How to Make Internal Communications More Authentic

EPISODE 49 | Guest: Ray Walsh, independent internal localization consultant & author of Localizing Employee Communications

How do you engage people but still maintain consistency in branding and messaging? How can you express your corporate culture while being authentic, comprehensible and engaging at the same time?

As in all good communications, the key is to focus on the audience – who they are, what they’re interested in and what their context is. But that’s just the first step, after you get to know your audience, you still have to craft messaging that will appeal to them.

In this episode, localization and communications expert Ray Walsh gives advice on how we can get across what we need to and yet still sound human.

  • Learn how to avoid jargon (write to your mother)
  • Get tips to simplify and focus your message
  • Explore how being authentic leads to more engagement
  • Embrace revisions, review and more revisions
  • Hear how localization can help frame corporate messaging

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Check out Ray’s book Localizing Employee Communications at Amazon.


Derek DeWitt: When communicating to a large-scale audience, whether you’re a public-facing communication system or you’re just using digital signage and other communications methods for internal communications with your employees, students, and so on, it can be quite a challenge to be an individual with a unique personality and a unique perspective that is also relevant to the people you’re trying to communicate with. And, if you’re part of a larger organization, also fit within the overall guidelines and brand standards that corporate have set. That’s tough to do.

Fortunately, we’re here with Ray Walsh, independent internal localization consultant, working for himself and author of a book called Localizing Employee Communications. And we’re going to talk a little bit about finding your voice today in the corporate communications and organizational communications landscape. Hi, Ray.

Ray Walsh: Hi, Derek. Thanks for having me.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you for coming on and thank everybody out there for listening.

So, I guess my first question is how do you appeal to many different people while alienating none of them, and yet also have a personality? My God, that just seems like an awful lot to do. How is a person supposed to do this?

Ray Walsh: It is really hard. If you have your own social media channels and you want to do a Facebook post, you don’t hesitate. You just write it. You know who your friends are, you know what you want to say. And yet when we have to write or present content on behalf of an organization, we get cold feet. We hesitate. And we go into a kind of official speak that we think sounds more like the organization. And that’s when we start sounding more artificial, more robot-like.

I think the goal here is to sound like a person. If you can sound like yourself, you’re going to be far more appealing than that persona that you’re taking on to write for the organization. The difficulty is that your organization probably does have a kind of voice standard that it wants to be writing in. And we, sort of like the children in grade school where we are doing a book report (in my generation, it was copying out of an encyclopedia and from what I understand kids today, it’s just copying from a website), but nevertheless, you’re adopting a persona. You’re taking on somebody else’s ideas and you’re writing in a way that you think you’re supposed to be writing.

And the challenge is really, write like yourself, present like yourself. You want to have that warmth and you want to have that spontaneity and, more than anything else, you want to have that authenticity.

Derek DeWitt: And it doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down. You don’t have to be like, “Hey, wow, we’re getting crazy! We got a 401(k)!” Like, it doesn’t have to be that. But it also doesn’t have to be, “In order to take advantages of the 401()k platform, you must adhere to the following standards.” Neither one of those is a good message.

Ray Walsh: I’ve been in corporate communications now for 20 years. And regardless of the function, whether you’re in finance or procurement, or I don’t know what part of the organization, you’re probably writing about what is actually a technical subject. And you’ve got a vocabulary that you’re used to using with your peers. Now when that finance person, or when that procurement person, needs to speak to the wider organization, they need to sound like a person. They need to get away from the jargon and get away from that inside terminology. That’s scary ground for a lot of people because they’ve been spending most of their careers writing about procurement for procurement people and writing about finance for finance people.

Derek DeWitt: The joke about like, “Oh my God, the IT guy is talking IT at me, and I do not know what he is saying.”

Ray Walsh: Yeah. I’m not sure that any of us do. And in fact, I sometimes wonder, though, if those specialists really know what they’re saying. Because they’re so used to putting on this persona that they throw out the buzzwords and it’s sort of a word salad, but does it really say anything?

Derek DeWitt: Right.

Ray Walsh: I think, you know, it’s a writing trick that I learned way back as an undergraduate, but I think it was a way to break writer’s block. If you’re in a situation, you can’t think of what to say, start a letter to your mother and just write about what, you know, what your task is today. That was just to break writer’s block, but I think that’s a very good exercise no matter what you’re doing. If you’re in IT and you need to explain an IT concept, write it like you were trying to explain it to your parents.

Derek DeWitt: Without all the baggage.

