Interview: Rick Shanley

Help people engage with information by writing great stories. Rick shares with us how.

What makes Rick stand out from other internal communications consultants? His background as a sports journalist – both in print and on radio. Mixing an ability to cut through corporate jargon and write in plain language, Rick creates content that truly engages employees.

He kindly jumped on a Teams call with us to talk about the potential of next-generation audio for the employee experience.

How did you get interested in uses of audio for internal comms?

I grew up around it. Both of my parents were television and radio hosts, so my formative years were spent around both mediums. I’ve always felt comfortable in front of a microphone, especially in a radio studio. In my early 20s, I was a radio color commentator for the pro hockey team in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich. Radio has an intimacy that I enjoy and that’s still the case today, even though I’m now mostly a listener.

What can internal comms learn from radio?

Typical corporate communications tends to be very dense – written in a very corporate voice. It’s not always that engaging. They focus on hitting every speaking point, every bullet, and – most frustratingly – every fact, as irrelevant as it may be; as if that will engage people and bring them along or change their minds. The content generally comes in the form of long emails or intranet posts. Companies want to tell every employee **everything** — which is the result of it being “processed” through a long series of approvals. It’s just not engaging.

Audio is different. For a start, it’s easier to consume. With people working from home so much now, they can just listen as they walk around the house. Imagine a short update from the CEO as I do the dishes? This is how we listen to radio and podcasts these days. Internal comms teams could even work with HR and Wellness colleagues to suggest people move about and listen to some company audio. Get out of the house, go for a walk, hear what the CEO has to say today.

I started a podcast when I was still working at Kellogg’s. We called it K Connect Radio. Instead of writing an article, I did informal 5-minute interviews and published them to the intranet. I wish we had a Soundbite option then! The feedback was great and people wanted more.

What do you most recommend to internal communicators when they seek your help?

First is to story tell much better. As I mentioned, internal communicators tend to write fact, fact, fact, talking point, talking point, talking point. It’s not engaging. It’s kind of arrogant, too. It treats employees as if they can’t understand basic information. It’s served up sometimes in quite condescending ways.

Instead, you want to make people think a little more, to work for the information. By that I mean writing great stories that engage employees. How do you do that? Ensure it’s a real story and don’t spell everything out to the reader, listener, or viewer.

How do you see a shift into more informal communication styles in the workplace?

This goes well with audio and other social tools, like Yammer (which we ran at Kellogg’s). Informal communication is already happening with my clients, although not everyone understands the power of it. But it’s more modern. You get to the point and start with the assumption that people are smart, that we don’t need to give everything to everyone. Employees by-and-large have the base knowledge and company context that you don’t need to hit them over the head again and again with talking points.

The whole idea of radio talk shows fits well with this trend. I hate listening to radio or podcast interviews where the questions are canned. We tend to still do this with internal communication audio experiments. But it leads to a lack of authenticity and the answers do not feel natural. Audio interviewing should allow for a nice flow, with questions based on the last answer and a natural and curious interviewer. It needs to feel like a conversation and make the listener feel like they are part of it – that the interviewer asks the questions the listener thinks of while listening.

How do you help shift internal communications to a more informal way of communicating?

I often coach my clients on how to interview and how to remove overly financial or management-heavy consultant language. I also encourage experimentation with audio, video and visual ways of showcasing information. And I push back on robotic corporate speak. It’s exciting and my clients are getting it. They see the results and want to do more.

What was your favorite radio show or podcast and what can internal comms learn from it?

I love the pre-eminent Canadian sports radio host, Bob McCown. He hosted an afternoon drive radio show in Toronto called “Prime Time Sports” that was appointment listening for me every night. That remains the case with his new podcast, “The Bob McCown Podcast.” What’s elite about Bob is he plays a character and no matter how famous a guest is, he treats them with the same blend of ornery but fair questioning. It’s always informal and conversational. He doesn’t prep questions. He’s purely curious. I wish internal communicators had the confidence to do content that wasn’t so “polished” and was just more curious, like Bob.

Rick Shanley is an internal communications consultant based in Charlotte, N.C. You can reach him at