Technology has transformed the way we communicate internally. The number of channels utilized is expanding rapidly, meaning employees and employers are now subject to a continual influx of information from a range of sources. Whether businesses favor traditional internal emails or the rise of digitalized communications such as intranet platforms and social tools, the amount of “noise” in the business place is considerable.

The communications challenge

With this growth comes a number of unique challenges that don’t arise when talking face-to-face. Research by Professor Albert Mehrabian suggests that as humans, the typical interpretation of a message is 38% vocal (the way we say the words) 55% visual (body language and facial expressions) and a mere 7% verbal (the words we use). When we make the move to written communication, we lose the vocal and visual elements.

Without these subliminal means of communicating, the tone – or the attitude of a writer toward a subject or an audience – becomes extremely important. However, when faced with a multitude of channels and a diverse audience, how can you be sure you’re getting it right?

Before you start composing any internal communication, consider the following questions;

  • What is the purpose of this document? Are you looking to inform, engage, call to action?
  • Who are your audience? Is it an individual, group, company-wide? What is their demographic – for example, is this senior management or the summer interns?
  • Where will it be distributed? Are you posting to the company intranet as a blog, producing an official handbook or micro-blogging as a tweet or update?

Each of the above will shape the language you use and the tone you adopt.

Consider the tone

Next, consider how you want your message to be received by your reader(s). The same message can be completely transformed by subtle differences in tone, driven by the attitude of the writer. Consider the following three examples:

“You must read this document and sign it as soon as you can. If you don’t, we risk losing the opportunity at a considerable cost to the business!”

“Please find attached the document. This requires reading and signing as soon as possible, to prevent the loss of the opportunity. Regards,”

“Hi Tom, please find the document attached. We’re under a tight deadline to prevent the loss of the opportunity so if possible, we would ask that you read and sign as soon as you can. Please let me know if you require any further details.”

In each instance, the underlying message is the same. However, the first example is directive (by using, for example, ‘you must’) and has aggressive undertones, which may appear threatening to certain individuals. The second is more corporate and impersonal, removing the use of ‘you’ – which serves to distance the author from the reader. The final example is more informal and personable (naming the individual and using appealing language such as ‘please’ and ‘if possible’), which comes across as more courteous and individual to the reader.

Each example may have a place within internal communication and the choice will be individual according to a variety of factors, including:

  • the company culture and brand; for example, a corporate legal firm may endorse a formal approach at all times, whereas a young marketing firm will typically be more colloquial
  • the content or topic of the communication; announcing a potential business acquisition which will have implications for people’s jobs won’t be worded the same as a blog about the upcoming team night out
  • the channel used; a 140-character tweet needs to be concise and get information across quickly, whereas an intranet blog can be longer and more conversational

Keep it casual?

However, as the business environment continues to shift towards social-based collaboration (thanks in part to the growing presence of the Millennial generation) those pioneering internal communications will find they generate greater engagement and response by electing for a less formal approach. That’s not to say that a regression to the use of text-speak and emoji’s is fitting for the business environment, but utilizing language your audience is familiar and comfortable with can break down many barriers – and initiate two-way conversations that are essential for collaboration.

Ultimately tone is challenging because no is no hard-and-fast right or wrong way to approach it. Tone will be interpreted in different ways by individuals, making it frustratingly subjective. The important thing to remember is that extremes tend to alienate; therefore when considering how to produce your next internal communication, take the time to read through and adjust accordingly. In a digital age once a written communication is distributed, it’s very difficult to get back!