Happy Vs Flourishing episode 7 features Ben Afia, a man who make companies more human – in their culture, brand and communications.
We learn bow changing your language, can change how people behave, help everyone connect, not just as employees with professional facades, but as humans. Which results in them being more energised, engaged and feel part of something bigger than themselves. They’re confident responding to customers’ changing needs so their companies find it easier to give customers what they promised.
Some items discussed:
- How language is used in a uniform way across corporations
- The importance of tone of voice
- The issues that can evolve because of the differences in tone of voice of different generations and different cultures
- How archeology helps with communication
- Why some companies are turning away existing customers because of the poor language are using
- Language is always evolving and how that should be taken into consideration
- Language rules vs language styles
- The difference it makes to your communication in using words of Anglo Saxon, French and Latin origin
- How can you create communication that resonates with all generations of the age scale
- Encouraging debt collectors to be more human!
- How the situation with COVID-19 is changing communication
Happy Vs Flourishing links:
Tony Winyard 0:00
Happiness versus flourishing episode seven. Welcome back to the podcast where we give you ideas on small changes you can make that can lead to a much more flourishing life, you can have a much more enjoyable life more meaning to your life as well. In today's episode, I speak with a man by the name of Ben Afia, who is an expert on communication and the use of language. And it's quite interesting revelations that Ben sort of tells me about in today's episode, such as the tone of voice and how the words we choose the massive difference it can make in appealing to different generations, and much, much more. So that's coming up very soon. why not subscribe to this podcast, and so you never miss an episode, we got some really good guests coming up, leave a review, the more reviews that we receive the more people, the more other people get the opportunity to find out about the podcast. If you do like this episode, or any of the other previous episodes, why not share it with someone, you feel free to get some more value from some of the things discussed. So right now it is time for this week's show. Happy versus flourishing. And my guest today, Ben Afia. How are you been?
Ben Afia 1:29
Great. Very good. Thanks, Tony. Thanks for having me on.
Tony Winyard 1:32
Why and thank you for coming on. And you're based in Nottingham?
Ben Afia 1:36
I am indeed Yeah, West Bridgeford, south of Nottingham.
Tony Winyard 1:39
Is that where you hail from?
Ben Afia 1:41
It's not I'm a North London or actually, I grew up in Pinner. And I wanted to get as far away from London as I possibly could. I haven't I didn't get very far because I ended up at University of Reading. And then my first job took me to Nottingham. So it wasn't quite far enough. But this is where I stayed.
Tony Winyard 2:00
And so that has intrigued me Why? Why was it that you wanted to get far away from London? What happened?
Ben Afia 2:05
Why do you know when you're a teenager and you feel a bit trapped, don't you I mean, at that time, sort of late 80s it was quite expensive to get into London. I don't think kids in those days had as much money as they do now. So to get the excitement of the city, if you're on the outskirts of London, it can be a little bit boring for a teenager content. So I wanted to find life and clubs and excitement and I thought Leeds Manchester Birmingham somewhere else was where it was
Tony Winyard 2:32
at. So we So you mentioned you went to university? And when after leaving University what what happened then what did you start to do?
Ben Afia 2:43
Well, I started in sales. I remember applying for a lot of marketing jobs. That's what I wanted to do. And the only jobs I got into got interviews for was sales jobs. So I ended up as a rep for web Repair Company. Travelling the Midlands, they took me up to Nottingham, travelling the Midlands selling beer to independent off licences. Yeah, sounds like fun. And it was for a few months, but then it got quite boring. It wasn't really the thing for me. So then I managed to get myself into into marketing jobs. I worked in recruitment briefly. I worked around a range of different companies. And what was marketing what you did at uni? Was that what you wanted to get into? It certainly wasn't actually Tony, it was archaeology. Yeah, I'm an archaeologist. So I was interested in how human beings evolved. Hmm. And actually, that does relate to marketing, because it's really about psychology. So archaeology is trying to understand how human society evolved. And how we learn to cooperate and compete effectively. Now we learn to communicate with each other, and how we like to sell with each other. So that's really what's sort of fed into the work that I do today.
Tony Winyard 4:05
And so so now you're sort of like an expert in communication.
Ben Afia 4:10
I am and specifically with language. So I worked in marketing for a while. And it was really a step that I hadn't expected to make. But boots, the chemist were looking for somebody to set up a copywriting service for the design team internally. And so the job was to coordinate writing for the whole business. Huge team of designers and they were doing, doing everything from the annual report to tickets that you see on the shelves to packaging that you see at Christmas. And they needed some way of getting a consistent tone of voice because people were using different agencies and different writers throughout the business. So I set up an internal service to find the best writers in the land and bring them back To wear for boots, and some of them were already working for us and some of them were new. But it was a really exciting job because I love meeting new people of talking to people love gathering great talent. And that was really my job. So that really got me specialising in language, specifically. And it got me good experience on working all kinds of different communications that an organisation might produce. And it's everything from what people say when they're in stores, to the packaging, on sandwiches, right through to annual reviews and reporting to the city.
