How to create content that’ll (actually) engage frontline workers: my 5 golden rules

This article originally appeared on the Blink Blog. Blink provides mobile solutions for employee communications.

Let’s start with the bad news: communicating with frontline workers is fundamentally hard.

Why? Because…

  • They often don’t have access to the same technologies that other employees have;
  • They are crazy busy (and so are their managers)
  • They often work off-hour shifts
  • They can be disconnected from the rest of the organization, and tend to get most of their company information from coworkers and their immediate supervisors;
  • They are worried more about that day’s work than they are about corporate goals, initiatives, strategies and other “big picture” topics that communicators and leaders want them to know about.

The good news? With new advances in technology, internal communicators now at least have a fighting chance of getting through to these employees.

But . . . and it’s a big but.

You have to get the content right! All the technology in the world can’t help you overcome lousy, boring, overly long, “corporate” communications.

Here are five golden rules you absolutely must remember when crafting mobile content for frontline workers. I’ve pulled these from more than 25 years of consulting, conducting focus groups and surveys: read them closely.

1. K.I.S.S (Keep it short and sweet!)

Face it: Nobody is curling up on their couch with their phone and thinking

“Phew! I finally have 30 minutes to myself. Can’t wait to check work emails and read company news!”

They are reading the news on a 15-minute break, on the train ride home, while waiting for a shift to start . . . or, if you are really good, maybe in the bathroom. So it better be short.

How short, you ask? Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Make everything as short as you possibly can… but no shorter. Trim your content ruthlessly, only leaving room for the ‘meat’ (not the fat).

2. Follow the “What? So What? Now What? Formula.

What do you want employees to know?

Why should they care?

And what do you want them to do after they read watch, or listen to your content?

This means getting to the point straight away. Ditch the long corporate lead-ins. Lose the droning executive quotes. Forget about jamming peoples’ titles and names of departments into the first paragraph. Write a fast first sentence, so people can get a running start.

And when you are done, go back and look at it. Do the What? So What? Now What elements jump off the screen at people? If so, then you have a chance someone will actually read it.

And if you do this consistently, you have a better chance of getting read on a regular basis, because employees will know you respect their time

3. Treasure the white space

White space is your friend! When writing for the screen, and especially a mobile device, you want to use very short paragraphs. One or two sentences. Three at the most. Then hit that wonderful return key to get some air in there.

Your readers will thank you for it.

4. Don’t abuse video.

Executives everywhere are waking up to the fact that video is a terrific way to reach and engage employees, and they are turning to their communicators for help doing it. Don’t steer them wrong!

Videos are a great way for executives to engage employees. But those videos have to be two things:

  1. Short, and
  2. Conversational.

Long “corporate” videos with the executives droning on about “shifting paradigms,” “challenges and
opportunities” and “leveraging core competencies,” have zero chance of success.

Coach your executives that their videos have to be less than 90 seconds. That’s it. Any longer and you might as well ask them to watch Gone with the Wind.

I know one CEO of a large construction company who was very popular with employees. They wanted to hear from her! So she started doing a regular video blog for employees. She had an entire camera crew, a green screen, the works. It was slick and professional. It was also six minutes long.

And… nobody watched it.

Then, when Covid hit, she shifted gears. She started doing the video blogs from her house. And there was no video crew. She put her iPhone on a stand and filmed herself in her backyard for a little over a minute. You could see her grill in the background smoking away! Everyone LOVED IT.

5. Be conversational, not corporate.

The reason people liked that CEO video blog so much (other than because it was so short!) is because the CEO came across as real. No script. No PowerPoint. She even starts the video by saying

“I don’t really have an agenda for today. I just wanted to check in and see how everybody was doing.”

I teach a lot of writing seminars, and I always tell participants:

Great writing is talking, edited. Ditch your Corporate Words and use your “Weekend Words.”

If you wouldn’t say it to your spouse or children or friends, don’t write it in an article, or say it on a
video. Here is a tip I often use when helping executives communicate with employees. I ask them to read the communication out loud.

Does it sound like something they would say? Or is it robotic, stiff and formal? Employees today—especially in the Covid era—want their “corporate” communications to be real, transparent, and conversational.

If we can make that happen, we have a fighting chance of success.

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