Throughout 2020, internal communicators have worked hard to keep employees informed about what’s going on in our organizations.
But moving forward, providing information will not be enough to engage employees. In fact, it’s becoming harder to get employees’ attention and keep them interested in content—unless that content is fresh, unique and relevant.
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Why do we need to change the way we’re communicating with employees?
You’re probably too young to remember the origins of internal communication in the mid-20th century, so I’ll give you a little history lesson. As organizations became larger and more complex, they needed a way to provide the same information to all employees, no matter what job they did or where they worked. So senior leaders hired ex-journalists to create company magazines (known as house organs) or newspapers.
That model—internal communication as a particular kind of journalism—has remained constant, despite major shifts in technology and transparency. For example:
- The homepages of most intranets are essentially news sites.
- Many companies produce newsletters that are sent (usually electronically) to employees on a regular basis.
- Even internal social media platforms are often designed primarily to share information.
During the crisis, this model actually worked well, since employees were hungry for information about how their organizations were responding.
But moving forward, employees crave meaning more than they do facts. And traditional internal communication is not set up to provide context, perspectives and community.
This old-fashioned model for internal communication doesn’t take into consideration two big shifts in our employee audiences:
1. Dynamic demographics. The workforce continues to change rapidly. Employees are more diverse and more multi-generational. For example, in many organizations, up to five generations are currently working together.
Guess what? The more diverse employees are, the more varied their communication needs. That’s why you need to thoroughly understand employees’ preferences, then build communication to fit every size and style.
2. Increased expectations. Employees want more when they come to work. In fact, their expectations are rising all the time. For example, nearly 80% of consumers say that convenience is a key priority—and that the quest for convenience doesn’t change when employees walk into the office.
But employees are often disappointed by how communication is delivered: slow, complicated and sometimes not relevant to them.
What to do differently
While communicators can’t change everything, there is one area we can address to meet employees’ needs and expectations—that’s right, content.
In fact, I’d like to suggest 7 ways to make your internal communication more engaging:
1. Say no to (old) news
I was talking to a client recently about the easiest ways to transform content.
“Step 1,” I said, “Stop posting press releases.”
My client reassured me that her team never repurposed external releases on internal communication channels.
But when I reviewed the organization’s intranet articles, guess what they seemed like? That’s right: press releases—newsy-type content written to announce something, share information about initiatives or promote the work of teams or functions.
Employees hate packaged or “spun” communication and anything that wastes their time without adding value.
As one employee in a recent focus group told me, “I find (most communication) to be perfectly crafted, perfect words that don’t tell us much.”
And another employee said, “Too much of (communication) is a sort of gloss-over loaded with business speak.”
It’s time to phase out the “news article” approach to content. Instead, reframe content to answer employees’ essential questions:
- “What does this mean to me?”
- “What do I need to do differently?”
Employees value content that’s unique and useful. Since press releases are neither, it’s time to give them the boot.
2. Provide information that’s helpful
Don Ranly, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, coined the phrase “refrigerator journalism” (also known as “service journalism”) to describe content that audience members find so useful that they cut it out (or print it out) and stick it on their fridge.
“In today's microwave world, in-a-hurry readers want practical information presented in the most efficient and effective way,” writes Ranly.
“Perhaps the primary rule of writing today is: Did you give the message in such a way as to take the reader the least amount of time? Readers will pay attention to what you say only if you show them respect.”
When you provide helpful advice, you create content that employees want to open, click to and spend time with.
To achieve that, according to Ranly, your content needs to be:
- Useful. “Find ways to demonstrate how the reader can use the information. See how often you can get ‘you’ in the first sentence of your copy.”
- Usable. For instance, Make a list. Lists get more attention, better comprehension and more retention. For example, “5 ways to save money on your prescriptions.” People are interested in practical and informative content which is why “dos and don’ts,” “pros and cons” and “tips and tricks always get attention.
- Used. “Service journalism is action journalism. You are successful only if people use the information. People stop paying attention to information they never use.”