Tony Winyard 5:39
I knew worked with quite a wide range of clients now. I don't know.
Ben Afia 5:43
I do so boots may be redundant, I think it was 2004. So I've been going about 16 and a half years solo. And since then, I have helped BP, Barclays, Vodafone, Google, Ayaan, a Viva companies that tend to be larger older companies who have large marketing teams and big customer service teams. So they have lots of people representing the brand every day to their customers. Add also some other known but smaller brands who want to get their voice right want to speak to their customers in a certain way. So I work a lot with Twinings. I helped Ronseal to work out what to say on the tin. Sadly, I can't lay claim to their wonderful. strapline does what it says on the tin. But 20 years after that campaign, I helped them to sort of rediscover a sense of their personality and work out what they wanted to say and how to say it.
Tony Winyard 6:41
Hmm. So are you working with copywriters? Or how what is it? How does it work?
Ben Afia 6:48
I have well when I went solo I actually started as a copywriter, specialising in brand tone of voice. And as that grew, I started recruiting a team of freelance copywriters because I very quickly had more work than I can manage. And so to this day, I've worked with a team of freelancers. And I've considered hiring a team over the years. But what I learned was that individual writers have individual strengths. Some are good at long copy, some are good at short copy, some are great at health and beauty, some are good financial stuff, so no one writer is good for every occasion. And so I've nurtured a team of talent, with quite diverse experience. And then it's quite an intuitive process, sometimes working out who's going to be right for what job and partly that's to do with, you know, the chemistry they're likely to have with the client. The technical information that's contained in the subject matter. So if it's financial services, I might need somebody who's got expertise in fund management. And if it's health and beauty, you know, if it's Twinings, I want people with experience of food. So it's quite a range. And having a range of writers who are freelance means that I can get the right person on the job, rather than having, you know, the overhead to pay and having to put somebody on a job, it might not be appropriate.
Tony Winyard 8:14
And for me, for people listening, they may be thinking, Well, I mean, surely is just a copywriter can write the copy, and what are you needed for so so where where is it, you come in whether you do with a copywriting?
Ben Afia 8:26
For me, copywriting is really about culture. And that might sound a bit bizarre, but I'll explain. So in any organisation, especially a service organisation, the words that end up in things that customers see. So advertising, marketing, emails, web pages, the language that ends up there is ultimately the result of things that are going on within the culture within the organisation. So the words that end up there depend on decisions that are made by leadership, how those decisions are then interpreted around the organisation, how they turn into behaviour. And it's that behaviour that then gets represented online. Now, sometimes you get a bit of a gap. So you may have brands who have great creative agencies, and they're creating marketing and messages that are seen by the public that aren't necessarily linked up with the way that customer service are delivering service in the back in the backroom, if you like, what they're really there the front, aren't they because they're the front of house. So this is why I think of copywriting as being about culture, because what I'm trying to do is to connect up, what's actually being delivered by your customer service people on the phone, in web chat, in your shops. With the promise that marketing is making in advertising and marketing
Tony Winyard 9:58
is it particular Killer industries that you tend to focus on with is that quite wide as well.
Ben Afia 10:06
It tends to be larger companies who have a lot of people speaking for the brand every day. So if you think about companies like Vodafone, they have 10s of thousands of people in the country, they have 10s of thousands of people in India, in the contact centres. They have lots of people in stores have lots of people in marketing lots of people in the customer service centres. So the particular problem that I help solve is how does the culture help those people to give the very best service to customers day in day out? And, you know, deliver on what, what the marketing promises. So they tend to be bigger older companies that have this cultural challenge, you know, it's very hard to coordinate 10s and 10s of thousands of people. Having said that, you know, there are other brands. So I've mentioned Twinings, I've mentioned, Ron CO, so there are smaller brands that have smaller marketing teams, but even then, you may have a team of very passionate marketers, and they may have difference differences in opinion about how the brand should sound. And actually both those companies are examples that have teams of very passionate people who've often worked there for a very long time. And they have a very strong sense of who Twinings are who run CLR. And they don't necessarily always agree, in particular in different markets. So if you're looking after Twinings, in China, for example, do you agree with how you speak to customers, when you're marketing Twinings in Australia? Because those audiences have slightly different needs. So the dance that I play, I suppose, is helping those people to coordinate and come some agreement.
Tony Winyard 11:55
I like also what you said, I mean, when I heard you speak last week, and you, you were talking about the different tone of voice, depending on the sort of age group, you know, so if it was a company aiming more 20s, and 30 year olds, it will be different to a company I'm in at 5060 euro.
