Our Editor in Chief Rachael Bull unpicks the challenges of writing on behalf of leaders and how to tackle them.
In my last post I talked about how to bring your authentic voice to your comms. Quick recap: know yourself, embrace it, write it as you’d say it, tell stories.
All well and good but what if you’re in internal comms ghost writing for a leader? What then?
Writing on someone else’s behalf is a tough gig. It’s even harder when a) you don’t know them or b) trying to extract any sort of personality from them is like pulling teeth. Which is why leadership comms can, at best, sound dull and at worst, be horrifically corporate.
What to do? Here’s how I go about it.
Watch and learn
Lots of leaders have flocked to Zoom and video during these past months, so chances are there’s some footage of them speaking for you to trawl through.
Watch them like a hawk, especially when they’re speaking off the cuff in a meeting or event rather than on a recorded, scripted video. Notice how they speak, taking note of any colloquialisms or turns of phrase they use. Even just interjecting copy with little nuggets like ‘The beauty of it…’ and ‘To be honest...’ gives a more conversational tone that’s often missing in written leadership comms.
The goal is to ‘write it as they’d say it.’ A useful tip when it comes to any form of writing, but especially important in business comms, where we tend to jump from a natural, chatty tone when speaking, to a corporate, formal tone as soon as we put pen to paper. People connect with the former far more than the latter. After all, communication is about interacting with each other as human beings. Leaders are human and it’s your job to bring that humanity out in your writing.
Get into character
Imagine your favourite TV character. You can probably give them a few character traits, yes? Jack Bauer from 24, for example. He’s badass, dogged and decent.
What about whoever you’re writing on behalf of – what traits could you give them? Are they larger than life or more reserved? When they speak, is it fast paced or more considered? Are they edgy or sedate?
Give them a few character traits and then get into character, just as actors do for TV and film. This shift in mindset will help you massively when it comes to writing for them. If they speak confidently, they’ll be direct, punchy and motivational in their speech. If they’re being compassionate, they’ll be reassuring, empathetic and calm.
Learn their stories – and show their vulnerability
It’s also worth finding out what their stories are. Stories are the most powerful form of communication we have. They give us a unique insight into people’s character, their values and the journey they’re on. So, find out… Where did it all begin? What have they overcome to get where they are now? Everyone has a story to tell, it’s just uncovering it (which we can help with, FYI).
Stories give us a clever, safe structure in which to reveal someone’s vulnerabilities. And vulnerability – as the great Brenee Brown has revealed – is a hugely powerful way of connecting and influencing people. Because so much of business comms is geared to the positive and the bulletproof, leaders admitting frailties and doubts are immensely powerful and convincing. These are the things that make characters in stories rounded, satisfying and engaging. Two-dimensionally positive, focused, unemotional characters are just not interesting.
The famous TV and film characters we know and love are all deeply flawed. If they weren’t, they’d be boring and we’d switch off. The same goes for leaders. Vulnerability makes leaders relatable. It makes them human. It makes us want to connect with them and listen to what they have to say.
Turn their vulnerabilities into strengths
‘But our leaders won’t admit to weaknesses’ I hear you cry. Well, try this. A great tip in storytelling is to make your character’s greatest strength their greatest weakness. It works because it’s so often true in real life. Super–loyal people get taken advantage of. Truly generous people don’t look after themselves. High–intensity workers are more prone to burnout. People devoted to their work let their relationships suffer. So, look at their strengths if you want to understand their weaknesses, and talking about those weaknesses, ironically, comes across as a strength. Magic.
Ask them ‘stupid’ stuff
Yes, there will always be business messages to communicate. But we’re after authentic engagement between colleagues and leaders. We want to spark a connection – so find out who they are. Do they like cats or dogs? What would their dream trip be? What are they binge-watching on Netflix? What’s on their bedside table? The more you can help colleagues know their leaders as the real-life people that they are, the better.
Feel a bit weird asking these sorts of questions? Put yourself into the character of a journalist – these leaders aren’t ‘senior’, they’re an interviewee you’re speaking to for a piece you’re writing. Personally, I’m a big advocate for doing what you can to remove the sense of hierarchy when it comes to leadership comms. That’s when you hit the jackpot.
And if all else fails…
Just avoid corporate speak. Please. Instead, opt for a more conversational tone. It’s a bit looser, a bit more reflective. Write it how you can imagine they might say it, and it’ll make a world of difference.
Leaders are human beings like the rest of us. Do what you can to bring that out in comms.