Finding the right words for all occasions

Speeches for an internal audience must be carefully crafted to ensure employee support, finds Tanya Lewis

Speeches for an internal audience must be carefully crafted to ensure employee support, finds Tanya Lewis

In both good and bad times, internal speeches should always be honest and straightforward. Whatever the topic, it's important to state news fully and clearly and give an explanation. It's also vital to keep information consistent across channels and remind executives that even information explicitly aimed at internal audiences can easily end up in the public domain.

The PMI Group, a financial-services company, recently experienced its first quarterly net loss. Beth Haiken, VP of PR, wrote the CEO's speech to inform employees.

"We acknowledged the problem, empathized, aligned with employees, explained what happened briefly, and announced the plan for getting out of it," she says. "Never ever announce a problem without also announcing a solution for it."

Ultimately, she adds, people want to know the personal impact of bad news. "Until you acknowledge and address that concern, they really can't hear anything else," Haiken says. "Be empathetic. CEOs tend to seem impersonal. Align yourself with employees and acknowledge that they're likely to be upset."

Explaining reasoning behind bad news goes a long way. "People can deal with bad news if they understand the why," says Matt Gonring, senior consultant at Gagen MacDonald. "[Give] the workforce opportunity to apply the same business logic the executive used. The rationale behind the why is very important if it deals with cuts."

Often with bad news, there will be information you can't share, but don't hide anything. Because Haiken's CEO gave his speech prior to the earnings call, he told what he could and acknowledged that additional information was forthcoming.

"Sharing candid information [engenders] commitment," Gonring explains. "Disclosure regulations [can] limit [candor, but] sometimes it's very helpful to give a little bit.
Earning segment [information] or regional data [may be] very relevant internally. Know the audience and speak in terms of what's relevant so they can draw a line of sight between the subject and their daily activities."

Noam Neusner, principal of Neusner Communications, advises executives to acknowledge their part if there is a sense that a C-suite decision led to bad news. "If you know there's more bad news coming, get it out," he adds. "Don't use euphemisms, especially [regarding] job loss."

Don't say anything you may have to retract, and always end bad news speeches on a positive note. "Create wiggle room," Neusner says. "If you can't be definitive, say you'll review in six months. Express hope that the moves you're taking lead to a more prosperous future. You want people to walk out thinking they want to fight for the company."

In good times or bad, "you need absolute buy-in from employees," he suggests. "It's not easy to do, especially in a big, spread-out company. We had a healthcare [client] that lost a contract and needed to acknowledge the loss, which was a market-moving event. [The executive] struck a very straightforward tone, very matter-of-fact [and] respectful of the decision made by the customer. [That] led to understanding in the company that this wasn't the end of the world."

When reporting on good news, Neusner advises articulating what is needed to continue momentum and tying the company's mission to a broader purpose.

"Acknowledge that employees work hard and their collective effort [improved] performance," he says. "Make 'we' the subject of every sentence. The message [is] we're all working hard and benefiting together. People like to feel part of something special."

Be careful to protect executives if you take questions. With the negative financial results speech, Haiken collected questions submitted anonymously in advance. "We made a sincere effort to answer most of them," she says. "If you get them in advance you can do that, and you can have legal sign off."

Gonring adds that webcasting, question software, and intranets are good ways to introduce interactivity.

"[In person], it helps sometimes to have a team answer questions," he says. "We develop a Q&A, have a dry run, and talk through audience dynamics so executives [are] prepared. Never put an executive in a position where things are likely to occur that he or she might not expect.

Technique Tips

  • State impact up-front and explain why
  • Stay relevant and use clear language
  • End bad news on a positive note
  • Hide information or be inconsistent
  • Alienate or appear impersonal
  • Take questions without preparation

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