Editor's note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications' distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.
Authenticity in communications isn’t just a matter of being straightforward for its own sake; the financial benefits to the organization are immense.
A higher-trust culture produces better financial results by building better innovation and higher customer satisfaction, says Steven Handmaker, chief marketing officer at Assurance, one of the largest U.S. independent insurance brokers.
“Developing that high-trust culture isn’t an accident,” Handmaker says. “It takes work. The reason a lot of companies go about the work of the high-trust culture is [that] we know the financial results that come from it.”
Yet as trust in organizations falls worldwide, how so you create and sustain the authentic communications necessary to build trust?
In a new Ragan Training video, “The Importance of Authenticity in Internal Communications,” Handmaker offers tips for building authenticity that boosts the bottom line and can cause voluntary turnover to plummet to half that of one’s peer organizations.
1. Let comms do the communicating.
It was a strategic decision at Assurance to place all communications in the hands of the experts. That means human resources doesn’t communicate directly with employees.
“By my way of thinking, there was no group of people in the world who could figure out how to basically give every employee a day off from work and somehow make it sound like a punishment, the way HR people can,” Handmaker says.
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2. Match the medium, the message and the messenger.
Handmaker has seen plenty of terrible corporate videos.
“They’re all the videos where your CEO is wearing too much powder and makeup and has five different lights on them and is clearly sitting reading from a teleprompter in a voice that is so slow and painful, and he’s thinking that he’s crushing it,” he says.
To get it right, match the medium, the message and the messenger. Perhaps you have a CEO who is fun and relaxed on video but sounds stuffy in writing. Meanwhile, your chief marketing officer writes wittily but looks panicked in front of a camera.
Urge leaders to communicate through channels where they feel comfortable.
3. Know (or establish) your voice.
Every message, even those that come from an anonymous corporate account, should carry the voice of the organization.
Your organization “has a voice of its own,” Handmaker says. “Do you know what that voice is? ... Is it a voice that has a tone or a personality or a point of view?”
Assurance, despite being an insurance broker, communicates with tongue-in-cheek humor. “I don’t care how serious, or if it’s a billion-dollar matter we’re addressing,” he says.
4. Show a human side.
Back in his early days at Assurance, Handmaker worked on a presentation that the CEO gives at the annual meeting. The CEO sent the communicator a copy, filled with row upon row of bullet points. It was, well, dull.
“He’s not that guy,” Handmaker says. “His personality was lost from it.”
The executive was under the impression he should be very serious for a major meeting. Handmaker warned that he risked putting his audience to sleep.
They dropped in a few jokes. In one instance, a list of the year’s highlights included a bullet point that Lindsay Lohan was just arrested for the third time. The audience laughed.
“It truly was that moment in the presentation where everyone broke,” Handmaker says. “You could just feel the mood in the room change. It got funny and personal and relatable.”
5. Admit your mistakes.
Humor and self-deprecation bring out the human side. So do references to mistakes. Often it’s better to start out talking about a mistake rather than a victory.
Handmaker cites the annual letters of multibillionaire Warren Buffet. He is one of the world’s most successful investors, but you’d think he’s a stumblebum if you read his self-deprecating missives.
“All of his letters talk endlessly about, ‘I messed up this transaction,’ and, ‘These other people deserve the credit, really.’ The tone is casual, and it’s folksy,” says Handmaker.
In his 2017 letter, he reminded shareholders of a mistake he’d made back in 1993: using his company’s stock to buy Dexter Shoe. The deal turned into a dud, while the Berkshire shares subsequently skyrocketed in value. Oops.
Buffett wrote, “Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares.”
Though most of us could live a rich and fulfilling life without thinking about Buffett’s colonoscopy prep, the man does have a sense of humor. Suggest that approach to your CEO.
Then again, maybe not.