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Using the right language in your internal communications

Sue Weekes

A megaphone representing internal communications

How employers communicate with their staff is vital – but are you using the right language? Sue Weekes asks if you should speak how you wish to be spoken to

Organisations invest millions of pounds in their brand and how it is communicated outwardly. Central to this is the tone of voice and language used to communicate with their customers and other external parties. However, much less emphasis is placed on the internal voice and the language organisations use to communicate to their people. Using the right language internally can be crucial when it comes to attracting the right talent, motivating and engaging people and simply making employees feel like the organisation is a great place to work.

If you look at brands that do it really well and have the right tone in their policies and annual reports, such as Virgin and innocent, it is a large part of what makes them believable.

Nick Parker, a creative director at The Writer, an agency which helps organisations to develop the right tone of voice and improve the language they use, says the external and internal gap that often exists can also impact the brand. “It is the people who work for you that live and breathe the brand and it is difficult for them to be completely immersed in it if you talk differently internally compared to externally,” he says. “It needs to be joined up. If you look at brands that do it really well and have the right tone in their policies and annual reports, such as Virgin and innocent, it is a large part of what makes them believable.”

HRD at the heart

Organisations often engage agencies to write their external communications whereas internal material tends to be produced by a mixture of in-house people who don’t consider themselves writers. HR and learning and development (L&D) are responsible for producing some of the organisation’s most read material and Parker describes the departments as being at “the heart” of the company’s voice and key to the way “it talks to itself”. They therefore have a huge opportunity to influence and shape the internal tone of voice and language used. Too often though, they will fall into a formal, bureaucratic and sometimes stuffy style in the belief that this is the kind of language that makes what they say credible. “Legal and sickness and absence policies and all the meat and potato material is difficult stuff to write well,” says Parker. “But the idea that you have to sound pompous, clever or like a lawyer is quite wrong. When an employee receives an email saying their mandatory compliance training is due and it is written in a shouty, bureaucratic voice, they are less likely to click on the link than if the language used is friendly and normal,” he says. “There are many points like this when language can increase engagement.”

As an example of the impact an internal communication could have, Parker cites the travel policy of the US technology company NetApp which says: “We are a frugal company. But don't show up dog-tired to save a few bucks. Use your common sense.” Parker frequently shares this piece of writing and says he showed it one person who was going for an interview at NetApp. “Straightaway the person said, ‘that’s the sort of company I’d like to work for’,” he explains. “So there you have recruitment, engagement, outreach and brand personality all from an internal policy.”

Internal customers

When an employee receives an email saying their mandatory compliance training is due and it is written in a shouty, bureaucratic voice, they are less likely to click on the link than if the language used is friendly and normal

He advises that HR and L&D professionals who want to change and influence the language used should ask how they want employees to engage with the brand, look at the tone of voice used externally and consider how it can be applied internally. “Have that courage of conviction to carry it through to everything you do,” he says. “A good starting point is to find the pieces of writing that are read by people most often, such as automatically generated emails, the starter pack and contract. Prepare to enter into negotiation with the legal department on some of these, but that then starts to build HR’s reputation as people who are thinking differently and getting the bigger picture.”

In workshops, Parker says that one of the big “penny-dropping moments” is when people are told that jargon doesn’t make you sound clever but rather insecure. “Read what you have written out loud and ask yourself whether it sounds like you are talking in a normal voice or in boardroom lingo,” he explains. “Also remember that you are writing to one person at one time and you don’t have to sound formal just because you are being serious. Start with these basics and work outwards.”

Teresa Ewington, L&D manager at Thames Water, has been working with The Writer to develop tone of voice and change the language it uses internally. The company employs people from a range of disciplines including science, engineering and technology so Ewington explains that she was “surrounded” by people using jargon. “Sometimes you’d have to be triple-lingual to understand everything. If you need to figure out what someone is saying it can be intimidating. So we decided that we wanted to get back to one language that everyone would understand: the language we all use at home,” she explains. “Our view now is the quicker you say something, the quicker someone will get it and the quicker they will act on it.”

Getting it done

Using guiding principles such as “normal not formal”, “warm not robotic” and “clear not confusing”, Thames Water has revamped all of the language used in its training courses and related documentation. For example, instead of a time management course, the module is called simply Getting the job done. “There is a lot to get done in the business and this is how we go about it. We don’t mean time management or even task management, so we don’t say that,” explains Ewington. A new straight-talking corporate induction booklet is about to be launched and other HR material will follow.

L&D is meant to be a catalyst department anyway. If there is innovation coming out, it should be coming out of L&D.

The no-nonsense approach also extends to practical training. The company no longer spends time on superfluous introductions to courses and ensures “every minute counts”, says Ewington: “So in negotiation training, you have to negotiate for your chair before you can get into the [training] room.”

Feedback from employees has been extremely positive and there has been an uptake in Thames Water’s professional development modules. The approach has also reduced the amount of traffic enquiries to L&D over whether a course is appropriate for an individual or not because people immediately understand what they will learn from it.

Parker believes that changing the language used internally is something that HR and L&D can action themselves rather than wait for top-level buy-in and Ewington took the approach to bring it into L&D “quietly” with a view to spreading it outwards as the department touches so many people. She admits  that sometimes one of the challenges can be the perception that this is “crazy L&D talk” but feels it is important that they continue to push the boundaries. “L&D is meant to be a catalyst department anyway,” she says. “If there is innovation coming out, it should be coming out of L&D.”

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