Before we look to answer the question of the headline, what exactly is our tone of voice when we’re talking about our internal comms? Well, firstly, and a tad confusingly, it almost never applies to the spoken word. It applies to our written comms in whichever form they may take.
Our tone of voice isn’t what we say, but how we say it. It is, of course, the words we choose, but it’s also the personality we project, and the character and the attitude we present.
Many companies set their tone of voice for their external customers. It makes up part of their brand and helps to define how they are perceived in their marketplace. Companies that do it well stand out from the crowd with a tone of voice that matches their product(s) or services. For example, the sometimes-silly irreverent charm of Innocent’s tone of voice wouldn’t work for, say, a legal firm for whom gravitas and seriousness are required.
But do as many companies set their tone of voice for their internal comms with as much care and consideration? And is it as important?
Well, yes, it is. For many reasons.
"People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel."
- Maya Angelou (American author)
Your tone of voice is part and parcel of your company’s vision and values. It should match your culture and inspire and encourage your desired behaviours. It should be recognisable by your people and yet almost unnoticeable. And if that sounds contradictory, let me explain… A successful tone of voice that is applied consistently and with consistency will not surprise or raise attention. It will be familiar, which leads to reassurance. When received as expected, the tone of voice will go unnoticed but, almost subconsciously, nurture feelings of reliability, dependability, and stability. It helps with that all-important trust.
Conversely, if someone unfamiliar with the accepted tone of voice swoops in with a wholly different style of message, it can ruffle feathers, start alarm bells ringing, or raise concerns around inconsistency and suspicion of confusion at the top!
Tone of voice includes everything from the overall formality and “corporateness” of your messages to the acceptable use of acronyms, slang and jargon, right down to the specifics of date formatting and punctuation particulars. (Having said that, if you’re just starting off down the road of setting your tone of voice, don’t let this put you off. Just agreeing on the headlines is a great start and is absolutely the right thing to do if you are struggling with the consistency of your comms. The finer detail can follow later as and when required.)
One of the most common mistakes made with internal comms is that of an unnecessarily corporate tone.
Employees rarely react well to a school teacher-like tone and are never impressed by someone running a thesaurus app red hot as they write because they think more syllables-per-word makes them seem more professional, reputable, or intelligent. With internal comms, conversational does not mean unprofessional. A more personal or personable approach can still carry gravitas and weight when required and will make the comms far more relatable. Talking with your people will yield more trust and respect than talking at them or down to them. It will also sound a lot more authentic which, once again, helps with credibility and confidence in leadership.
Setting out your tone of voice can be a part of, or run alongside, your internal comms strategy. It can be laid out in a few basic but clear guidelines or exist as a multi-page and highly detailed comms bible for your leaders and communicators to follow. Just, please, have some way of ensuring appropriateness and consistency across your comms for the reasons outlined above.
My next blog will cover how to find and set your tone of voice in more detail, but a good starting point is to look at the four primary tone-of-voice dimensions, as identified and refined by the Nielson Norman Group. Although written for external comms, the concepts and classifications work just as well for setting an internal tone of voice. They identify the four dimensions as:
Funny vs Serious
Formal vs Casual
Respectful vs Irreverent
Enthusiastic vs Matter of Fact
A quick “needless to say” disclaimer to close this article…
Having a consistent tone of voice does not mean that all comms will always read the same. A comms about the company’s Christmas do or the launch of a new staff incentive will never (and nor should it ever) read the same as one about a restructure with unavoidable redundancies, or a serious incident or breach of quality or trust within the business. Some messages will always require a modified tone, and that will be expected by your people.
This is about a consistency of tone and writing style across your business-as-usual comms that matches and supports your culture, vision and values, and that instils confidence, reassurance-through-familiarity, and trust in your people.