There’s no I in SME…or is there?

There’s no I in SME…or is there?

I don’t get enough opportunities to kick off a blog with a grammar lesson, so backs straight, put that Custard Cream down and pay attention:

‘I’ is the first person singular nominative case personal pronoun.

‘We’ is the first person plural nominative case personal pronoun.

Commit these definitions to memory, there may be a test later.

I was talking to one of my lovely clients recently. She is a brilliant VA and I was working with her to shape her brand story and positioning. In conversation, the hoary old dilemma popped up about whether as sole traders, single business owners or other such one-person business permutations, you should talk about ‘I’ or ‘we’ when writing and talking about your business. It is not the first time this question has been asked of me, and I am sure it will not be the last, so I thought I would commit my thinking to this blog. If nothing else, it is a good example of measured opinion followed by an extreme case of fence-sitting.

So, the case for ‘I’:

If your business is just you, then let’s play the honesty card and be confident to say ‘I’. There is absolutely no shame in it. Be small, be singular and be proud.

It gives your story a human, personal touch. Your business is you, building a personal relationship with your customers, who are funnily enough, also people. You are not a faceless McCorporation, where once the sale is made the ‘face’ of the business disappears and you are shunted into a customer service team that you don’t know from Adam. People buy you first, then they buy from you. So why not ‘I’?

The buck stops at ‘I’. If you are the business, then own it. Not literally (although you do), I am talking about owning it with your language.

The case against ‘I’:

If you start talking ‘I’ when talking about your business, is there a fear that there the image of a pyjama-clad figure tapping away at a battered laptop in their bedroom with Loose Women on in the background appears in the mind of the person you are talking to? Will people take you seriously if it’s just little old you?

It’s hard to grow an ‘I’. Much better to be ‘we’ which has an ever-expanding waistband to accommodate the team of ten you are planning to employ once you get out of your PJs. Or your bedroom, for that matter.

‘I’ is David, and ‘we’ is Goliath. Can you, a poultry ‘I’ of a business, sell to an enormous ‘we’ business? I know David overcame Goliath, but he had a catapult. If you are a ‘we’ you too can become Goliath, at least on your website and marketing materials.

The case for ‘we’:

Saying ‘we’ gives you scale. It is like an instant magnifying glass, in one syllable expanding your modest single-desk-and-a-filing-cabinet business into a dazzling corporation full to the brim of bright young things. Nearly.

‘We’ is the pronoun of personal confidence. We do this, we do that. We do it together, there is a whole bunch of us, and at least one of us has a catapult.

‘We’ is the pronoun of customer confidence. It’s not just one person alone promising to deliver that product or service, it’s a team. And a whole team rarely gets run over by a bus in one go, so it’s a much safer bet than that ‘I’.

The case against ‘we’:

Let’s not pretend. No matter how many images of culturally-diverse co-workers you put on your website, it is just you. Pretending ‘we’ work at this office address (cue photo of shiny new 20 storey building) doesn’t really work when one spin on Google Street Maps reveals a suburban terraced street.

Using ‘we’ when you are an ‘I’ can make the question ‘So, who else is in the team?’ a tad awkward. If you’ve been confidently talking about ‘us’, can you then ‘fess up to the business being you alone, without resorting to namedropping Bob, your right-hand man, despite the fact that Bob is in fact your cat?

‘We’ is so much more impersonal that ‘I’ and has at least one foot in the vague camp. ‘We have 15 years’ experience…’ Who exactly has it? Are there 15 people scraping in at 12 months each, or three team members who know what they’re doing? And are you including Bob the cat in that? ‘We’ obscures the personal connection that it one of the key strengths of a sole trader or one-person business, so why use it?

And there you have it. The cases for and against, finely balanced. Personally, I pinged back-and-forth between ‘I’ and ‘we’ for a while when I set up my business, starting with ‘I’ and then given the large retailers, media companies and business services organisations who became clients, switched to ‘we’ in a (somewhat subconscious) attempt to redress the huge inequities of scale. But it soon felt wrong – an unnecessary deployment of smoke and mirrors when in fact, the client bought into me, so why wouldn’t I want to own that with an ‘I’? Now I am not alone in the business, so we are definitely a ‘we’, and that’s even before we count in Bob the Cat.

So as you talk about your business, decide if you are an ‘I’ or a ‘we’. There is no ‘I’ in SME, but there is a ‘me’, so perhaps the ‘I’s have it…