Ben Afia 12:14
Yeah, it's interesting, this is a really hot topic at the moment. So I just read an article a couple of weeks ago, and it played into the talk that you have to give last week that, in WhatsApp, younger people tend to see full stops as being quite aggressive, and on text, so if you finish your sentence with a full stop now, if your are kind of generation and older, well, we learned that you finish sentences, full stops, then you so we're bemused as to why people might see full stops as aggressive. And I think what's happened over the last 20 years, since we've had the internet, fat, the internet, text, web chat, those forms of language, they're a little bit more like speech than they are the traditional letters that you and I might have learned at school. So you do have generational differences in the expectations around language. And I have the situation just, you know, just this week, so my 16 year old has just started Sixth Form last week, he had offers from other colleges. And so I'm coaching him on emails back to those, those other colleges to say, you know, thank you very much, but I've taken an offer elsewhere. And so I want to coach him in professionalism, how to craft an email so that it sounds polite, so that you don't burn your bridges so that if something horrible goes wrong, and you actually want to go to that college, eventually, they're still willing to take you. Yeah, but because a lot of young folk are learning language on the fly in text, not even email. I mean, you know, my children who are 14 and 16, don't even use email. So they're learning it through text through Snapchat through Tick Tock through WhatsApp, and other platforms. And I think that is having an impact on the language that we're learning and so when those people hit professional life, sometimes the standards are not the same as Gen x's and older.
Tony Winyard 14:24
And is that apply or so they're not simply to to point your ration but also to the spelling of words as well, I guess.
Ben Afia 14:31
It is. So I think that shorthand tech shorthand is increasing is creeping into all sorts of domains and I know directors of marketing directors or brand who are sort of my main clients pulling their hair out because they're hiring guys straight out of school or straight out of university and the this what they consider a standard of language that they're using. And remember marketers are often responsible for the language that organisation users, you know, the standard is not what they would expect. And quite often I'm passed in to help address that. So is it is it is a bit of an issue.
Ben Afia 15:13
But at the same time, I'm not a parent, by any means. I don't think that language is a fixed thing, language has always evolved. So the language that we use in Shakespearean time is not the language that we use now. Because the norms do change. And so while we need to be aware of how we're likely to be understood, and how our message is likely to be received, and that's really about thinking about your audience who's on the receiving end, so there is some consideration for your audience. I think he also we need to bear in mind that language does evolve. And it always has languages or always evolved. But I do come across people who are really dead set on you know, you should never use contractions like I will, or you will to I'll or you should never start a sentence with and or battle because, but these things aren't rules. These are actually matters of style. Yeah. And style is about a decision that an organisation or an individual takes about how they want to be perceived.
Tony Winyard 16:25
And how much I'm wondering, as you were speaking, then something that was going through my mind is, how much influence is there from other cultures? Yeah, especially we've kind of Hollywood and, and you know, various other countries, is that impacted man?
Ben Afia 16:41
I think there is. So I mean, America, in particular, so American Spelling's are creeping in, to our language. But that, again, has always happened. So the English language, actually, I think, I believe is about 50%, French, in origin. So the Anglo Saxon that we spoke, in the run up to 1066, when William the Conqueror landed and dust up the locals and took over so he bought in brought in French, which is, originated from Latin, and that brought in a whole load of words, and now they're a fundamental part of our language. What's really interesting about those sort of Latin origin words is that they tend to be the more formal words that we use in the professions and that we use in business if we want to throw our weight around if we want to swing car gravitas if you like. So a lot of the work I do is to actually encourage people back towards the simpler Anglo Saxon words that we actually trust more. So they tend to be the words that we associate with family with friends with love. So the simpler words that tend to be Anglo Saxon in origin, they're the ones that we trust more. And so when organisations and when people try to dress their language up with longer words, it's actually not trusted as much. And I don't think people are aware of that.
Tony Winyard 18:03
And when you say that, are you and you say, people, would that be for all ages or more for younger people?
