Communication: it’s time for HR to stop sounding like robots and speak like humans

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The modern business environment is less formal than ever before – so why do HR communications still sound like robots wrote them? It’s time to give your internal comms a more human touch.  

In person, HR folk are often great communicators – warm, human and down-to-earth – but when they sit down at their keyboard, something strange happens. Most are overtaken by starchy alter egos and find themselves writing things like:

Employees are requested to complete their self-appraisals in a timely manner in accordance with our policy.

They sound like a robotic corporate type from 1980 who’s trying to impress their boss with a professional and polished delivery.

Unfortunately, for employees it’s equivalent to hearing nails on a chalkboard.

On the face of it, this dry, bureaucratic language doesn’t appear fatal. After all, it’s not inaccurate or offensive, right? In practice it has huge consequences, flat lining employee engagement and killing company culture.  

Why? Well, this aloof tone of voice creates a ‘them versus us’ feeling that silently but relentlessly undermines any efforts towards creating an inviting, human workplace.  

Connection between people is never made - and this is a big problem for many organisations.

Cool workplace, old school language  

The workplace has transformed in the past 30 years. We’ve moved from a suit and tie world to a dress down environment, literally and symbolically.  

We call our bosses by their first names and work alongside them in open plan spaces. We go on bonding days where managing directors throw themselves over the same muddy obstacle course as the graduate trainees. Informality is the new normal.  

Our written language, however, is all too often still stuck in the era of starched shirts and typing pools – all buttoned-up and stiff. This is true across all areas of organisations, but particularly in HR.  

Professional doesn’t mean formal

Many HR leaders want to appear professional, so they still lean toward formal language, ‘just in case’, using phrases like:

Our employees are invited to participate in our CSR programme, which is designed to facilitate outreach to our local community.

They mistakenly confuse formality with professionalism and end up sounding distant and unapproachable. They focus only on what they want to say and not on how they say it.

Stone-cold culture killer

Stilted, wordy phrases like, 'this memorandum serves to outline our new recruitment policy’ are the enemy of company culture.  

By taking a more conscious, deliberate approach to how we communicate, we can supercharge employee engagement and shape company culture faster than we might imagine.

After all, you might say you’re a people-centred, democratic organisation, but your formal, authoritative tone of voice whispers, ‘psst, you’re really just the worker bees. The real power is up in the ivory tower’.

It smacks more of a parent-child relationship than equals pulling together toward the same goal. Stuffy language leaves employees disengaged from what’s happening at the top.  

Them versus us

Ever been at a party talking to someone who seems to be interested in what you’re saying (they’re smiling and nodding), but all the while they’re furtively sneaking glances over your shoulder to see if there’s someone better to talk to?

This is what corporate language does to corporate culture.

The result? Employees don’t buy in to their company’s vision. There’s no trust, no ‘we’, only a ‘them’ and an ‘us’.

Corporate robot to master communicator

The good news is that when we show our true intentions with a warm voice, as well as tell them our message, we can make great things happen.

Simple changes to our language can have a massive impact. Our writing and choice of words can uplift, inspire, excite and engage. They can make people feel special, needed and valued.

By taking a more conscious, deliberate approach to how we communicate, we can supercharge employee engagement and shape company culture faster than we might imagine.

How do we write better? How do we focus on how we say things, not just what we’re saying?

I teach a wide range of specialists – from HR professionals and salespeople to lawyers and marketers – how to write to connect faster with their audience.

Here are my ABC tips for writing with warmth and conviction.

1. Audience first

Whenever we sit down to write something, we tend to ask ourselves ‘what do I want to say?’. This sets us up for failure. Why? Well, we’re starting with our own perspective, our own goals and aims, not those of our recipients. It’s all me, me, me.

We need to understand our audience before we can connect with them. Instead, we should be asking two things:

  • What does my audience want or need to know?
  • What do I want them to do?

If we use the recruitment policy example -

This memorandum serves to outline our new recruitment policy. Managers are expected to familiarise themselves with its contents.

we might change that to something like -

Here’s all the information you need about our new recruitment policy.  Please get to know it well so you can hire the best talent more quickly and easily.

2. Billboard, not bible

Pretty much every HR communication I come across could be cut in half. Packed full of filler words and redundant, starchy phrases, they’re often overlong and overstuffed.

These days we need to think billboard, not bible.  

Loosening up your language can have a hugely positive impact on your organisation and your employees.

The Radicati Group estimates that the average worker sends and receives 124 emails per day (you might get through a whole lot more). You need to make sure that your communications are snappy, to the point and have a clear call to action if you want them to be read:

  • Use short sentences, short paragraphs and plenty of white space to draw your reader in (we only have seconds to grab attention).
  • Subheadings help your reader get to grips with your information at a glance (we rarely read every word online and tend to skim read).
  • Ditch old-fashioned filler words and phrases like ‘with regard to’, ‘needless to say’, ‘it is important to note’, ‘for all intents and purposes’ and ‘at all times’.

3. Conversational, not corporate robot

Think of who you like to hang out with at your office party. It’s probably not Claire from customer support who’s had way more than her allocated two drinks and is spilling the beans on her affair; nor is it Phil from finance with his top button still fastened at midnight droning on about his favourite spreadsheet.  

We all tend to warm to a middle ground – someone who is engaging, interesting and friendly but not over the top. That’s exactly the same tone you want for your writing.

Professional doesn’t have to be stuffy. To achieve a more conversational tone:

  • Use contractions – e.g. ‘it’s’ instead of ‘it is’ and ‘you’re’ instead of ‘you are’.
  • Swap jargon-y business words like ‘utilise’ and ‘commence’ for their easier-going cousins ‘use’ and ‘start’.
  • Avoid the passive voice (‘employees are invited to participate’) and use the active voice instead (‘we’d like you to take part’).
  • Use ‘we’ and ‘you’ to create connection – it’s like saying someone’s name.

Switch off autopilot

Loosening up your language can have a hugely positive impact on your organisation and your employees.

If your autopilot writing style is using fusty old language, make sure you switch it off.

Make a move to using relaxed words and a conversational tone if you want to ditch that 1980s shoulder-pad vibe and create a more human workplace. Your people will love you for it.

Interested in this topic? Read Communicating company culture: understanding the role of unique language in business.

About Kim Arnold

Kim Arnold

Kim Arnold is an international marketing and communication specialist who helps individuals and organisations transform the way they communicate.  She’s helped a wide range of clients connect faster with their employees and customers, including Accenture, UBS Asset Management and Euromoney plc.  She is a Panel Tutor at the University of Cambridge Institute For Continuing Education, where she teaches branding. 

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