If you tend to chatter to yourself, don’t be surprised if someone asks you this question. Or, if you’re in public, you’re likely to encounter some funny looks. Why? Because wandering along talking to yourself may be a sign that you’re a little cuckoo. Harmless perhaps, but still a little crazy.

But if you are leading communications for your organization, it’s a serious question.

Organizational communications are very good at talking to and about themselves. They are less adept at talking to the outside world. If your only goal is that your own staff take action on your recommendations and requests, then you’re all set.

But if your goal is for the community outside of your organization to join, give, or otherwise engage, then talking mostly to yourself is a little crazy.

How can you tell if you’re only talking to yourself? 

One good way to determine if your communications are more inward-facing than outward is to examine how your communications identify people, both in photo captions (do you even have photo captions?) as well as in posts and longer article copy.

Do you identify people in your organization only by name, or omit first names—i.e., Dr. Smith addressed the audience at our big event last night—and don’t provide information about who the person is or why she matters? If so, no one outside of your organization will truly understand why she’s mentioned at all.

Compare these two captions:

Exhibit A:

Dr. Smith spoke about her research in stem cells.

Exhibit B:

Dr. Elaine Smith, professor of cell biology and a world-renowned leader in the development of stem cells to treat disease, addressed a group of enthusiastic alumni and current students in the Department of Biology at the department’s annual recognition dinner in May.

Yes, Exhibit B is longer, but aren’t you sitting there right now wanting to know more about Dr. Elaine Smith’s research and feeling all gooey inside about those students being inspired by her work and the alumni feeling proud about their alma mater?

Exactly!

The same rule can be applied to the names of departments or initiatives. I’m surprised how many times I’ll be reviewing an organization’s communications materials and they will be filled with acronyms for projects or departments I know nothing about, and I’m never told more. How can I know if this is something I’d be interested in if I’m trying to figure out the entire time what COYLZOE means?

Don’t just go partway

This seems to happen quite a bit as well: an organization’s website, for example, will have great information on the homepage about who they are that is very interesting to both insiders and outsiders.

And then—someone gets lazy. Interior pages start to be filled with content shortcuts that leave the outsider in the dark, but may also even leave insiders scratching their heads. And once your readers stop being able to know what’s going on, they stop being interested and they disengage.

You have to go the distance and commit to provide full information throughout your communications, on all levels all the time.

Take the Grandma test

Not to dis on grandmas at all, but if you were to ask your grandmother—or anyone who didn’t spend 8-10 hours a day meeting, walking around with, talking and listening to others inside organization—to read your communications, would she know what you were talking about? I dare you. Try it!

Other things to look for

 A few other ways to know your communications are having more conversations with themselves than with the outside world:

  • Over use of acronyms and abbreviations
  • Events featured with no context, date, purpose, location, or any information about why the event took place
  • Leadership not identified, either fully by name or by title (see “What’s in a Name”)
  • Locations with truncated info, i.e., Miller Hall instead of Miller Hall in the Spencer Biology Building
  • Recipients of awards or prizes mentioned with no context about the prize itself

Please talk to me… 

We all rush and we’re all on deadline. And generally, people tend to think other people in their circle think like they do anyway. (And, I know, no one likes an over-sharer.) But when we’re creating communications for our organizations, we never really know completely who is going to read what we put out there. Truly anyone who comes across what we write could end up being one of our constituents. So don’t miss them by not taking the time, and putting in the effort, to let them in on who you really are.

Who does it well? 

Here are a few examples of web communications—from two big organizations and one small one—that never stop talking to me and other outsiders:

City of Hope Cancer Center

Northeastern University

Charity Water