Ray Walsh: Right. Let’s not have a Thanksgiving dinner argument.

But if you need to write about finance for people who are not in finance, if you need to write about procurements for people who are not in procurement, start that letter to your mother, or think about presenting the content like you were presenting it to your parents or your friends.

Derek DeWitt: And then when you get to a messaging systems such as a digital signage where, you know, your individual message is going to be up for seven seconds (that’s usually what it is), maybe you’re going to have three or four or five bullet points, and you really need to strip that language down to its essentials, but it still needs to communicate, not just content but personality.

And, of course, there’s a danger… I’m from San Francisco and a lot of architecture in San Francisco from the 80s on kind of gets vanilla-ed out. Once all these special interest groups get to have their, say; this group wants this, this group says, no, there aren’t enough trees, these people say these aren’t the right kinds of trees. And when it’s all said and done, you get this kind of blah building that nobody likes and yet cost a phenomenal matter money and energy.

We argued about the Metreon building for 10 years and one of the local newspapers said, “Why, oh why did Sony allow a blind man to design their Metreon building?” Because nobody liked it. It had none of the things that would make it interesting or appealing. And that’s the danger, right? Is that you just create this vanilla ice milk that nobody pays attention to or cares about. How can they engage with it?

Ray Walsh: It’s a good illustration, and it also explains why a lot of traditional corporate communications is dreadful. Doesn’t say much to anybody. It’s been through many, many layers of approval and many, many editors; many, many opinions.

What’s interesting about the times we’re in now is, because we have these social media channels, we’re learning that we are all individuals and we’re all responsible for our own sort of personal brand. And that’s a very good development, I think, in communications. If we realize that we are individuals speaking to other individuals, our tone starts to take on a more human tone and it starts to speak to more people.

Derek DeWitt: Yes, that’s true. You know, earlier you kind of hinted at formality levels. I noticed one of the things I see happen a lot, not necessarily with digital signage, but just even just memos and documents and things like this (mission statements, what have you, even emails) is people go into what they imagine must be a formal writing voice, or what’s known as register. And so, they start using words that they don’t need to use. You know, “In order to utilize this, you may….” Just say, “Do it.” I don’t need all of this formal stuff in there. Just say what you want to say. Don’t say it in a rude way, but you know, you don’t need all the fluff.

Ray Walsh: It’s a struggle for all of us. I think that I have a great many interesting things to say to people. But if I really think about my audience, I have to think about what do they want to know? What do they need to know here? And then say it. And not do too much framing and not do too much background and too much explaining.

Derek DeWitt: Do you think it’s a problem when a company, say, has one voice for talking amongst themselves to their internal employees? Because obviously, like, the C-suite has its own jargon; as you said IT, all these, finance, they all have their own way of talking. But even the way that a company communicates to its employees and the way it communicates to the general public at large, I think sometimes I see a mismatch between those two.

Now the public doesn’t know that, but certainly the employees do. I mean, I kind of can’t help but feel, if I were an employee in a really sort of super-formal corporate environment, and yet all their public facing stuff is very friendly and happy, I don’t know that I would like it very much.

Ray Walsh: I can guarantee you that there isn’t a corporation in the world that thinks it’s stiff and formal. If it’s a large organization, they’ve got a brand book and it’s got in there tone of voice guidelines. And those tone of voice guidelines invariably say we are friendly and helpful and warm and human. And then when the various groups of the organization go to construct communications, they revert back to their own jargon.

I once learned a definition for jargon that’s quite useful. You know, doctors speaking to doctors have their own language, and accountants speaking to accountants have their own language. And that’s a very efficient use of language. They can use acronyms, for example, and if they’re in the profession, they know what that acronym means. But as soon as that doctor goes to speak to non-doctors using that, that’s jargon. As soon as that accountant tries to explain, I don’t know, EBITDA or something, or one of those acronyms, as soon as they use a term like that to non-accountants, it’s jargon.

Regardless of what the official brand voice is, it probably breaks down pretty quickly because that CEO is used to talking to the C-suite and top customers (also the C-suite), the accountants are used to talking to the accountants. So, they use the language that they use every day with their peers. And actually, thinking about audiences outside of their peer group is a real exercise in communication.

So, there’s two things here that they need to do. One is, think about the audience and sound like a person and explain it in human terms. And the second thing they need to realize is it’s not going to come out fully formed the first time. Revising is what actually makes writing good. Constantly thinking about your audience and constantly thinking about what they already know and what you want them to know, and what you want them to do. If you’re thinking about that, revision after revision after revision, you’re going to make it stronger and clearer.

