The Insiders’ Guide to Employee Communications

By Poppulo

Table of Contents

Why words matter: sharpen your writing for engaging communications

Social media means every internal message has the potential to go way beyond the company, in a good way or a bad way. So, if we know this can happen, we’ve got to write every communication as if the world is looking. When you think of it like this, yes, words really matter. Here’s how to get it right.

1. Make It Personal

Think about the language you’re using in your organization. Think about the way you’re trying to engage people in programs. How are you explaining what you want them to do? Because when people find it difficult to understand, it’s very difficult for them to act.

— Georgina Bromwich, Content manager & senior writer, KPMG, UK

People often say it’s so tricky trying to get the words right when it’s a communication going to lots of people. They say they’re really struggling to get the level of detail right. They don’t want to patronize some people, don’t want to bore other people… It’s so tricky to get it right.

Here’s my suggestion: just forget about all the people you’re writing to. Don’t try to write in a one-to-many way. Because when you do that you’re just going to end up failing. If you think about writing in a one-to-one way the chances are you’re going to have a much better response to your messages.

Think about the people you are writing to: who are the people in the other offices, who are the people on the factory floor and what is it that concerns them? When you do that you’re going to make the message much more personal and then they will be able to build a connection to whatever it is you’re trying to communicate.

Think about it like really good radio DJs who make it feel they’re speaking directly to you, even though you know they’re broadcasting to thousands of people. They make it personal, and that’s what you’ve got to achieve with your communications. So, think carefully about how you can make it feel personal, how you can make it feel one-to-one rather than one-to-many.

How to make it personal:

  • Use natural language: really think long and hard about how you would talk to one of your colleagues if you bumped into them and wanted to explain a particular project.
  • Think about mirroring the language you would use if you were talking to someone at the water cooler (but not the casual way you would talk to a friend over a beer on a Friday night!).
  • If you use natural language you’ve got a much better chance of making a connection when you’re writing to them.
  • Use plenty of personal pronouns: do not use the third person (unless you’re Royalty or a rap star!)
  • Use the active voice, where you put the person or thing into your message. Avoid the passive voice or risk being like PwC in their apology after the Oscar awards mix-up in 2017 when it was greeted with a Twitter storm which included the sardonic comment: “…and the award for best use of passive voice in an apology goes to… PwC.”
  • So, use the active voice whenever possible. Passive voice sentences often use more words and can be complicated and vague – not what you want in your comms.

2. Make it inspiring

  1. Have a look at the many companies out there who use the words of their leaders to inspire their employees, like Mark Zuckerberg at town halls, where his words are mirrored in posters such as “Done is better than perfect”, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”, “Move fast and break things”. Think about your own organization and what words from your own leaders you could use to mirror them and inspire people in your organization in a similar way.
  2. Think about how you can link the big picture to the small one. You have to be able to translate what the big picture is in terms of what that means to people on the ground, whether that’s the annual results, a rebrand, office refurbishments or moves, new faces on the management team, or a merger or acquisition. Because if they cannot understand it and what it means for them, they’re not going to make it happen.
  3. Use metaphors to help bring your message to life.
  4. Stop trying to be authentic. The moment we feel we have to try to be authentic we’re failing. Particularly when we’re writing in our leader’s names: put in their quirks and phrases. That’s going to sound much more genuine than us trying to create some rose-tinted version of who they are for the public.

Another consequence of trying to be authentic when we’re writing in our leaders names is that we write in a voice that doesn’t belong to them. If you’re writing in somebody else’s name and you haven’t had the opportunity to work closely with them, try to watch videos of them.

They’re a really good way of tuning into how they talk, where they pause, their phrases and filler words, so that you can mirror how they talk. Also, try to walk with them as they interact with employees, speak to their PA and other people that are close to them to get a more complete picture.

3. Make it snappy

Remember that despite all the love you put into your campaigns, your poster messages, your speeches, the chances are that the people reading them have something better to do. This is what we’re constantly up against: trying to capture the attention and imagination of an audience who would rather be doing something else. Make it snappy so that it’s super easy for them to find what they want very quickly.

  • Hint: Write for the small screen. While we might be writing on a large desktop computer screen or big laptop, the people who are reading it are often picking it up on much smaller screens, on their phones.

It might look beautiful on Microsoft Word on your computer, but on a very small screen it might look like a complete sea of text, which is really heavy going.

  • Email yourself that message: For example, that press release you want to send out to see how it looks on your phone. It might encourage you to become a brutal editor and cut some of the content.

Being snappy is better for memorability too. The American Press Institute found that the fewer words used in a sentence, the better, with a 90% retention rate for a sentence of 14 words.

Words Boxes

So have a look at what you’ve written recently and see how long your sentences are.

  • Use sub-headings to make it easy to navigate. Write in a way that mirrors how they read on a website. Give lots of headings and bullet points that break up what otherwise will be a sea of text.
  • Print out what you’ve written, hold it out at arm’s length and see what it looks like. If it’s a sea of text or numbers then you know you’ve got to do something about it.
  • Be a very brutal editor. It’s nearly impossible to write and edit at the same time so don’t worry about editing the first draft. Just write it and go away, have a cup of coffee, and come back to look at it with your hard editor’s eye.
  • Use the readability checker in Microsoft Word: In Options go to Proofing and tick Show Readability Statistics (see panel here).

Readability Statistics

Is it easy to read?

Using the readability checker is also useful when you’re dealing with someone who wants to put a lot more complicated messaging into the communication. You can say to them, objectively, ‘you know this is more complicated than Shakespeare?’ This can validate your argument that the message needs to be simplified if it’s to be understood.

– Georgina Bromwich

And finally… How to deal with skeptics

100 Spot the Dog books

90 Comic books

80 The Writer website

70 Lord Denning’s rulings

60 The Economist

50 The Financial Times

40 Scientific papers and most of Shakespeare

30 Harvard Law Review

20 Bad terms and conditions

10 Finnegan’s Wake

So, on a readability scale where very easy is 100, somewhere in the 50-60 range is probably right for your organization. This is similar to quality journalism like the Economist and FT or New York Times, which is not too difficult to read and not too simple.

People who aren’t bought into this for various reasons, who are nervous and anxious that writing simply might appear that Internal Communications isn’t doing the job that it’s supposed to do and in the way it should be done:

What they’ll say to you…

  1. If I write simply… There’s a huge fear in organizations of sounding like you don’t know your stuff, of dumbing things down. But look, for example, at Steve Jobs. We all knew that he was an expert and nobody challenged him for communicating his ideas in a simple way. To be able to write simply you have to know your stuff.
  2. My boss won’t let me… 'I’d love to write in a simple way, to make it more snappy but…' Sometimes people use their bosses as an excuse for not changing their own behavior. If your boss is resistant to less formal, more personal, simplified and snappier communication, try asking if they wouldn’t mind if you tried something different to see if it resulted in better engagement.

    My boss won’t let me…

  3. Formal writing is right for business… There was a time when this was true, and some sectors cling onto this, for example the legal profession. But people expect more from business these days. Formal writing can slow communication down, and that’s not right.
  4. All our competitors sound corporate… Well if that’s the case then you have a huge opportunity in front of you to use language to be distinctive, to really make your brand shine. Use words as an opportunity to stand out. You would never think about using a competitor’s logo so why should you use the same words and language as they do when you could have your own distinctive voice?

This section is based on a Poppulo webinar with Georgina Bromwich, Content Manager & Senior Writer, KPMG, UK: Read All About It: How to create internal comms your audience won’t want to put down.

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