Ben Afia 18:11
It's for all ages. Absolutely. So absolutely. I think people who are older, probably learn to more formal grammar, and have more formal standards. Although, if you think about kids today, you know, I was part of a generation, if you grew up in the UK in the 70s, and 80s, then we didn't learn grammar formally at school. So we don't have the terminology. I've had to learn that since. Whereas my kids are learning the detail of grammar. Yeah. And they can tell me more, you know, they know more of the definitions than I do. Does that make them better writers? I don't know. But so there is a general generational difference. But there isn't a general generational difference in people trying to convey authority and power, I suppose. And that's what's revealed with these longer words. So when we're trying to be more formal, it's because we're trying to show our authority, or sometimes it's because we want to push people around. And so quite often, what I'm revealing helping organisations to unpack, and to understand is that they can be simple, and they can be human, and they can be warmer, and they can be more conversation on their language, and they can still have gravitas. And that really is an art. So to give you an example, I'm working with Aldermore bank, who are a kind of a mid tier Bank of around 1000 people. They're about 10 years old, and they've set out to disrupt, you know, the traditional old banks. When they brought me in a year ago, the gap that they noticed was that there they knew that their service delivery was really good. But that their letters were causing confusion. So I looked at the language that was coming across in their communication. And I noticed that there was more of this formality. more of these longer words that were not necessarily clear to the broker audience and to customers directly. So I've worked with them over the last year or so, to help them to get in touch with who they really are, and the service that they're genuinely delivering, which is excellent. And to just reflect what's really going on in the culture, the behaviour that's actually happening, and help them reflect that accurately in their letters and their emails and their webpages. And the idea behind that really is so that people can look after themselves as much as possible online, they can get the information they need and feel comfortable and confident that being looked after. And then when they actually need to talk to a human being that those people are also equipped to have the right kind of empathetic conversations. So that people feel well well cared for. And and recent history seems to be suggesting that they are and that that's working and that the the FCA the regulator is pleased with their direction.
Tony Winyard 21:14
Right? And what would you mean for you and you've been doing this, she says, but since 2004, on your own? So what can you think of any really bad, or any examples of really bad communication that any sort of major companies, industries we've been using, or have used?
Ben Afia 21:33
those examples are really all around us. And I guess I could talk to a letter that I got from the bank that I am moving from Santander. And I don't mind calling them out here because I actually wrote to them and said, You know, I've been with you for 15 years, and you send me a letter like this. So just so the listeners understand, I won't read the letter out in detail, but it was a very cold, a very formal and frosty letter i wanted to i was changing bookkeepers. So I wanted to remove a name from my account. So something that should be fairly simple, but requires security, understandably, I had not managed to get anywhere through the messaging service through the website, I hadn't managed to do it through email. Eventually, they sent me a letter telling me what the process was, but incredibly for more tones. And as a customer of 15 years, I really didn't feel looked after. In fact, I felt threatened because at one point, the letter says, if you if this is not completed, within 21 days, this case will be closed. And you will have to open another case. Yeah. So this was a full page of, of almost legal language, that felt quite threatening, that maybe not feel looked after as a customer. And I just thought, you know what, I'm gonna move on leaving. And so I'm moving to starling.
Ben Afia 23:09
So, I think I'm probably probably people can recognise these letters, can't they? I'm sure we've all had them these emails, these letters that feel less than friendly. You know, I think that organisations and individuals sometimes aren't aware of how their tones coming across. So it's not the people deliberately trying to be mean. Although sometimes they are. So I was running a training day at a company that I won't mention, some years ago, and I had a team of debt collectors. And we're encouraging them to use a more human warmer tone. Yeah. And one quite young lady in her 20s said to me, Ben, I don't like this newborn tone. It's not me. I'm not a particularly nice person. That's why I'm a debt collector. And I have to say I was absolutely staggered. I don't know whether she adopted the tone in the end or not, but I appreciated her honesty. Yeah. But mostly, I don't think people are trying to, you know, mostly people, I think, I believe are trying to do a good job. They're trying to become customers. Well, they may be under stress in the organisation, they may have a high workload, they may feel under pressure. But mostly people are trying to look after their customers, aren't they? It's just that the language that we learned at school may be or that we learned through the culture of the organisation doesn't really lend itself to warmth and humanity and real human connection. But if there's one thing we've noticed, I think through COVID, is, you know, we've we've all had these emails and these messages from the chief exec of different companies saying these are the steps that we're taking to look after you as a customer. I've been collecting these actually in a slightly geeky way. I'd like to do an analysis of them at some point. I think a lot of them were pretty awful and especially the organisations that are hadn't been in touch for years. So that you're you know that you're on a database somewhere, suddenly out of the blue, you get an email from a company that you haven't heard on and heard from in years, talking about what steps they're taking to protect their customers, during COVID. And, you know, my, the feeling I get from that is that, you know, you haven't paid attention to me for a long time, why am I going to pay attention to you now? You've neglected the relationship until this point, why am I going to listen to listen to you? And then you wrote me two pages of waffle? I don't want to hear it. I mean, you know, I'm already overwhelmed with messages. Now. And I think this is something that people sort of forget when they're communicating. You know, the crux of communication is a connection between you between two human beings. When you're communicating with somebody, it's not just about the message you want to get across to them. It's about the state of mind. They're in when they are receiving it, when they might receive that letter or get that email or read their webpage or see that tweet.
