[Note: I’m pleased to feature this guest post from Alison Davis, founder and CEO of Davis & Company, an award-winning employee communication firm. I previously shared another of Alison’s posts, What Employees Want Most from Internal Communications Channels.]
Tired of working hard to get employees the information they need only to find they still don’t understand essential concepts and always come back with lots of questions?
Whether you’re trying to communicate your company’s objectives, upcoming change initiatives, HR programs, or a whole host of other important topics, try these five internal communication best practices to break through the clutter so employees will open, read and respond to your messages.
Internal Communication’s Dirty Little Secret
With all the effort you make on communication, why does it miss the mark? Here’s some tough love: A lot of it is simply not very good. Created (or at least approved) by subject-matter experts who are not communication professionals, most communication is often technical and impenetrable. Plus, those pesky legal caveats and disclaimers make understanding difficult.
Perhaps even worse, most communication uses language that makes sense at headquarters but misses the mark in the cubicles, factories and stores where most employees work. As a respondent to a Davis and Company survey commented, “I have a master’s degree in public administration and sometimes I still cannot understand the materials as presented.” Is it any wonder that employees find communication to be confusing, irrelevant and frustrating?
What to do Differently?
While there are many things you can do to improve internal communication, the best advice can be summed up in one word: Simplify. By focusing on the essential information employees need to know and stripping away all the extraneous stuff, communication will be more effective.
But you might say, “My program is not simple. It’s complicated.” That’s right. It is complicated. So here’s the key: to meet employees’ needs, you need to make communication as simple as possible. Here are five ways to do so:
- Convey What Matters Most to Employees
Let’s say you’ve just given a presentation to senior management about your new program. Your PowerPoint deck was appropriately detailed: 44 slides explaining why the program is needed, how you designed it and what it contains. And your hard work paid off, because the meeting went well; management approved the program, giving you the go-ahead to implement it.
Now it’s time to communicate to employees. And here’s the first thing you should do: Close the PPT file and take out a blank sheet of paper. Why? Because the way you structured your message to “sell” your program to management is very different from how you need to frame your message for your employee audience. Instead, use that blank piece of paper to answer this question: What’s the most important thing employees need to know? As you write the answer, limit your response to 15 words or less.
This isn’t easy, but it’s significant because you’ve just “framed” your message: created a core statement that captures the essence of what you need to communicate. From here, you can create a message platform that organizes all your content in a cohesive way. As you do, continue to focus on the two essential questions that employees always ask: “What does this mean to me?” and “What do I need to do?”
And those pesky legal disclaimers? You’d be surprised to know how few are actually legally required to be there. It’s worth chatting with your legal department to see what can come out.
- Emphasize “How to”
Next time you’re at the airport, head over to the newsstand where the consumer magazines are displayed. As you peruse publications like Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health and Bon Appetit, notice the “cover lines” (the short headlines that promote what’s inside that issue):
- How one “Biggest Loser” really lost 140 pounds
- Make dinner like a pro—in just 30 minutes
- 7 success strategies your CEO doesn’t want you to know.
What do these cover lines have in common? They promise to help readers solve a problem and improve something they do. Magazine editors know that people crave information that makes things easier, simpler, faster and better.
The official name for this approach is “service journalism,” explains Don Ranly, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. The idea is that you (the communicator) perform a service for the reader. By packaging information in a way that is useful for readers, they will be more likely to use that information to take action.
Most internal communication lends itself to this approach. HR communication about benefits or pay, for example, personally affects employees. Change communication is another good example because it impacts different audiences in different ways.
A solid internal communication strategy will help you identify different employee audiences and map the impact to them, so you can structure your content to provide a service that applies to each of them. Here are examples of how to turn boring content into helpful “how to”:
• 5 tips for effective virtual teams
• How to boost your effectiveness through online collaboration
• 5 ways to increase your productivity without leaving your workstation
• The pro’s and con’s of flexible work arrangements
• 3 steps to choose your best medical coverage.
3. Slice, Dice and Chunk Content
No, this isn’t a cooking lesson or a sales pitch for one of those infomercial products (“It slices! It dices! It cleans your laundry!”). Instead, this tip is about cutting content into manageable chunks.
“Chunking” is necessary because we’ve become a society of skimmers and scanners, glancing through a print publication or browsing in a website to find what we need quickly. We read shorter chunks of information much more readily than we will read huge, gray columns of words with no break in sight.
To create chunks, use techniques like these:
- Highlight key words and phrases
- Create bulleted or numbered lists instead of long paragraphs
- Create break-heads to group similar content into sections, such as “Background,” “Program changes,” or “For more information”
- Use call-outs, boxes within the body of an article, to draw attention to important points or information.
- Show, Don’t Tell
There’s no doubt that we are becoming a visually mediated society. From Vine videos to selfies to infographics, most of us would rather view images than read words. This presents a great opportunity for internal communication, particularly for global companies whose workforce is international in nature. Visuals quickly get a message across. They don’t require translation. And smartphones have made photos a form of communication every employee can participate in.
So embrace the visual revolution. Write less, use visuals more. And see how employees become more engaged as a result. Here’s how:
• Highlight key company results in an infographic rather than a traditional town hall presentation
• Create a process map to help employees visualize the various stages of a complicated process
• Use icons to establish instant recognition of recurring themes or topics
• Engage employees in programs through photo or video contests hosted on your intranet.
- Use Plain Language
Anyone who has worked with internal subject-matter experts for a long time is susceptible to a syndrome known as “The Curse of Knowledge.” Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe this syndrome in their book Made to Stick: “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what is was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.” The result is content that’s too technical, so it’s difficult for non-experts to understand.
Luckily, there are several ways you can cure yourself of this curse. The first is to stop using jargon. Second, get rid of complicated words and terms that are difficult to understand.
But you might protest that there are company-specific terms you must use because they’re the only way to accurately describe certain things, or because they’re legally required. If this is the case, you must not assume that the average (or even above average) employee understands these terms. Instead, define terms every single time you communicate.
How do you know if your language is simple enough? Check your readability (you can do this right in Spelling/Grammar preferences in MS Word). The average American reads at a 9th grade level, so some companies use that as a guide (as do publications like Reader’s Digest).
Employees are hungry for information that will help them make smart decisions and be successful. Leveraging these internal communication best practices can help your hard work pay off.