Authenticity sells because it matters

Written communication – whether that’s a press release or IT guidelines – should be clear, sincere and accessible. Here, Mike Brown offers ways to help colleagues build the confidence and skills to tell their stories in an authentic way

Mike Brown's avatar
26 Sep 2023
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When you are selling something – a product, an experience or even your own personal skills – you have to get your audience to feel something if you want them to engage. So written communication has to be sincere and emotive and have personality; you want to give your reader (or audience) a snapshot so they can experience what it’s like.

One way to do this is to enable everyone in an organisation to tell their own stories using their own words.

As the senior editor in corporate communication at the University of Southampton, part of my job, and that of my team, is to help colleagues build the confidence and skills to tell their stories in an authentic way.

We advise colleagues from every area of the university community, from students who aspire to be writers to academics who want to explain technical concepts in a simple way for a general audience.

People are at the centre of university life. As individuals, we bring our unique backgrounds, lived experiences and perspectives together into one community. The institution is a collection of minds, a melting pot of differences and contradictions that lead to collaborations, creativity and innovation. Everyone works together with a shared goal to make people’s lives better.

So how do universities achieve authenticity through written communication?

Start with the university brand values

A good place to start is to set out what kind of organisation you are, what values you have and why you are distinctive. Having a clearly defined brand shows your audience what you stand for, tells them why they should engage with you and helps them to recognise you in a competitive market.

And, crucially, a brand “is the sum of all expressions by which an entity* intends to be recognised”, as defined by Interbrand in 2021. So isn’t it counterproductive to suppress all that individualism and uniqueness and make everyone write in the same way?

To add another facet to the mix, the tone of voice you use to communicate – not what you say but how you say it – must change depending on your audience.

Think for a minute about how you communicate with the people in your lives. The way you talk about your day, give instructions or chat about current affairs will be different when talking to your family and friends from how you do so with work colleagues, for example.

Don’t get me wrong, consistency of style has its place, too. Writing clearly in plain English, focusing on one key point at a time, using language that doesn’t exclude people and avoiding slang or corporate jargon helps to make it clear what you are asking your audience to do.

But there has to be a balance. We need the freedom to be unique, to express ourselves and our personalities, and to be our authentic selves when we communicate in any way. Otherwise, we risk never achieving that vital connection with the audience.

The challenge for communications professionals is to avoid putting too many restrictions on how colleagues express themselves. Too much control runs the risk of fostering an environment where people feel they are not trusted to do their jobs or talk to their audiences. It makes everything bland and ultimately damages your organisation’s brand.

Balancing university writing style with authentic voices

Writing well is particularly hard because there’s no backup. The words on the page are all you have and can be misinterpreted by the reader. Light-hearted banter can come across as rude. Short, to-the-point sentences can seem blunt. And encouragement or praise for a job well done could be mistaken for being patronising. 

So my team and I give our colleagues a starting point, something they can follow with confidence. Our university’s style guide sets out a consistent approach to writing (such as only using English spelling); it includes guidance on easily confused words and examples of simple words rather than complex ones that say the same thing.

We also recommend that, day to day, colleagues use online AI tools such as Grammarly or the Hemingway app to help improve the clarity of their writing, to highlight complex sentences, suggest simpler alternatives and help make their writing bold and clear.

An inclusive language guide can be the mouthpiece for minority groups to explain how they want to be communicated with. Ours explains that the words people use can exclude or discriminate against others and become a barrier to engaging with audiences. It uses examples of correct language, guidance on topics such as pronouns and further reading and resources to demonstrate how to ensure every reader feels equal and included.

Online training modules should be short and practical. Ours can be completed in 10 minutes and give hints and tips about writing for our organisation, ideas on how to be creative, suggestions on ways to structure writing and how to add personality.

Workshops should be tailored for the needs and aims of the team in question. We design in collaboration with the team – whether they are from HR, finance, marketing or customer service – and according to what their writing needs are. We help people improve the clarity of their emails, event briefs, financial reports, policies or other communications. We encourage the inclusion of relevant personal quotes to give that authentic voice and provide the tools for them to do this.

The key is to help, advise and encourage rather than dictate how they should write, and to provide a starting point that they can build on. Our guidance is just that – a guide. We give colleagues the tools to show their authentic selves through their writing.

Writing is trickier than face-to-face communication

As an editor, my bread and butter, my passion, is writing. So it might be a surprise to learn that my preference is to communicate face to face, and I always advise colleagues that, if possible, they should do the same.

Face-to-face communication is easier. The words you are speaking carry your message but the non-verbal signals, such as body language, tone and even your appearance, allow for the authentic delivery of the message.

So we need to think differently about writing. It is a hard skill to hone and takes time and practice to show authenticity through writing. My aim is to make sure everyone where I work is supported with this.

* person, organisation, company, business unit, city, nation, etc.

Mike Brown is senior corporate writer and editor at the University of Southampton.

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