Tony Winyard 26:04
Ben Afia 26:04
So what I'm trying to encourage people to do is to think about what state of mind is somebody going to be in when they receive that message, but also what's going on for them? What are the big things on their mind. So if we think about the last week or so, kids have been going back to school, people, some people have been going back to work, some may have been going back into offices, there's a lot of change, and there's a lot of confusion. And although we're starting to get used to wearing a mask, and travelling and being out of the house, I think there's a level of background background stress that this is causing. And that eats away at our attention. So we don't have as much attention to give to individual messages. So right at the moment, I think organisations and individuals need to be particularly aware of what state of mind people are in when they're receiving their message. Otherwise, it's not going to sink in. And we have to be careful with people's time, don't be
Tony Winyard 27:01
for me, quite a few listeners to this show. are entrepreneurs, smaller businesses? So you we've been talking so far, you know, you're working with sort of big organisations, what would be the What advice would you suggest for people running their own small companies about thinking about tone of voice and so on in their communications?
Ben Afia 27:28
Yeah. Well, I'm guessing that tone of voice for smaller businesses is is low down on the list of priorities, because you know, you're, if you're an owner, founder, then you're a finance director, you're a marketing director, or sales director or Production Director, you've got a lot of hats. And so I can imagine that tone of voice doesn't come up the list very high. But if you think of your organisation, of yourself, your presence in the world, in the way of a brand, if you like, and the way I think of a brand is a brand is what somebody else thinks of you. Yeah. So what does somebody else think about you? And how did they describe you when you're not in the room when you're not there. That's how I think of brand. So if you think about all the things that we do, within a business, and all the behaviour and the communication that comes out of a business, when we talk to our staff, when we talk to our collaborators, when we talk to our customers, our clients, all of those points of contact are opportunities to build that brand, or destroy that brand potentially. And we're all instinctively aware of this, aren't we, you know, when you go to your local butcher, they give you personal service, they have a little bit of time for you, they have a bit of a conversation, and you like going there, rather than a supermarket because you feel looked after they're not thinking about it necessarily is that they're building a brand, but that's what they're doing. So any small businesses is in the business of branding. And that's simply the impression that you leave your customers with. And so if if communication is important to you, either in speech, and in writing, and I can't, for a moment, think of a business that wouldn't need to communicate in any way. I guess if you're a manufacturer, you may have a very small number of clients that you know, personally, but you're not communicating more widely. So you'll need to think about communication is less. But if you have customers, if you have a range of clients, then you're communicating all the time. So the language that you use in those communications really matters. So earlier on in the podcast, I talked about culture. And although in an all in a small business, you may not think about having a culture in a formal way. You do have a culture and that culture leaks out to your staff and it out to your customers and your clients. And I suppose you could define culture as your values, things that you believe in the things that you consistently do. And so what I help an organisation to do is just to become more conscious of what those things are. And to give you an example, let's say you have a value of trustworthy, so you want to be seen as trustworthy. And what business doesn't all businesses trade on trust, of course. But let's say you wanted to be more aware of communicate trust, what I help an organisation to do is think, well, if I want to be trustworthy, how might that sound and ways that you can sound trustworthy might be to get rid of your industry jargon, perhaps if you're talking to general customers. So think about the language that your organisation will understand. And if you speak in their language, you're more likely to be trusted, because you've thought about that communication from their perspective. Now, you might want to use what I think of as active language, so to say what you're going to do for your customer, rather than what will be done to them. So the letter that I got from Santander was very passive. And a simple example that I use when I'm delivering training is, if you see the text, a letter will be sent, a letter will be sent. Now you don't know in that sentence, who's sending the letter. So there's no sense of responsibility. But if you flip that around and say, we'll send you a letter, or even I'll send you a letter, you then have much more certainty in that sentence, it's clear, who's writing it, who's reading it, and what you're going to do for them. So there's much more sense of ownership. And that gives your customers a sense of trust from you. So this is what I encourage organisations to do to think about what it is they want to convey about their organisation, what's that? What are their values, what are their beliefs, what are they stand for, and then how you might reflect that in language. And then I give them all sorts of individual tools, like the active language. In this sentence, you'll notice I can track it, I will write to you too, I'll write to you. So if I want to appear more friendly, I'll rather than I will, helps you to do that, it helps you sound a little bit more conversational. Many people of a certain generation at school learned that contractions are not appropriate in in business language. But it's very hard to be human and conversational without a few of them. And all sorts of other techniques like using shorter sentences, telling stories, explaining more about your service and being specific so that people have a sense of certainty about what you're going to do and what you're going to offer. So small organisations can think about this, as much as large might not be the top of the list of priorities. And it's something that also some people do very instinctively. I've worked with for many, many years with an accountant. And maybe 10 years ago, I was looking for an accountant. And I was I was not a financially savvy business manager at the time. And I wanted somebody who would help me understand my books better. And actually over 10 years or so we've we've educated each boutique towards each other. So she's taught me to understand my accounts. But I've also helped her to write in a more human way, way and not like an accountant. And the real breakthrough, I think, a few years ago was when she sent me my monthly report. And the report said, profit loss, or how much have you made this month? And I just thought I've really got to break through there because she's translated the accountancy jargon of profit and loss to how much have you made? Yeah, sorts of language that I understand as a business manager. Now I know what a profit and losses but I'd rather know how much have I made or how much have I lost? Yeah.