Derek DeWitt: You express what your culture is and to be authentic and comprehensible and engaging all at once. Because that’s a lot of balls in the air.

Ray Walsh: Culture is important, and every organization does have a culture. And within that organization, every work group has its own culture. I would say, even down to the team level, each team has its own culture. And those aspects of culture are important. You can express that culture in ways that are authentic or in ways that are less than authentic. So, culture is critical and it is worth thinking about.

But I think for every communication, it always comes down to audience and who are you talking to. If you have that awareness and if you’re shaping your communication for that audience, you will bring in the culture that you need to. But more importantly, you’ll shape the communication to achieve the outcome that you need to in this instance.

Derek DeWitt: Kind of changing directions a little bit, you know, a lot of times I will hear, “Hey, let’s make a video and let’s make it go viral. It’s going to take off and get a million views.” And that’s just not how viral works, right? I mean, a couple of years ago, the number one video of the year was a guy clearly on psychedelic mushrooms, amazed at a double rainbow. Who would have ever predicted that was going to be the number one run. But I understand the impetus behind that because as communicators, you’re like, “we want to draw people into what we’re trying to say and to tell them.” So, I mean, how do you do that?

Ray Walsh: All of what you just described comes from, the impetus is, I have an idea. I have an idea and let me explain it to you in this 10-minute video. That’s maybe a first step, but you’ve already decided what format it’s going to be in. And what you’ve forgotten again is who the audience is. You have an idea? Great. Step two, who do you need to get that idea across to? Now, what do they know about that idea? What do they need to do once they hear the idea? And from thinking about that and going through that exercise very disciplined and very carefully, you’ll come up with the format. It may not be a 10-minute video. It may be something else. But if you decide already what the format is going to be, you’re already making a mistake.

A leader comes to you and he wants this video to be shared. Let’s say the video is already produced. It’s five minutes long, and he wants to put it up on the screens. The problem with that video is if it’s in a break room and the sound is down because it’s on a loop and it’s annoying, then that video isn’t going to be heard. It’s literally not…the message is not going to get through. So, then you have to think about, “Well, what else can we do? Can we do it graphically? Do we need to subtitle this video?” Again, the equalizer here is who is it intended for it? You know, what’s the setting?

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be shown in break rooms and they turn the sound down, maybe we should reshoot it but with no dialogue.” You know, holding up signs or find a way to tell the same story, but in a visual way instead.

Ray Walsh: Right. I think that communication should be thought of as a triangle. And it’s often thought of as a flat, you know, from point A to point B.

Derek DeWitt: Right. A line.

Ray Walsh: But there’s actually a third element in there and that’s who we’re trying to reach. There’s no such thing as a neutral communication. So, just as a simple example, let’s say I have a communication, it involves the word father. And if the person hearing that message didn’t have a father or had an abusive father. That word itself has a different meaning and it’s not neutral.

Derek DeWitt: You’re going to trigger certain things.

Ray Walsh: So, we have to be aware of who is that audience? Where are they coming from? What do they know about this subject? How are they going to feel about it? And by having that awareness, we will begin to shape our communication in ways that are more sensitive and more relevant and more meaningful.

Derek DeWitt: Yes. And yet, then you also get into the notion of, the thing that pops into my mind is greenwashing. For those that don’t know, greenwashing is when a company or organization basically pays lip service to ecological considerations, but they don’t really mean it. Audiences see through this.

Even if they’re your employees, they’re not brainwashed drones. They’re people, they live in the world that we all live in. So, when you send out these cynical greenwashed messages, I don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors.

Ray Walsh: This is a really interesting example of where localization can really help out. So, the company may in fact have large global initiatives where they’re trying to reduce their carbon footprint. And if that’s being received in a facility, like, “We’ve been trying to get recycling here for years, and no one will do anything about it.”

Derek DeWitt: Right. Exactly, right!

Ray Walsh: So then that message, it really seems inauthentic. So if you’re in charge of that channel, you might think about, “Well, what are we doing locally to, let’s say, reduce the carbon footprint,” or, you know, “Where does our recycling program stand? Are we researching it at all?” And if you can, you can take the big overarching message of, this is what we’re doing with environmental initiatives and combine that with what we’re doing locally, no matter how modest, that message will have a lot more authenticity. And then begin to seem like something other than greenwashing.

