The influence of voice

It was a year ago when I first heard the word “podcast.” It was the context in which I heard it, though, that stopped me in my tracks:

[...] I can see a much quicker adoption timeline for CEO podcasting than CEO blogging. Stick a microphone in front of a CEO and say, “What would you like to tell your employees today?” and you’ll get a much quicker buy-in than sitting a keyboard in front of them and saying, “blog a message for the world to read.”

A word of warning to corporate communicator-types: Don’t script it for the CEO…with “podcasting” voice is not a metaphor for writing in a conversational, believable fashion. Voice is actually voice.

Interesting development to watch, or should I say, listen for.

Those words were written by Rex Hammock in a post to his Rexblog on September 29, 2004. He’d just heard about podcasting, too.

Today, podcasting is a word (and a phenomenon) that’s become pretty familiar to a lot of people. And while some say it’s a
revolution that will change radio broadcasting and people’s listening habits forever, and others say it’s just a passing fad of limited appeal beyond the world of geeks and enthusiasts, it has rocketed out of nowhere in just a year to attract the interest – and active participation – of mainstream media and businesses large and small.

Elsewhere in Global PR Blog Week 2.0, you’ll find detailed information that describes what podcasting and podcasts are (and how to do your own podcast). But as you’re reading this post at the moment, let me give you a concise definition of what a podcast is:

  • A digital audio file, usually an MP3 file
  • Content typically presented in “radio show” format
  • Delivered via RSS
  • Automatically copied to your portable digital player, if you have one, whether it’s an iPod or any other brand

The digital audio files that are podcasts are nothing really special – people have been able to download such files from the internet and from intranets for over a decade.

What primarily distinguishes a podcast, though, is its delivery method, and that’s what makes it special – you can subscribe to a podcast to get it immediately and then, when a new installment is available, the new podcast is automatically retrieved and can then be queued up for automatic transfer to your digital player. Once you’ve subscribed, there’s nothing more you need to do. This happens through a clever technology called RSS and a software program known as a podcatcher.

But, while the auto-delivery system is important, it’s what you can do with a podcast that makes it especially appealing to many people, and very interesting for both internal and external communication:

  • Listen when you want
  • Listen where you want

No longer are you tied to a fixed location and time in order to listen to something that interests you. This so-called “time shifting” is appealing precisely because it gives you, the listener, control over the where and the when.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that podcasting will be an important business communication channel, and it will happen sooner rather than later if the current pace of podcasting’s adoption is any indication.

If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering where this general commentary on podcasting leads from an internal communication perspective.

Here’s where it leads – once you get a sense of what’s happening in the larger world, you will experience that “light bulb moment” such as happened to me in September last year that will help you see the potential of podcasts as a communication tool within organizations.

If you listen to any podcasts, ask yourself why you listen to those particular ones. Good content (based on your own subjective opinion) would be one clear reason. If that good content is easy to get hold of, that would be another. Being able to listen to it when you want – that’s one more reason. And of course if you have a portable digital player, an iPod or any other type, you can listen where you want – on your daily commute, during your lunch break, on that plane journey to a meeting, and so forth.

Add to this a simple fact – the world is digital. We are all now highly accustomed to using technology that was, even as recently as four or five years ago, the domain of geeks, enthusiasts and early adopters. We know what broadband means (no, not the tech description, just: “high speed internet”). We know about wifi. We know how to use some cool gadgets, ranging from the latest camera phones to digital players to portable gaming consoles.

Our expectations of how we want to receive and consume news and information is high. We want more choice and we want it on our terms. That applies in the workplace, too.

You can see where this is leading.

Something else – we now know that we, too, can be the creators of news and information as well as the consumers, whether we want to tell 5 people our news and information, or 500 or 5,000. With the wide availability of the physical tools you need (hardware and software), it’s easy and it’s affordable.

Here’s an idea of what’s possible:

  • Employee Engagement: A weekly 15-minute business update for employees delivered by the CEO
    or president; employees worldwide subscribe to the podcast via the company intranet or directly from the CEO’s blog.
  • General news of interest to everyone: The HR department produces a monthly 30-minute podcast that is a round-up of news and information on issues of interest and relevance to every employee including, for example, news about changes in employee health benefits, updates on training courses, expansion at the factory in a particular city, and a summary of company-wide job openings and where to get more information; the podcast is made available for subscription from the HR site on the company intranet and is referenced in the internal company magazine or newsletter.
  • Training and Education: A series of short 5-minute podcasts produced by the marketing department on key aspects about a new product that’s being launched, to help employees understand the features and benefits of that new product; the podcast series supports and complements other communication channels. Depending on communication objectives and specific content, the series could also be used in external communication.
  • Skills-Sharing and Team Building: The sales director records an occasional 10-minute podcast for her geographically-dispersed sales team with tips and tricks on, say, how to close deals with certain types of customers; her podcast is available from the sales intranet as a complement to formal sales materials and as one of the means through which she builds a sense of community and engagement with her team.

Hearing the voice of a CEO, or a subject-matter expert, or the sales director adds a human and informal touch to what’s too often the starched formalness of organizational communication. This can be a powerful emotional influencer on internal and external audiences alike. And emotional influence is a key factor in employee engagement.

How to produce the podcasts? All you need is a PC, some free recording software such as Audacity, a microphone, a place to deliver the MP3s from, and a bit of imagination.

Ok, you might need a bit of help to start with from your IT colleagues (where to put the MP3 files, for instance, and some help with creating the RSS files), but once you’re up and running, you will see how easy it is.

These are just four simple and easy examples. Yet from these examples, you can imagine how effective a podcast could be as a complement to other communication channels. And that is an essential point to keep in mind – such podcasts are complementary communication, not necessarily instead of other more traditional means.

Podcasts are communication channels that you would consider from the communication perspective just as you would any other communication channel. If a podcast would help you achieve a defined communication objective, then it would be an appropriate tool to use.

So you would consider the tool in the same way as you would consider, say, a brochure, a letter, a video, an intranet site, or any other means you can think of as part of your communication planning.

As with all communication, you’d use the appropriate tool(s) for the job.

And by the way, anyone can produce podcasts, not only the communicators. The role for communicators is the added value you provide with your skills and knowledge about communication and its measurable value to your organization. You’d work with the CEO or the HR and marketing departments or the sales director to help them produce their podcasts. You’re the communication adviser, not the content producer.

What examples for podcasting can you see in the workplace? Setting aside technical or other reasons and looking at it from the communication point of view, can you see any reasons why you would not use a podcast in your organization?

Looking forward to hearing what you think.

[First published in Global PR Blog Week 2.0 on 20 September 2005 as The Influence of Voice: Podcasting Within the Organization.]