Tony Winyard 34:14
The when you again, when you're talking just then, I was thinking, about the quote, by George Bernard Shaw came to mind :The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place".
Ben Afia 34:27
Tony Winyard 34:29
And the amount of people who cause themselves problems because of the communication used, and then they can't see that
Ben Afia 34:37
now. And I think this is normal. I think it's actually very difficult to make yourself consciously aware of what's going on for another human being and to make sure your messages hit home unless you're standing in front of them. So it's obvious you know, we do this naturally. It's instinctive behaviour when we are talking to somebody You can read their face, you can read their body language. And as conversation unfolds, you have a sense of whether they've heard you. The problem is when you're putting things in texts or whether you're when you're talking over the phone, because you've got a step in between the communication, and you're not getting immediate feedback. Yeah. So many of the organization's I work with and dealt with work with will be churning out communication that's not hitting the mark. And I think marketers will typically tick typically expect relatively low response rates to the marketing that they send out. Yeah. And so when I'm training teams of marketers, I'm encouraging them to really delve into understanding what's going on for a customer. And one of the tricks that we use as copywriters is to imagine one person, one individual, one individual person. And sometimes people find this quite hard to get their head rounds because they think, well, I'm, I'm communicating, you know, I'm on Instagram, I'm sending messages to thousands and thousands of people. So I'm not sending it to one person. But the trick that copywriters use is to imagine one person. And when you have one person in mind, you can start to have more empathy. The oft quoted world's greatest investor, Warren Buffett is renowned for having his ageing sisters in mind when he writes his annual letter to shareholders. And his sisters know very little about finance, they're not in the industry. And he imagines them in front of him when he's crafting his words. And that means his letters, shareholders is much more accessible than the average annual report. And we can all use this trick we can all imagine one customer, quite often when I'm writing, maybe an email or a blog post or something, I'll imagine one of my clients, somebody who I know well, and are probably quite fond of, because I've known many of my clients for many years. And I have them in mind, and I think about what's going on for them. So I might imagine, Claire, for example, I know she's got two young kids that they might just be going to school and preschool, she's got a long commute, she might not be commuting it at the moment, I know that her husband also has a bit, her husband has a business. And running any business is a roller coaster. So
Ben Afia 37:19
she's got a lot going on, she's also got a senior role at a telecoms company. So she's got a lot on her mind. So if I'm writing to her, I want to make sure that what I'm writing is something that she's going to find useful. That's helpful, that expresses empathy for her situation. So as a communicator, it's my job, to make sure that my message reaches her is not her job to absorb it, if that makes sense. And I think that's our job. All of us as communicators. You know, even in personal life, if you think about, you know, if I think about sending emails to my dad, and he, who's 77. And he's not particularly into social media, or email, and sometimes it can take him a couple of weeks to come back to me. Well, you and I are probably used to replying to emails within 24 hours or less. But you know, a different generation that, you know, he's he's more used to sending letters.
Tony Winyard 38:19
Businesses are recognising the importance of family in the staff. And so I'm wondering if the if that is effective communication, and anyone?
Ben Afia 38:33
I think I think it is, and I think that the virus actually has is probably going to be the push for quite a lot of change. So if you think about when you're on zoom calls, I mean, I would very rarely zoom with clients before COVID. They would stick to phone or prefer face to face. But as soon as everybody's using video, then immediately you're you're literally in people's dining room or kitchen or front room. Yeah. So suddenly your reveal, you're seeing a part of people's life that's much more personal. And I think that that is actually encouraging less, you know, that's encouraging less formality in business relationships. And inevitably, it has to
Ben Afia 39:26
within organisations, because leaders now are having to think about the total context rather than just what an employee does when they're on the job. Yeah, because everybody's been in a time of stress leaders have had to handle their own stress as well as have empathy for their staff stress, so that they can enable and help their people to keep doing their jobs and keep looking after their customers. So I do think there's going to be a change. I'm not seeing any evidence immediately, but I am seeing more enlightened companies being much more flexible. And we're hearing many organisations are, while some are allowing, are giving people the option, I think Facebook has said that they're allowing people to work from home permanently. And that's open to everybody. I know some of my clients are having people coming back into the office. But others have the option of working at home much more. And so because there are less formal lines of communication, and things have gone more digital, you know, people are messaging through through teams through slack. I think that there's an inevitable formality or informality to some of those forms of communication. So I'm, I'm hopeful, actually, I am hoping that this period, is going to make our communication as a whole, much more human, much more personal and much more considered more empathetic. And you know, most strapline, for many years has been that I help companies to be more human. So this is, you know, in a way, the world's catching up with what I've been preaching for a long time.
