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Trust me, I’m an internal communicator…

You can find opinions on literally every topic on the internet – who do you trust? How come some people appear more credible and trustworthy than others – and what lessons for us are there?

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote his treatise 'Rhetoric' in which he named three elements or 'proofs' of persuasion: Logos (logic/sense), Pathos (emotional impact) and Ethos (credibility). Within Ethos he also identified three qualities that build credibility:

• The speaker's perceived intelligence – is the argument well thought through?
• Virtuous character – do you think the speaker is a good person?
• The speaker's goodwill – do they have good intentions towards the audience?

On top of this, there is also the listener's propensity to trust – which is likely to be strongly influenced by their past experiences. 

Of course, it's easier to build trust in a face to face relationship, when non-verbal clues like body language and tone of voice can be evaluated with your words. But written media can also build trust – think about people's allegiance to specific newspapers. The proofs of persuasion are evident and people trust the papers whose journalism mirrors their own ways of thinking. 

But in company communications there's only one agenda – the CEO's. Internal communications have to build trust in that one agenda with all the different individuals in the company.

So what is the impact of language on building and maintaining trust? As a freelancer, I'm often faced with having to get up to speed with how a new company works and learn a whole new language of jargon and acronyms (mostly three lettered) at the same time. And surprisingly often I find employees can't tell me what the acronyms actually stand for! 

In an article for Forbes, Jennifer Chatman, management professor at the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business, says jargon masks real meaning. "People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others."

Which is clearly not a good thing to do if you're trying to build trust and engagement within a company. As an internal communicator, therefore, I challenge myself to avoid using what I refer to as 'corporate wanky bollocks' (or CWB to join the three lettered acronym club!) and try to keep communications plain, simple and honest. Obviously, you can't always give people the information they want – commercially sensitive information, for example. So we tread a careful tightrope between keeping the confidentiality and not damaging trust in the company's communications, balancing the needs of the leadership with the needs of employees.

But can internal communications incorporate persuasive language without damaging trust? Systems used by some sales teams, such as neurolinguistic programming (NLP), are based on the premise that – like hypnosis – you cannot make someone do something they don't want to do. All they can do is nudge you to make a decision you were previously dithering on – for example by saying at the psychological point when deciding whether or not to buy a car "what colour car will you go for?" Some people view these tactics with suspicion – it's a fine line between nudging and manipulation.

Most of you will have come across Richard Thaler's book Nudge (and if you have, you'll see what I did there!). Thaler and his fellow behavioural-economists use their deep understanding of human nature to nudge people to change their habits. For example, it's human nature to want to be part of a group. So if you see a sign at a supermarket saying 'most people have five or more pieces of fruit or vegetables in their basket' or in a park saying 'take your litter home, others do' you are likely to buy more fruit and avoid littering in order to feel part of the gang.

Should internal communicators utilise these practices? My view is yes – with caution and integrity. After all, are they inherently any less honest than some of the ever-so-slightly-misleading language you may have been guilty of using in the past? Was that really an 'excellent result', or was it just a reasonably good result? Is that new HR system really designed to make managers' lives easier, or it is really to help the HR function? Our job is to make people feel good about the company they work for, so they are motivated to help the company achieve its goals, naturally we're going to keep things positive. 

But while I believe language is crucial to building trust, it simply cannot do it in isolation. It must be supported by the actions you take. However often you say you trust your employees, if you keep adding processes so you can monitor their every move, they won't feel trusted. In other words < **CWB ALERT** > you must Walk the Talk!

Coffee, comms and Coventry
How to drive internal change by calculating trust


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Tuesday, 07 December 2021
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