Time for your Employee Brand to watch its language? 

Your Employee Brand can tell people to work from the office, but how motivated they’ll be when they get there has everything to do with its tone of voice.

Early in my career, I worked at two very different ad agencies. At the first agency, our work was rated ‘uncreative’ by the creative industry and we spent our time battling sub-clinical depression, physically fighting and plotting our escapes.

At the second agency, we earned valuable front-page news coverage with our work’s chutzpah and received dozens of speculative job applications from highly qualified people. There was an expression about what it was like to work there which might not be so actively shared today, but it neatly captured the ‘all in’ nature of everyone’s commitment:

“Arrive single, leave married. Arrive married, leave single.”

But what shocked me most when I moved to the second agency wasn’t the number of affairs. It was this: the difference in the quality of the work had nothing to do with the quality of the people but had everything to do with the Four Enablers so often cited by Engage for Success. That second agency had a strong guiding ‘Narrative’ and ‘Organisational Integrity’ and we were encouraged to share our ‘Employee Voices’. And ‘Engaging Managers’? Twenty years later, I still remember the MD appearing on our floor one hot day, pushing a shopping trolley completely full of ice-creams.

What united this agency most, though, was that the frank and challenging tone of voice in its external communications was exactly the same tone of voice in its internal communications.

An ad agency. A clear tone of voice. No surprise?

Except it wasn’t there in the first agency.

And it’s still not there in most businesses.

Businesses which are fighting to retain their best people.

Businesses that are desperate to attract higher quality candidates.

Today, when you want people to come back to the office, the tone of voice you use to express yourself is critical.

What’s tone of voice in communications anyway?

Too often, leaders are lost, wondering why employees aren’t as motivated as they are. They might spend a lot of time reworking the content of the Employee Brand to make it seem like an open, generous, considerate place to work. But the tone of voice of their comms reveals their true feeling as they resort to using a passive-aggressive tone of voice. The result? They’re just demotivating them more.

Photo credits to be established: @dinosofos/Twitter

It’s time that the Employee Brand was written with the same creativity as the external brand.

For years, external communicators have known that if you want to win people’s hearts just as much as their minds, then you have to pay as much attention to ‘how’ you say it as you do to ‘what’ you say.

Now, with more channels and more volume of communication than ever before, they’ve become more skilled in the definition and use of tone of voice – the ‘how’ to that ‘what’.

No longer is it good enough to define the tone of voice of communications with just four adjectives. (Especially since those ‘4 adjectives’ were always the same for every company: ‘Human’, ‘Friendly’, ‘Warm’ and ‘Approachable’.)

And what’s happened in the external world has happened in the internal communications world. More channels, more volume, more dialogue.

It makes sense when you want to persuade people back into the office and have them motivated once they’re there, to pay as much attention to tone of voice in your Employee Brand as you do in your external-facing brand.

A true Employee Voice projects something more than accessibility and inclusivity.

“Here comes the science bit.”

We are the language animal.

What makes us uniquely successful as a species is the small ‘language areas’ of our brain. It means we can share ideas and build relationships. We can amplify our tribe’s abilities and build cohesion. And isn’t that what an Employee Brand is all about?

So, beyond the critical hygiene factors of respecting your audience’s different abilities and stories, there’s an opportunity to create a ‘meaningfully different’ tone of voice that wins attention, builds loyalty, and shapes behaviour – just as it’s done in external voices with wider stakeholders.

How do you make your voice inside the business as powerful as the external communications voice?

Through our verbal branding work helping leaders in organisations as diverse as Alphabet and John Lewis, across B2B, B2C and B2G, it’s clear that an authentic, consistent and engaging voice inside and outside the company is critical.

But while staying consistent, it must also be flexible enough to respond to different channel environments and different moments.

Informed by my own continued creative writing work, melded with a deepening understanding of psycholinguistics, it’s clear that the language animal understands every piece of verbal communication on three different levels simultaneously.

It’s working across all three levels of the voice which creates a compelling Employee Brand.

When you listen to someone speak or as you read this, you are intuitively constructing an identity of the speaker or writer.

Consider for a moment if you were asked to write 100 or so words about how your company addresses a particular issue common in your industry. Like cornering. Silly. But let’s go with this because here are two entirely anonymised pieces of copy from the external comms world which illustrate how language’s power rests in its subtlety.

Each one is from a famous car company describing how their car takes a corner. And each, just through the power of language, projects the identity of their organisation as much as the product itself.

One is for Mini. The other is for Ferrari. Can you see which is which?

Car Brand Y

Proprietary ‘Y’ algorithms guarantee optimal integration of the electric motor and V12 engine and thereby optimising dynamic behaviour. When the car is cornering, the HY-KERS system keeps the V12’s revs up to ensure quicker response times to the accelerator pedal when exiting. The Brembo brakes, which integrate with the energy recovery system, have lighter callipers with a specific design designed to guarantee perfect heat dissipation from the new carbon-ceramic discs.