Tony Winyard 41:06
Hmm. It's funny how, in times of turmoil, there are, often a lot of actually good changes come from from that. It doesn't seem so at a time, but when you look back from years later,
Ben Afia 41:21
absolutely. Well, you know, I'm very much in the change business, although, you know, my business is language. Language really is about culture. And so it is about change. And change is very difficult for people because generally, in organisations, change is done to us, or historically has been done to us. And it doesn't tend to work. I think, a PwC survey some years ago, said that eight out of 10 change, interventions change programmes in large organisations fail. And that's a staggering rate of failure. When you think about the money and the time and the effort that is put into these programmes, yeah, what's really interesting about language is that language is something that we all use. And so it's a very subtle tool for change. But that doesn't mean that people don't have, you know, don't feel defensive, because the language that we use is very much a part of our personality. Yeah. And quite often, I found, I find that it's more unusual to find that people have a professional personality, that's more formal. So the writing is more formal, and a personal person about the personality, when they're talking to their friends, to their family, when when they're messaging. And that tends to be different. And it's very rarely that I've found people whose, you know, personal personality, if that makes sense with the people they trust with friends and family is the same as their business persona. But some people are like that there is a good match between the two. And but that's quite rare. So what I've been trying to do really, for the last 20 years or so is encourage people to bring those two things closer to be themselves more themselves at work. And, and I think it can be done, I think we can have that level of gravitas, it's about having confidence, and I think people are less are more formal in their language, when they don't feel confident. So a lot of it is about confidence. And part of it is the confident that's the confidence that their organisation gives them, and how confident they feel about their team, their colleagues, their product, their service. So but as you say, I think times of change are times when in times of turmoil i times when change can happen more rapidly. People's resistance is lower, because I think people are accepting that things are going to be different. You know, it's taken a few months, but you know, everybody understands that thing. Some things are going to have to be different. But I do think also organisations are seeing this as an opportunity to switch up their relationship to change how they behave with their staff so that the staff can behave differently with their customers. So I'm hopeful.
Tony Winyard 44:10
Yeah, it'll be fascinating to see where how things are in a couple of years time.
Ben Afia 44:17
I think it would be good to, I think I should be capturing language from before COVID. And capture it from, as you say, a couple of years down and put a piece of research together. Give me a brilliant idea. I'm going to do that.
Tony Winyard 44:30
It could be a future TED talk?
Ben Afia 44:35
I think you could be right actually that's a really interesting idea. Hmm, quickly makes a note. Yeah, I think it's gonna bring is bringing a lot of change. And I think, you know, we're being seen more, aren't we? So because we're on video, because we are, we're messaging in different ways. We're having to make sure that our message gets through. We're having to be much more considered and considerate. And I hope that makes us more considerate as a nation as a globe.
Tony Winyard 45:06
Ben Afia 45:08
Because I genuinely believe that most people want the best for each other for themselves. And if this can be a time to encourage more human behaviour, more humanity, more connection, and then then I'm here to encourage that.
Tony Winyard 45:26
And from what I know of you, Ben, and certainly some of the things you've been saying over the last sort of half an hour or so, I get the impression that you're much more about the importance of having a good life, rather than just chasing as much money as you can get.
Ben Afia 45:47
Absolutely, yeah. To be fair, as always, that's always been my approach always been my view. When I started my business, you know, I always wanted a business. It took me a long time to work out what it should be. The job that I did it boots expose me to the profession of language in business, I suppose, which I wasn't really exposed to before. It happened to fit English was always my strongest subject at school. And I'd sort of forgotten that that was a skill that I had. And I loved doing it, I found I really enjoyed the work. But more than that, I enjoyed working with writers. In general, I found that writers were lovely people to work with. So collaborating them with them was a great thing. So I felt like I definitely felt like I'd found my niche, found an area of work that could be very fulfilling in terms of the practicalities of it, you know, the doing of it, but also the relationships that it would stimulate. And so when I, when I was made redundant from boots and went solo, I vowed to myself that I would only take on projects that I could personally enjoy. Because that way I would do my best work. If I resented the work, you're never going to do your best work if you resent the work if you don't like it. And that I would only work with people, I want to work with people. And so many of the writers that I work with many of the trainers, the facilitators, the culture change, specialists, have become good friends, and I've worked with many of those people for 15 or more years. So those relationships are friend relationships as much as business relationships and their relationships that fill me up. The work itself, you know, 16 and a nearly 16 and a half years into this sort of freelance career. And and I would say I think in the last year, I've done the best work of my career. And that's because i think i've i've constantly focusing on what new things I can learn how I can build more skills so that I can do better work so that I can have more impact with it. And each project for a client is an opportunity for me to develop new skills, learn new stuff and apply it to a new situation, because every situation is is different. And so it really is very exciting.
