CEOs need to change their tone

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To illustrate tone, a man speaks into a megaphone

The language and tone CEOs use can change the culture of a whole organisation, says Neil Taylor of The Writer

‘The Company would like to apologise for any inconvenience that may have been caused.’

‘We apologise to customers for our unsatisfactory performance. We will make our best efforts to remedy the situation as soon as possible.’

‘I’m really sorry we let you down. We’ll do everything we can to sort things out straight away.’

If you’ve ever had to apologise for your company’s poor performance, you’ll know it’s a tricky thing to get right. Which of the versions above would convince you most as a customer?

Most people say the last one. Yet when the chips are down, most organisations hover somewhere between numbers one and two, because they’re too scared to sound like human beings.

Well, good CEOs have the guts to change that. And not just in quirky brands like Innocent; a study we commissioned from Illuma Research showed financial services businesses are most likely to have a defined tone of voice.

Why tone isn’t ‘fluffy’

The ‘tone of voice’ of your business is getting more important. It’s intrinsic to your customer experience – and your employee experience, come to that. It’s there in letters, emails, tweets, replies to complaints, policies, presentations, speeches.

And these days, if you get even one of those wrong, it can be all over the internet, quickly. Just ask Stephen Elop of Microsoft about his ‘hello there’ email.

BT has a language programme, sponsored by its CEO, which has trained 9,000 people to communicate with customers and colleagues more conversationally and effectively.

Richard Lloyd, BT’s head of brand identity and activation, calls it ‘culture change by stealth’, because getting people to think about how they write gets them thinking about how they behave more generally.

Why culture counts

Of course, culture is often high on the list of things a new CEO wants to change: maybe they want to make staff more customer-focused, or rebuild trust in a tarnished brand, for instance.

Our research showed that among businesses who had actively defined their tone, a new chief exec was one of the triggers in 81 per cent of cases. Once those businesses had rolled out a programme to change their tone, Illuma found 91% of senior management recognised its value.

Why it starts at the top

Not only do canny CEOs care about culture and tone, we’ve seen that businesses struggle to make any difference without visible and vocal support from the top.

As an ordinary employee, it’s scary to put your head above the parapet and try to change things; people need to feel they have permission. And only senior people have the clout to make language a priority across the whole business.

When they do though, the impact is big: they can reshape the internal culture, shift customers’ perceptions and significantly boost the bottom line: better written customer communications have saved BT £6m in five years.

So next time someone writes something for you, think about if it’s really how you and your business want to come across. If not, it might be telling you something about your whole company.

Read more on tone and public speaking

Conquer your fear of public speaking

About author

Neil Taylor

Neil Taylor

Neil Taylor is a managing partner of the world's largest language consultancy, The Writer

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