Car Brand X

Born to corner. Driving a [X] is a ton of fun, thanks to its legendary go-kart handling. We could go on about its lightning-quick responses and glue-like grip…

In our 10 years of running workshops helping both writers and non-writers to master the power of language, we’ve only ever had one person get it wrong. (And I’m still not sure they weren’t teasing me).

The two pieces of copy are successful at projecting an identity because the three different levels of their voice are individualised for each brand.

First, behind each piece of copy is a worldview: this is what we think the world of driving should be about, so this is what we stand for. Nothing is explicitly mentioned but it’s clear what they believe in.

Secondly, it’s equally easy to imagine what kind of people are responsible for the writing. Through the choices of personality or characterisation of the tone of voice of the language,  Mini people seem to be fun, and peer-relating, while the Ferrari people seem to be technocratic, and exclusive.

And finally, down on the page itself, details such as grammar choices and the use of jargon, keywords and phrases support the personality and the overarching worldview.

A simple framework to guide your tone of voice.

There’s an easy framework to capture and share these three levels.

How can you use the 3 levels of the voice to make your Employee Brand more compelling?

This way of making language more characterful, engaging and easily remembered can be applied to internal communications and Employee Brands.

I’d go further. It ‘should’ be applied to the Employee Brand.

And increasingly, it is. We were asked by the CEO of a famous UK luxury brand to work with the Chief People Officer in producing an  Employee Brand that was as compelling as the external brand. Working with the tone of voice of that luxury brand inside the building achieved just what the tone of voice had, with the outside world. It lowered the cost of acquisition (of employees), it increased loyalty (measured by satisfaction) and it helped produce a marked uptick in retention.

And with a UK data science business, after we helped them with the language of their employee brand, they recorded in their employee surveys a greater than 20% net positive shift in people understanding the core values and expected behaviours.

We worked with the VP of HR for Belstaff, another luxury brand, a few years ago. Andy FitzGerald is now General Manager at an entirely different kind of business, Reuseabook. But what’s he’s seen applies equally across these two different businesses;

“Tone of voice? I’ve come to understand that it’s the magic ingredient when we’re communicating to and with groups of people. The thing is, employees (actually all of us) can smell inauthentic corporate-speak from a country mile away… but where the tone of voice is considered, crafted, consistently delivered (and reflective of how the organisation really operates) then we’re cooking.”

What’s really at stake here?

Too many employee values, which are all about the human side of business, feel like they’ve had that humanity run over by a steamroller.

Where’s the authenticity? Where’s the differentiating voice? What’s the distinctive worldview that means it’s better to work here than anywhere else?

Where’s the personality, so we know what kind of people we are and are looking for?

Is your choice of jargon, or grammar, reflective of your true personality? Or are you writing just to sound like a legal department, because that’s somehow safer?

Where to start?

Vaingloriously I’d say, buy my book, Strong Language. It details the ‘how to’ of constructing the tone of voice framework and it shares plenty of examples.

I also try to make myself very approachable, as I feel committed to helping people improve the value of their language and their enjoyment of writing.

But for now, here are some questions you can ask to make your Employee Brand more engaging, just by rewriting it:

  1. What’s your organisation’s worldview? And if that’s your worldview, what do you stand for? And equally, what do you stand against? Knowing that, what can you choose to write about in your Employee Brand so that it leads people to understand more deeply that worldview?
  1. What’s your company’s personality? How clearly does it shine through in your voice? If it doesn’t, the best you can hope for is that you’re not boring people, the worst is that people won’t understand how you’re differentiated and they’ll carry on behaving just as they did at their last company.
    If you’re a relatively new and Founder-led business, does your CEO have a distinctive way of talking? Can you bring that personality into your employee brand?
    If you’re a more established company, what feels different about where you work? What would that be like as a person? Can you write through that person’s personality?
  2. Be careful of grammar. Despite what Mr Gradgrind taught you at school, grammar is not absolute. It’s contextual. The grammar I might use while standing in the witness box at the High Court would not be the same set of governing rules I’d use in the saloon bar of the pub afterwards.
    So is your grammar inclusive or exclusionary?
  3. Do you have a narrative thread running through your employee brand? Narrative isn’t ‘Once upon a time’. It’s a coherent way of making explicit the values that guide your company. As language animals, we look for a coherent explanation that links an otherwise unrelated series of facts.

Perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to have a clear ‘Strategic Narrative’, room for employees to share their ‘Voice’, and a sense of ‘Organisational Integrity’. But when the ‘Engaging Manager’ returns to their office having pushed the shopping trolley full of ice-creams around the building on a sweltering day, it’s the tone of voice in the Employee Brand that’s subtly guiding people’s choices and behaviours.

Author: Chris West – CEO at Verbal Identity, and author of #1 best seller Strong Language.

Photo credit: Pressmaster

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