Ben Afia 48:13
The the work I've done with older more over the last year has been working very closely with a team of 20 champions from across the business. And those people have become like friends. I was heading up to Manchester to work with him every couple of weeks, and got to know them all very well. And so yes, I'm paid money to do that work. And the client gets a huge amount of value from from the work. But more importantly, for me, it's incredibly satisfying. It's incredibly fulfilling. And I feel like I'm doing doing the best work of my career, which is why I'm not really planning to retire. I've got a way to go yet, but I want to carry on because it's stimulating, it forces me to learn new things. And I suppose, you know, one of my strongest values is about learning. As I know it is for you, is about personal development. And if I'm learning and growing, then I think I'm living a good life. And as long as it pays enough. I'm happy with that.
Tony Winyard 49:19
And you're in about a good life. So what are your thoughts on things like relaxation and play and various along those lines?
Ben Afia 49:30
They are quite conflicted. Actually. I do think I find it very important to relax. You know, the work can be incredibly intense at times very stressful. So I do need an antidote to that. And my main well my two main tools are swimming. I swim with the club several several times a week and just being in the pool with other people and training for an hour. I come and relax and I do a lot of gardening, gardening and listening to music. The weekend. So those are the things that help relax me play. I said, I'm conflicted. I struggled with play, I used to be a gamer. And since my children came along I, I think I sort of felt where in my life is there space for games, when you have small children around the place. So I suppose play, for me is something that I try to build into my work. And when I'm running workshops, that's play. You know, it's work as well. And it can be stressful, and I need to recover from it. But more often than not, it's play.
Ben Afia 50:40
So for me, players, doing stuff with people, which obviously is more challenging in the moment. So I do think it I found very early on in my freelance career that balancing work, and rest was crucial, because when you are trying to deliver creatively, I just found you could never know, you never could never really guarantee when you might come up with an answer, especially when you're writing, and you're creating something that didn't exist before. You know, by by definition, that's a very uncertain place to be. Because if you've got a deadline, and something to deliver in a client's expecting something of you and you don't know, when you can produce, you have to be able to manage that energy very carefully. So I always nap in the afternoon, I have a 20 minute power nap every afternoon, unless things are very, very intense. I swim most evenings in the week. If I've got a deadline or a speech to deliver, I don't expect too much of myself the next day, I have an admin day. So I'm very conscious of the rhythm of energy. And I think when I was younger, I wasn't so aware that he you know, as many of us are, I just I just worked. I just worked and played hard and would crash out. Because you can't carry carry on without as you get into middle age. So
Tony Winyard 52:03
yeah. Well, Ben, if people want to find out more about you, and your you know, your workshops, and your speaking and so on, where wherever they go to?
Ben Afia 52:14
Well, my website is www.BenAfia.com. That's the main site, I also have a links site, which summarises kind of my most current thinking. And that's www.liinks.co/BenAfia.com
Tony Winyard 52:45
Okay. And and before we finish, is there any books that you would recommend to people for wherever, whether it be business or personal, or fiction or whatever?
Ben Afia 52:58
You know, there's an interesting thing I learned very early on in my writing career, which was that great writing takes good reading. So if you want to improve yourself as a writer, then reading fiction, and any fiction helps. Because I think what fiction does is it helps you to put yourself in the place of other people and to empathise with them more. So it develops empathy. And it helps your understanding of people. And that helps you to become a better communicator. So fiction in general, but actually, I don't have any books specifically on language. But one seminal book for me was actually getting things done by David Allen. Now, I first read that, I don't know 15 years ago, and it changed my life, I was somebody who would change my to do list system every six months, and I could never settle. David Allen helped me to understand my priorities, put them in some sort of order and create a trusted system so that when the world is throwing itself at you, you can control it, put it in the right place, and you know, you're not going to miss stuff. So it really has been a key to my success, I think.
Tony Winyard 54:12
Well, Ben, it's been a, it's been great chatting to you for the last hour. So thank you for your time and for the wisdom that you shared with the listeners.
Ben Afia 54:21
Thank you very much for having me, Tony, it's been an absolute pleasure.
Tony Winyard 54:26
Next week, episode eight is with Dr. Lynda Shaw, who's a neuroscientist, and we're going to learn about a number of things, how our brain affects many of the things that we do. Learning how to embrace change and meditation, consciousness. The different myths about the brain that exists that we're often told, for example, we only use 10% of the brain and there's many other myths that are debunked next week in next week's episode when we speak with Dr. Lynda Shaw. hope you've enjoyed this week's show. Please do share it with anyone who you feel feel could get some real value from the information Ben shared with us. Why not subscribe so you get the podcast on a regular basis. And if you leave a review, some more people get to find out about the show. Hope you have a great week.
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