Rolling out tone of voice: Why leaving train-the-trainer until almost the end makes sense

Teams working on screen

We’ve had a couple of questions about train-the-trainer sessions this week. These are the training sessions we hold towards the end of a brand language roll-out to help build training skills into the organisation we’re working with.

“But,” said one lady we were talking to, “If you do train-the-trainer first, we could save ourselves a lot of money and just train all our teams ourselves.”

I can see why this seems a sensible way of looking at things. Why pay for external consultants to train all your teams? Much more cost-effective to get them to train your own trainers, and then your own trainers train everyone.

But this way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of what tone of voice training is.

There’s training… and then there’s training

If you want to train your teams in the latest anti-bribery and corruption (ABC) legislation, you’ll probably take what we call a “transactional” approach. That’s to say:

  • You have some information you need to impart
  • You give people the information in a training session
  • You test them at the end to see how much of it they’ve absorbed

In this kind of training, there are simple “units” of information that you have to get out of a manual and into someone’s head. It’s a thoroughly acceptable and worthwhile approach to training, if what you’re training just has simple right/wrong answers.

But it’s not even nearly a good way of training tone of voice.

Working on a laptop

When you change the language of an organisation, you’re not just updating a few “rules”. You’re often getting people to re-examine the relationships they have with their organisation, their customers and their colleagues. Because moving to a defined tone of voice isn’t just about the words – it’s about shifting, re-defining and re-expressing workplace culture.

So training has to be more nuanced than a slideshow followed by a multi-choice tick sheet.

Who’s a good candidate for train-the-trainer?

This is an excellent question. And the answer may be: not any of your in-house trainers.

The kind of people who make good tone of voice trainers tend to have the following broad set of skills and attributes:

  • They are positive and encouraging
  • They’re calm
  • They are confident in their own communications skills
  • They are proficient practitioners of your tone of voice – and can answer questions on it from all areas of your business
  • They understand your brand, inside out
  • They understand – and can explain – how this new verbal identity is helping your business to deliver on its objectives
  • They’re decent writers and communicators
  • Their grammar is spot-on
  • They’re not thrown by sharp challenges or people whose whole world is turned upside down by starting a sentence with an “and” or a “but”
  • They care about bringing about lasting change in your organisation

As we’re training tone of voice across an organisation, we’re constantly looking out for people who’d make good trainers. They tend to be the ones who get it, are good at it – and who help their colleagues to get it.

The ability to inspire people to express themselves differently is no respecter of rank. So our tone of voice trainers can come from all areas of the organisation. We keep in touch with them to give them feedback and further support in their work until they’re ready to make the leap to run their own training sessions

Why can’t you just advertise for people who like English?

A little while ago, I met a lady who told me in an almost-confrontational way that she had an A-Level in English.

“That’s great…” I said, a bit nervously.

“I’m not being funny,” she went on, “But I’m probably a lot better at writing than you.”

By this time, Doris (as I will call her from now on) had her hands on her hips and was squaring up to me.

“You’re not being at all funny,” I thought, “You’re being terrifying…” And Doris went on to list all the ways in which her approach to communications was undoubtedly better than mine.

Doris then took the seat next to mine. At some point or another I started scribbling down notes. I realised that Doris was a lot closer to me than I was comfortable with. If it’s possible to look up, edge away and still be in the same seat – that’s what I did. Doris let rip. “Have you just used an adverb?! Is that an adverb? Goodness me, I thought we had a professional in the house! You can’t do that! It’s against the rules! That’s just lazy writing!!!”

I looked up (and frankly, made sure I could reach the exit and help, if needed) and saw that Doris already had a red pen in her hand and was trying to “mark” my notebook.

“Doris,” I said, “Step. Back. From. The. Moleskine…”

Every organisation has a Doris. Most of them aren’t quite as scary as she was. But they all hold the same beliefs… that the English language is some kind of elite activity, where only the hallowed few understand the rules.

And if you advertise for people who like English, you’ll have them all knocking at the door. They don’t care about your brand or business goals. They really, really couldn’t care less about inspiring people or making them feel amazing about the way they communicate. They just want to replay whichever school or secretarial college experience led them to be favoured over others.

It takes time

Back in the world of transactional ABC training, timescales are different. You identify who needs to go through the training and you send them an online request to an e-learning unit. Barring a few stragglers, you can probably get several hundred, if not thousands of people through it in a couple of weeks.

ABC done? Boom.

If anyone tells you the same thing can be done with tone of voice, they’re having you on (or they just don’t know what they’re talking about).

It’s not called embedding for nothing. A training session is just the start. Typically, people spend three or four hours in a workshop with us, going over the principles and the basics – and having a go at a few exercises and examples.

They then have to go out into their area of the business and start communicating differently. Do they get fully into the swing of it, creating perfect communications right from the off? Maybe a handful of them do (and we’ll be earmarking those people as potential trainers).

Most, however, won’t gain skills and confidence until they’ve done it a few times. And then that might be with a bit of help via a drop-in tone of voice clinic – or a one-to-one session or a quick call (I’m always happy to chat to people on the phone about work they’re doing following one of our workshops).

This factor, more than any of the others, makes me believe that running train-the-trainer sessions at the beginning of a tone of voice roll-out is a complete waste of time and money. People just need time to build their confidence with it before they can start helping others.

So there you have it. Changing the tone of voice across an organisation only works if you make a commitment to really doing it. There aren’t any short cuts (and if there were, we’d already be using them). You just have to let the practice sink in and the culture change around it. And of course, if you need our help, you know where we are.