Finding a voice that’s clear, responsible and reassuring
It’s good to see so many organisations in all sectors making a big effort to keep customers, employees and the community informed about their plans and activities during the current COVID-19 outbreak.
Every organisation is feeling the impact on their workforce, changing demand and new pressures on infrastructure, from supply chain to online services. There’s a lot of anxiety amongst consumers: in communications, we can all do our bit to reduce uncertainty and provide reassurance that important services and supplies will continue.
I’ve seen a lot of communications from big brands and local organisations in my inbox this week and applaud everyone’s efforts to be clear, reassuring and responsible.
Whether you’re sending a corporate communication to hundreds of thousands of customers or a personal email to a handful, it’s likely to be just one of many that the person receives. You need to make sure your message reaches the people who need to hear it. There will be many more updates to come in the next few weeks, so it will continue to be a crowded marketplace of communications. The relevance and key points need to stand out.
The tone of your message is also important. You want to reflect your culture and brand but also to engage effectively with recipients who may be more anxious or stressed than normal. Sainsbury’s message sent yesterday from CEO Mike Coupe stood out for me as hitting the right note – it’s reassuring, authoritative, calm, specific, empathetic and personal. Although it’s one continuous text, it feels like a personal letter, which is engaging and encouraged me to read to the end. (In general, I’d recommend signposting readers through the content with headers.)
Sainsbury’s are not the only organisation that’s done this well: I respect and applaud the many B2B and B2C brands that have sent out other excellent emails this week.
Here’s some of the best practice I’ve observed:
- Follow national guidelines – whatever you’re doing, make sure it supports current government and PHE guidance and say so
- Don’t speculate or be political – even by inference. Stick to the official facts as context for your actions and say you’ll adapt them if anything changes
- Consider the subject line – “Update” is popular and doesn’t provoke fear or anxiety; “A message from our CEO” conveys gravity and reassures of leadership and focus
- Use everyday language – complex terms, long sentences, passive verbs and officialese can feel forbidding and defensive
- Think about the end-state – how do you want the reader to feel at the end? Perhaps reassured, confident, well-informed? Make sure the content or tone of your text doesn’t provoke unwanted reactions like fear, panic, anger or despair
- Make it easy to read – use short paragraphs, bullet points, headers or bold to highlight key points
- Highlight actions – if recipients need to do something differently, make it clear upfront
- Be specific – for example, if delivery or response times are now longer, say by how much
- Show empathy – acknowledge that people feel worried, that things aren’t operating as normal, and that you’re doing all you can to maintain service and offer support.
- Appreciate staff – some of your customers may also be employees or related to them, and it helps everyone feel more human when they know employers understand individual pressures and recognise people’s efforts in difficult times
- Stick to plain text – use a clear font, include company branding and send from a recognisable corporate email address to authenticate the communication, but avoid over-design that could make it look frivolous
- Sign the message – if it’s from a named person this makes it more human.
Once you’ve finished your draft, take a moment to re-read. You want to get it out fast, but you only want to have to send it once. It’s good practice to seek second opinions for any kind of written communication and particularly important in the sensitive and high-profile situation of the COVID-19 outbreak. Ask three people to read it, to make sure it makes sense and isn’t over-long. Ideally, make sure your reviewers represent the eventual recipients, with a similar level of knowledge and perspective.
Lastly, use a spelling and grammar checker. A misplaced apostrophe isn’t a big deal in itself, but accurate writing and formatting support the impression that you’re calm, controlled and able to maintain high quality standards.
Charlie Hobson has been writing content as a freelancer for 14 years. Before specialising in the words that she’s always loved best, she worked in marketing and communications for a range of blue chip companies