school, I had to look that one up: basically “you” and “yours”.

It was drummed into us for any proposal that we wrote for a prospective client that our language should focus on the second person (ie the client) rather than the first person (ie us). The reason? Well, because a proposal that was written in that way would strike a deeper resonance with the prospect because it would be far more empathetic. I was sceptical at first particularly when being asked to rewrite sections of proposal again and again, often late in the day before they would be due to be delivered to the company we were courting.

But all of a sudden it clicked into place for me: I had put together a bid for work with a big energy company to deliver a business partnering training programme for their HR and Finance teams. The reason we won the bid? Because they felt that our pitch had been far more focused on their needs than any of our competitors. And yet all I had done was to take a bunch of our existing content “off the shelf”, and been obsessive with the use of “you” and “yours”.

I’ve been reminded of all of this whilst looking at the language that is used on most big corporate websites; the balance of first person (I, We, Me, Us, My, Mine, Our, Ours) in comparison to second person is overwhelming. This is like arriving at the reception desk of a big office block and, rather than being politely asked “How can I help you?” being confronted by a full and exhaustive description of everything and everyone in the building. And what the receptionist had for breakfast and lunch to boot.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. Having been involved in more than a few corporate website designs over the years, the temptation to talk about oneself is strong, and made even stronger when everyone in the organisation is battling to have a piece of the web page action. It’s a little like a story a chap I know who has worked in the motor industry told me recently: in the auto trade, the dashboard of a car is sometimes referred to as Manhattan – there’s very little space, but everybody (as in all of the functional groups responsible for designing the various parts of a car) wants to be there.

The Manhattan-style of corporate web design leads to information overloaded, functionally poor design. Why, for example, have a content category entitled “About Us”? Take (for want of the fact that it’s currently Interbrand’s number 1 global brand) Coca-Cola: the UK site currently has top level menu items of:

  • Brands
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Community
  • Coming together
  • FAQs
  • About Us
  • and Press Centre

Which one of the other categories isn’t “About Us” there? I’m not trying to single Coke out here – most big brands do exactly the same thing.

How to make this better? Well, a starting point is thinking about information structures in terms of questions for a visitor: What are you looking for? or How can we help you? rather than just an endless list of categories of information about the various products and services that a business has to offer. As with corporate values, combining actionable verbs with second person pronouns makes for a more visitor-centric, empathetic experience than a long library of categories which has a tendency to assume that the visitor knows what it is explicitly that they want to find when they arrive.

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