The good news is that much of the content you manage lends itself to this approach.
After all, you’re sharing information—from the company strategy to how benefits are changing—that affects employees.
Therefore, it makes sense to explain what they should do in response. For example: “5 ways to increase your productivity without leaving your desk” or “How to set performance goals that support the strategy”.
3. Make content super simple
By now, we all should know better than to use Corporate Speak, that tangled vocabulary of long, complicated or obscure words.
But despite our best intentions, too much of the content we create is, in a word, complicated. That’s why my advice is to simplify by:
- Writing for your employee audience, not for clients/stakeholders/senior leaders.
This may seem so fundamental that you may wonder why I even mention it. But I find that this is where a lot of content goes wrong. The scientists (or engineers or IT experts or finance geeks) want to include all that technical stuff. So you load up the piece with arcane details. But employees don’t care about the fancy stuff; they want content to be understandable and relevant.
- Instead of lecturing, being conversational.
Lose that imperious, from-on-high tone and replace it with a friendly voice. You know what I mean: Write the way you’d speak to a colleague or even a friend. Friends don’t let friends use words like core competency, synergy and strategic imperatives.
- Using only words and terms that are familiar to the largest percentage of employees.
If there’s even the slightest possibility that a word might be unfamiliar, define it. Don’t worry about insulting the people who know what the term means—if you routinely use definitions, employees will see that it’s just the helpful way you do things.
4. Serve a snack
You’re probably familiar with this handy little metaphor for content length:
- Bite: A single, short thought, like a tweet
- Snack: Content that can be consumed easily and quickly
- Meal: Requires a time commitment; employees need to sit down and pay attention
The problem is this: too much internal communication content is a full meal. A smorgasbord. A cruise-ship buffet.
The result? Indigestion.
The remedy is to keep content short. That means:
- Narrowing your focus to just one concept. Answer the question: “What is the one thing I want my audience to know/do?”
- Setting strict guidelines for length—and sticking to them. The average online news article is 300 words. Procter & Gamble, the big consumer products company, limits email memos to one page. The best websites restrict homepage items to 100 words.
- Making your sentences direct and brief, and your paragraphs an easy-to-scan collection of just a few sentences. Remember: Sentences can consist of just one word (Ouch!).
5. Relieve clutter
I hope you’ve noticed that in this blog I’ve used lots of techniques to make it easier for you to navigate. A numbered list. Subheads. Bullets. Short sentences.
That way, even if you don’t choose to read every word, you can find useful nuggets of information.
The first step is to get rid of a lot of stuff you don’t need. This applies equally to tee shirts and to intranet content.
You need to admit that old college field hockey shirt and the outdated HR policy from 2003 don’t spark joy—and therefore need to be donated/thrown out—before you start rearranging them.
Once you’ve disposed of all the junk, the next step is to choose an organizing system. My role model for this is a systematic guy named Richard Saul Wurman.
Not familiar with Wurman? He was the founder of TED talks, the originator of the term “information architect” and author of many books, including “Information Anxiety.”
“While information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not,” Wurman writes. “And once you have a place in which the information can be plugged, it becomes that much more useful. Your choice will be determined by the story you want to tell.”
Wurman’s organization system is based on five categories: Location, Alphabet, Time, Category and Hierarchy (LATCH):
Location is the technique of organizing information based on its location. Sharing with your employees content based on their locations is one of the best ways to ensure that this content is relevant to them.
For example, your employees based in London are certainly interested in the latest London office updates while this type of information may not be that relevant for your employees based in New York, Singapore or Paris.
Although everyone instantly understands ABCs, alphabetical is not a classification you can use all the time, because many other structures (see time, category and hierarchy) are actually more intuitive. But alphabetical is appropriate when creating a directory of people or terms that employees want to look up.
This structure works well in communication, especially when employees have to take action steps on a certain schedule. (“Meet with your manager in late January and enter your Performance Management objectives by February 15”).
