Woodreed's Charlotte Dahl reflects on why internal communicators should use the emotional hooks commonly found in external comms to better engage employees. People don’t change the moment they step over the workplace threshold; they don’t switch their brains to rational robot mode. They still react to the same emotional stimulus.

24th October 2017

People don’t change the moment they step over the workplace threshold; they don’t switch their brains to rational robot mode. They still react to the same emotional stimulus.


“Islands of brilliance within a sea of mediocrity” – so said Drew McMillan, head of colleague communication and innovation at Virgin Trains, about the state of internal communications in the UK.

Add to this Cosmo magazine’s recent stereotyping of IC’s role as “organising birthday cakes” and you get the feeling internal communications is more than lacking the reverence external comms has long enjoyed.

What we do really matters. We know the power of an engaged workforce, and the role quality, effective internal communication has to play in delivering it. Even adland’s woken up to it, with this month’s Campaign magazine talking of “employees as the business world’s greatest untapped marketing resource”.

Having worked on both sides of the fence, I’ve a rare perspective into both worlds. Personally, I think internal comms is the harder job. I do think though, there’s much it can gain from looking at the techniques of the ad industry.

I get so emotional, baby

Both external and internal comms are trying to inform, influence and engage people, seeking to drive behaviour. People don’t change the moment they step over the workplace threshold; they don’t switch their brains to rational robot mode. They still react to the same emotional stimulus.

Good advertising makes people feel something. Emotional engagement is four times more powerful than rational actions in driving behaviour. Think OXO, Prêt, Innocent, Lloyds Banking, MacDonald’s, Comparethemarket.com… They tell great stories that play to our emotions. Why? Because they know experiences that trigger emotions are saved and consolidated in lasting memory. Emotions generated by experiences tell our brains that they’re important to remember.

Inside business, your brand story is your strategic narrative – where your organisation has come from, where it’s going and the part everyone has to play to achieve the vision. It’s about telling that story in a way that will trigger our emotions, lodge in our memories, and make us want to play our part.

What’s Buster the Boxer done to our brains?

Money talks. Advertising’s always had millions poured into research, making it super sophisticated. There’s no reason why we can’t get the benefit of this investment with our employee comms and use the same insights inside.

Let’s look at adland’s shiny new tool, neuroscience, as one example. It tells us our brain applies four filters when processing comms: emotional – we respond and pay attention based on our values, emotions and experience; historical – we filter comms based on our own past experiences and memories; future – expectations and hopes for the future; and social – own situation, economic status, family trends and traditions.

Think about John Lewis’ classic Christmas ads in this context: Buster the Boxer, Monty the Penguin, the Man on the Moon. You can see how these filters have been considered.

People are still the same people when they come to work, they can’t just switch of these hard-wired filters. They’ll be applying them when they are absorbing your internal comms too. It’s about making it personal, making it reciprocal, making it memorable, keeping it simple.

Ditch the corporate robot, shed the corporate armour

So important to emotional engagement is tone of voice. Us humans are hard wired to pick up on it. Companies like First Direct, Prêt, Virgin get this. They’re the masters and use it as powerfully internally as they do externally.

At the First Direct customer contact centre, the sense of the brand’s personality is so powerful you can almost touch it. Yet plenty of organisations hide behind an armour of ‘corporateness’. Friendly people turn into corporate robots the second they put fingers to keyboard. It’s culturally hard wired. A legacy of corporate days past.

It’s also partly down to audience proximity – the words on an ad are written by an anonymous adperson; internal comms are written by the bod you sit next to in the work cafeteria. It’s harder, but in the new world of anti-corporate anti-jargon, corporate robot’s got to go.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” – Mark Twain

Justin Tindall, Group Creative Director of M&C Saatchi, nails it when he says good comms is about “paring everything back to only what’s necessary”. This applies equally inside. You’re not going to cut through by including everything and the kitchen sink. The audience won’t get past the first three lines, having neither the time nor the inclination. Less is more.

Creative briefs are the lifeblood of ad agencies. They keep comms focused. It’s not realistic to write a brief every time you want to generate some comms (Time, or lack of it, is a massive issue in IC as Woodreed’s latest IC industry survey revealed). But it is helpful to think about these five questions for five minutes before you write:
1. Who’s the audience, and what do you know about them?
2. What’s your objective?
3. What are the key messages?
4. What do you want people to think, feel and do as a result of seeing the comms?
5. What’s the media?

It’s certainly not rocket science, but in the day-to-day stresses and pressure of working in internal comms, it’s easy to forget.

Using data wisely

Audience insight is the lifeblood of the ad industry. Again, it’s the investment making the difference.

Organisations are developing more sophisticated ways of using their employee data – for career planning, training, succession planning, etc. How about using that data to target comms too?

From experience, there’s still a tendency to lump employees together as one homogenous ‘staff’. Right now we’re in a unique situation, with five generations in the workplace. It’s causing a clash of cultures, a generational disconnect. If we fail to understand these differences and keep lumping people together then we’re going to be creating wallpaper comms to brick wall audiences.

Understand how people want to be talked to – the message and the media. Don’t write the comms and then think who to send it to. First start with the audience.


“We haven't got the money, so we'll have to think” – Ernest Rutherford

According to the VMA Inside insight survey and report, the average annual IC spend in the UK, is £100,000, about the same as a one-page colour ad in the Sunday Times. Arguably, we need as much creativity as the ad industry, if not more.

But are we breaking new ground, reaching for the stars? Or happy to keep our heads down and get on with business as usual? Constantly innovating and looking for new ways to engage customers, I think we can look and learn more from the ad industry.

We can and should be doing more if we want to turn our islands of brilliance into a sustainable landmass.

Charlotte Dahl is the Creative Planning Director of specialist ad agency Woodreed and co-founder of Muse, a unique online resource for the internal comms industry. @tunwellswoodies


People don’t change the moment they step over the workplace threshold; they don’t switch their brains to rational robot mode. They still react to the same emotional stimulus.



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