Some numbers I found a few years ago

How losing some letters can give you a verbal identity

A venture capital (VC) firm isn’t necessarily the first place you’d turn to for advice on tone of voice. Insights into the most dynamic sectors of the future economy — yes. Words to the wise about which baby businesses are going to be the next globe-bestriding corporations? Absolutely. But help in creating a verbal identity that can bring some distinction to your communications? That’s maybe one meeting you won’t take.

But step back for a moment, and have a think about what venture capital actually is. Sure, it’s a lot of money placed into new businesses that are doing hard-to-do (and often hard-to-explain) new things. But what is that investment, at root? It’s a series of big bets on success. And another word for a ‘bet’ is an opinion — a point of view on what someone thinks is going to win.

A strong opinion in fact, as there’s money riding on it.

And my contention here is that the best verbal identities are precisely those that have a point of view on the world, an opinion on it as it is — and how it might be.

A fabulous example of this is the lauded Californian VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Noted for spotting the potential in such now-famous names as Instagram, BuzzFeed and Groupon, the firm is also pugnacious when it comes to its pronouncements. This strong commitment to a strong verbal identity starts right at the top, with key staff members such as co-founder Marc Andreessen and analyst Benedict Evans delivering pithy statements on the state of technology and Silicon Valley on Twitter.

It’s continued directly under the masterbrand, with the slogan “Software is eating the world”. No ifs or buts, no mild-mannered equivocation there — the firm hasn’t just come off the fence, but knocked it down in the process.

But Andreessen Horowitz’s tone of voice isn’t just about strong opinions, expressed well. It’s about numbers too. That sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it — a verbal identity making use of numbers?

Well, start by having a look at its URL. It’s not (though that of course works). Rather, it’s What’s that all about? The art of numeronym: a word where numbers are used to form an abbreviation, or where the letters between the first and last are replaced with a number representing the number of letters omitted (so Wikipedia tells me) — for example, W3C for World Wide Web Consortium, or i18n for internationalization. What do you mean you don’t use that particular coinage?

OK, it’s a particularly techy thing to do, almost an in-joke that doesn’t make sense to people on the outside. And do you know what? That’s fine. One of the things we often forget that is that a tone of voice doesn’t have to be as broad as possible to appeal to everyone. A barrier or two, some discrimination… as long as your targets, your intended audience get it, that’s fine. It’ll tickle ‘em that they do. A reward for being in the know.

And then a16z takes it that one step further and makes a thing of the number 16. For example, all the listicles on its blog have 16 items. It’s simple, silly, sweet and memorable all at once, even before you get to the valuable stuff in the posts themselves. It’s gives the firm’s tone of voice something distinctive — an expression of its culture; it just happens to be a number.

So maybe next time you’re developing a tone of voice, you’ll make a bet on something that isn’t just a set of words, but something that has a point of view — that stands out. I mean, what have you got to lose?

Hunger, Fire, Harrumph.

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