Getting teams to change their language means getting them to change their culture

Changing culture

A little while ago, I published a book on how to create tone of voice. Almost all of the follow-up emails and questions I’ve received about it have addressed one topic…

That creating a tone of voice is one thing, but embedding it through a whole organisation is something else entirely.

So here are a few thoughts…

Understand what tone of voice is

Tone of voice means different things to different people. People writing ads think of it as the tone of a single ad or single campaign. Other people think of it as something that’s only for marketing communications.

We, on the other hand, think of tone of voice as being a single approach to language for a whole organisation. That means whether you’re talking to people in your customer service contact centre, writing an employment contract or writing web copy for customers, it’s all in the same voice.

Understand what changing your organisation’s approach to communicating involves

Changing the way all your teams communicate isn’t as simple as changing the logos they use. You can’t even compare it to changing to a new IT system. In these two examples, all you have to do is provide the new rules and tell people to start using them.

If you want to change your organisation’s language, you need to understand that it involves changing culture.

Because to change the way an organisation communicates, you need to change its mindset. If you don’t change the way people think about their customers and colleagues, they’re not going to be able to make the shift.

Think of it as a programme, not a project

If you’re going to embed a single tone of voice across a whole company, you will need to train people.

But don’t think that a one-off training session will do the trick. Again, changing the way people communicate isn’t as straightforward as some types of training – for example, updating your teams on a piece of legislation.

With the latter, you can say training is complete when all of your teams have completed a multiple choice tick sheet.

You can’t do that with language. For one, with communications there are many, many ways of being “right” – so tick boxes aren’t helpful. And for two, you have to remember that this is a cultural shift – so you need to be thinking in terms of waves of training, reinforcement and recognition.

Changing language and changing culture are not one-off activities. They take time and patience. And like anything that takes time and patience, they reap huge rewards.

You need to market the programme

Need to change the way people think and feel about something? Market the hell out of it. Think of it as a product that you need people to adopt – so spell out what’s in it for them and make it appealing.

If you make this change in tone of voice seem like a chore, then no surprises if you don’t get many willing takers.

Know that you will meet resistance

By and large, most people will either support your change in tone of voice, or at least not stand in its way. But there will be a handful of people who don’t like either it or what it represents (usually, improving customer experience and becoming more customer-focussed).

You need to be prepared for this. You need to listen to these people and support them. You also need to have well-placed programme sponsors who will intervene if anyone becomes particularly obstructive.

Make as many friends as you can

Hopefully when you created your tone of voice, you spoke to as many people in your organisation as you could – and got their input and feedback along the way. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you created your tone of voice by committee. It’s more that you listened to what people had to say and incorporated any useful information that you found.

Importantly, you were making friends even at the point when you were creating the tone of voice. And you need to continue to make friends – people who will help you to spread the message, to persuade and influence.

Here are some links you may find useful:

FAQs on tone of voice

Why you should treat language like finance