Our childhood teaches us that an authoritative tone of voice encourages respect. When Rumbelows delivered our Betamax video recorder back in the 1980s, my parents didn’t take me to one side and use a gentle tone of voice when requesting me not to take the latest piece of high-tech home entertainment equipment apart just to see how it works, like I had done with the household kettle the previous week.
Instead, their full-volume instruction went something along the lines of: “You touch any part of that expensive video with a screwdriver and we’ll send you to the children’s home.”
Message received and understood, Dad.
The same tone of voice was used by my teachers. My gym master yelled at me to run faster and my maths teacher bawled at me when I expressed a disinterest in the square root of 144. However, I guess I should have learned an important lesson about internal communications when my French tutor caught me doodling pictures of cars and remarked: “I hope they are French cars, Toby.”
Shouting is out
But I didn’t. Instead, I took an outdated version of the Internal Communications Handbook into my first role after leaving university (where I didn’t study physical education, mathematics or French). As a sub-editor of the Whitchurch Herald newspaper’s sports pages, my career as a journalist came very close to finishing before it had moved out of first gear when I decided to demonstrate my authority by yelling down the phone at the title’s editor, criticising his report on an inter-school athletics event.
The office fell silent as I lambasted Mike Arnold, an experienced editor who even back then must have been in his 60s. Later that afternoon, I put another call into Mike and apologised profusely for my unforgivable behaviour.
That second call probably saved my professional neck because not long after Mike had accepted my grovelling apology, my line manager appeared by my side and in an ultra-low tone of voice whispered: “Well done Toby. You did the right thing apologising to Mike.”
In the workplace, it’s not what you say, but how you say it that has the most impact.
That’s why it puzzles me as to why companies invest vast sums of time and money in how they communicate their brand outwardly, yet fail to place any emphasis on the tone of voice and language used to communicate with their own staff.
The business case for using the right language for internal communications is cast iron. Not only does it attract the right talent, motivates and engages them, it makes employees feel like that business is a great place to work and encourages them to be more productive.
Normal not formal
Effective internal communications must follow the same rules as your external communications. But how do you communicate legal notices and other rules and regulations in a way that will not only make staff comply with those demands, but also make them feel valued? By using the right tone of voice.
Does your company website and sales literature paint a picture of a warm, friendly business that values its customers? But does your employee handbook read like a scientific manual that is cold and officious?
That’s probably because it’s packed with jargon and technical instructions. Jargon doesn’t make you sound clever and will disengage the reader. Before issuing a company command, read what you’ve written out loud and ask yourself whether it sounds like you are talking in a normal voice or in boardroom lingo.
Apply a personal touch
When Thames Water, for example, reviewed the language used in its Time Management training course, it rebranded the programme’s title to simply ‘Getting the Job Done’.
But any review of internal communications should not be restricted to formal documents. Just as your external communications agency will run an email campaign that addresses each recipient on a one-to-one basis, your internal communications should do the same.
Each email any part of a business sends out is most likely only ever going to be read by one person at one time – not a class of unruly 12-year-olds uninterested in the square root of 144. Therefore, it’s not necessary to sound formal just because you are being serious.
Presenting a more human, more consistent and more distinctive face to the world must start with your internal dialogue because a company’s values need to come from the heart of your business – and that means your employees, most of whom will be aware that the square root of 144 is 12.
With so much emphasis these days on getting the right tone of voice in your outward content marketing strategy, it’s easy to forget that real employee engagement involves marketing content to your own workforce with similar care and attention.
Just as shouting at each other in the workplace – be that from the top down or in my case a junior upstart at a senior editor – is a one-way ticket to fractured brand values, the same is now true of written and digital communications in the workplace.