Derek DeWitt: And I think it also, it makes it to a certain extent, almost personal or personalized (ish) or something, you know. Like, “Oh yeah, corporate says we should care about the environment. Oh, that’s right, I forgot that we have a recycling program. Oh, I didn’t know that my boss and my department has actually done the following things in order to reduce paper usage. I didn’t even think about the fact that this digital signage system actually is, though it uses electricity, more ecological than what we did before. Huh! That is interesting.” And that that’s something I can follow on a day-to-day basis.

Ray Walsh: If you can start to tell those stories, you’re providing specific examples of what is actually an abstract statement. And now when you talk about specific examples, it starts to feel like something a lot different than general universal platitudes about the environment being important.

Derek DeWitt: And that’s how you get engagement. You get engagement by making the person go, “Oh, oh!” It’s almost energizing. We talk about sometimes, you know, you can gamify…

Ray Walsh: You get more credibility.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah.

Ray Walsh: You get more credibility. You get more authenticity. The specific is far more grounding than the abstract statements. And the thing about the corporate office is they are speaking to the whole company. By definition, it tends to be abstract, it tends to be global. You’re doing them and you a favor by making it specific and human and local.

Derek DeWitt: So regardless of where we are, whether you’re in corporate headquarters, sending out things that need to be showed or you’re in the local branch, or you’re just a small organization that doesn’t have a corporate overlord (let’s call it, right?) you do need to find that balance, to find a voice that is appealing and authentic and engaging. I mean, how do you do that?

Ray Walsh: I would say for any content creator, the first step is to trust yourself. What are you interested in? What do you want to hear about? And then explore that.

Derek DeWitt: Provided it’s not too weird.

Ray Walsh: Yes. Well, right.

Derek DeWitt: And by weird, I mean, not like I’m not saying LARPing is weird, but you do know if you’re a LARPing person that not a lot of people are into LARPing. Certainly not the financial department.

Ray Walsh: I’ve never had LARPing come up in any corporate communications exercises. But if it did, I would say to that communicator, and then check your work, check your work with your peers, get a second opinion. Before you put it on screens, before you hit send, get a second opinion. I think that’s what generally we don’t do enough of.

We’re all in a kind of broadcast mode. This is what I think. And if we check our work, we’ll begin to be more aware of where this sits in a context and where this is going to land. What people are going to receive this, what are they going to think about this LARPing message.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And the thing is, you’ll know you’re successful because the next day at work, everybody shows up dressed like elves.

Ray Walsh: Could be a win. Might not be.

Derek DeWitt: I had the hardest time getting through security today because my chainmail kept setting off the metal detectors. So, trust yourself, but also check yourself, before you wreck yourself, right? Double check with other people, “Hey, this is going to fly, right?”

Ray Walsh: And constantly check in with your audience. And by doing that, again, continually, and over time, you’ll develop a kind of relationship with them where you understand what they need. But you’re never done. You never know them all the way. You have to keep checking whether your messages are resonating, what they’re interested in.

If you go back to the environment example, you know, maybe it’s next year, maybe the recycling program has taken off, maybe you’re going to talk about environmental initiatives in a slightly different way. Things evolve and audiences evolve.

Derek DeWitt: Not everybody in your audience is going to care about environmental issues. There may be some people who are just like, I don’t care about this, I don’t think it’s a problem, so stop shoving this stuff down my throat.

And if you somehow know that there’s a decent size of your audience, who’s like this, what do you do? You just tweak your message a little bit? Instead of saying, “Hey, you should do this because it’s the right thing.” Maybe come up with a different justification for it? “Hey, there are bottom-line savings here.” Or, or just, “Hey, we’re doing it, shut up.” Or how do you appeal to those people?

Ray Walsh: Maybe we’re getting to a point with social media channels and decentralized communication that we are speaking person to person, and that not everyone is going to agree with everything we say. But if we take ownership of what we’re saying, if we continually strive to make our messages authentic and true, let’s face it.

Derek DeWitt: Verifiably true.

Ray Walsh: Verifiably true. We’ll certainly reach the people that are already interested in it. And maybe over time, we’ll start to change some minds.

Derek DeWitt: Well, that’s all pretty interesting stuff. I’d like to thank Ray for talking to me today. Thank you, Ray.

Ray Walsh: Thank you, Derek, for having me.

Derek DeWitt: And remember everybody, Ray has written this book called Localizing Employee Communications. It is available on Amazon and also directly from the publisher XML Press? Publishing?

Ray Walsh: That’s right.

Derek DeWitt: Press. All right. So, check it out. And thank you everybody out there for listening.