This is my favorite way to arrange things because most of us think in categories: All my spices are on this shelf, pasta’s over here, snacks go there. Most categories seem natural and intuitive.
The same goes for internal communication. You need to segment the content you're going to share internally based on topics, your employees' needs and their locations. For example, HR is a big group, and then you can organize by subcategories like Benefits, Policies and Pay.
Number 2 on my hit parade because the assumption is that some things are more important than others (which, quite frankly, they are).
Every time you create the “Top 3 things you need to do to complete your evaluation” or put the most critical message in a headline, with a few critical points in the article and web links to more details, you’re using hierarchy to organize. Even when information is complicated, LATCH helps you manage it.
6. Achieve perfect timing
Ask employees what they would like to change about internal communication, and one factor always makes the top of the list: timing.
According to employees, companies get timing wrong in two ways.
First, some information is shared too early. For example, employees say:
- “Information Technology informs me about a system change months before the change occurs. When communication is too early, I just ignore it.”
- “It’s great to get a heads-up, but quite frankly, I’m much more likely to pay attention if something is coming up next week, not next year.”
The second timing mistake that companies make is communicating too late. Employees say:
- “Tell us about things as they happen, not days or weeks later.”
- “Provide information in a timelier manner. Many hear it through the grapevine before leaders share the news.”
What do employees want instead? Information that’s delivered “just in time”—right when they need to act and before hearing it from external sources. Here’s how:
- Set guidelines for timing. For example, if information is simply FYI and if the news doesn’t affect anyone’s job for months, then communication waits until later. Or here’s another guideline: when the news has a significant impact on employees, the message is shared right before or at the same time as external communication.
- Plan ahead. It’s true that surprises come up, but 80% of what you need to communicate is expected. So there’s no excuse not to communicate with enough time for people to take action—but not too early so that they file it for later and forget about it.
- Focus on what employees need to do—and when they need to do it. When do they need a heads-up? When do they really need to start paying attention? When are deadlines they need to meet?
- Provide dates and deadlines. When it’s time for employees to do something, let them know! Be sure to include a deadline and enough time for them to complete it.
- Share updates. Create and follow a communication timeline to notify employees when more information will be available—even if it’s an estimate (e.g., “shortly” or “within a few weeks”). Send a series of targeted messages just in time.
7. Feature employee stories
Aren’t we all a little sick of reading about guys in suits, also known as executives?
One way to alleviate content boredom is to highlight regular employees doing wonderful work. For instance:
- Showcase accomplishments
- Acknowledge employees’ struggles and celebrate their successes
- Spotlight what employees do outside of work
And here’s an important tool in your content toolbox: storytelling.
My inspiration is a terrific book—“Managing by Storying Around”—by the late David Armstrong. As CEO of Armstrong Industries, Armstrong used stories “to inspire others and to help them discover something about themselves that they would have otherwise missed through a boring flow chart or company memo,” according to his company tribute page.
Armstrong realized that stories provided a great way to recognize employees. “People love to hear and read about people—especially about themselves,” wrote Armstrong.
As you work to improve content, remember this: our internal communication mission is not to provide news. It’s to help employees understand key issues so they see how their jobs contribute to the organization’s success. That means making communication simple. Useful. And very, very convenient.
Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, the award-winning employee communication firm that for over 30 years has helped leading companies reach, engage and motivate their employees. Alison sets strategic direction for the firm, consults with clients on their toughest communication challenges and leads development of new products and services.
Alison has written or edited these groundbreaking books: 49 ways to improve employee communications, The Definitive Guide to HR Communication and Your Attention, Please. Alison is a former online columnist for The New York Times and frequently writes articles for leading business and trade publications. A seasoned blogger, she is the author of the Davis & Company blog and writes an online column for Inc.
A sought-after speaker on communication issues, Alison has led sessions for such organizations as The Conference Board, Society of Human Resource Management, Public Relations Society of America and The International Association of Business Communicators. Alison earned her B.A. from Douglass College, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
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