The 4 Essentials of Employee Communications

Yesterday’s post looked at examples of leadership communications gone wrong. Today, we’ll look at four essentials that can help writers avoid unfortunate miscommunications with a company’s most valuable resource: employees.

Step Away from the Desk
Good writing doesn’t start and end at a desk, tethered to a computer. Before you can get to the place where you “know your audience,” it’s important to learn your audience. And the way to do that effectively is by getting in there like a beat reporter.

Just as cities are made up of neighborhoods, companies have their “villages,” and to some degree each has a culture, language and even norms that vary from the collective corporate entity. The trick is not to “vacation” – visiting a few times, picking up some of the lingo and a contact here and there, and then working over the phone, relying on those few contacts from then on. A quick phone call may be easier with the workloads we’re shouldering these days, but cultural reporting requires immersion – it means developing a deep understanding of what’s meaningful in these worlds, however small and finite they might be. You want to be Margaret Mead in this world, not a discount traveler.

It’ll sound silly, but it also means going to lunch (not away from the office, but having lunch “in the village”), where the casual atmosphere allows employees to be more reflective about their work in the larger context of the company, what their constraints are, where they feel they’re supported in their work – and where not.

We become better writers – and communications counselors for our leaders – when we have a deeper understanding of what matters to specific audiences in our companies, when we go beyond a few examples of jargon and really know how to speak the language because we not only understand the work, we’ve seen first-hand what it takes to do the work.

I truly believe no one sets out to use an example, like “rocket science,” to purposely hurt an audience’s feelings. But real understanding of the culture within some of the technical organizations within our company goes a long way to avoiding accidentally slipping in something that does.

Test It Before You Deliver It
Developing strong ties to a client group or department can help communications in other ways, as well. It allows you to share messages and even entire pieces of work (articles, memos, speeches) beforehand across a range of roles within the department (rather than just with leaders or the same contacts over and over).

Of course, we’re talking about sharing non-confidential information here, but it helps to cultivate a process of sharing more. We in the corporate communications culture are innate hoarders of information, we hold it close. I had a journalism professor, way back in the day when it was the epitome of journalistic integrity never to share a story with a source before it had been printed. He told his flabbergasted class that he shared every story with every source. “Why wouldn’t you want to get it right?” he wanted to know. This professor was a seasoned cultural reporter, and it was his philosophy that interpretation can shade meaning while the source of the information can shed light on it.

Testing out messages may need a more formal process, like an editorial board (and here, having a range of pay grades represented or a rotating group to reflect diversity of opinion, is even more effective than the same small group every time) or it can be as simple as sharing a story over lunch.

“Write Up” to Employees
I’m with the party that endorses clear, concise writing, but that doesn’t have to mean writing in simplistic ways.

With the advent of online communications and the further reduction of messages to 140 characters on Twitter, there’s been a move away from – and even a bit of fear around – using language an audience might not understand. It’s the worry many speakers have, our corporate leaders among them, that what they’re saying might go over the heads of the people in their audience.

This is where time spent in the trenches is invaluable. It’s where we learn to trust the audience – actually, more often it’s where we learn that our audience is far more sophisticated in the detailed work of the business than we might ever hope to be – these are smart people or they wouldn’t be doing the work they do. Trust that they not only get it, but want to hear something substantial from senior leaders. They don’t want discussions that remain at the surface, they want the deep dive, and if they don’t understand a word or a concept, they’ll figure it out from the context or ask a question at the end of the speech.

This last one is going to make you cringe, but here goes…

If You Dare – Tell the Emperor He Has No Clothes
Leaders need their communications counsels to be honest coaches. Those “rocket science” analogies I wrote about yesterday? That was a worn-out cliché. On that basis alone, it would have been better not to use it and to wave off the CEO from returning to it over and over again.

Be prepared for uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to be overruled sometimes. But, be prepared with concrete examples – not merely of better wording, but with videos of world-class speakers, news stories, statistics, and any other kind of proof you can present of their impact on the target audience.

It’s going to mean coming up with wording and new directions on the spot. But, if your senior leader sees the depth of your understanding of the subject and the audience, she or he will rely on you for that expertise because it will make the CEO a stronger communicator and create real engagement in the organization.

I’d love to hear about the practices you’ve used to support senior leadership. I’ve left out the entire area of feedback, so suggestions would be very helpful.

A great resource on the topic of effective speechwriting is this article by John Watkis, “41 reasons why good speakers give bad speeches.”