The Seven Deadly Sins of Employee Communications

How many did you commit this week?

We are all sinners. Yes, all of us.

When it comes to employee communications, we all sin. In fact, we often commit the same sins on a regular basis. In my 25 years working in employee communications as a speaker, trainer, consultant, and coach, I see the same mistakes again and again. And again.

I call them “The Seven Deadly Sins of Employee Communication.” How many of these did you commit just this week? Let us know, in the comments section.

Deadly Sin #1: Writing for the “approver,” not the reader.

Perhaps the most common of the 7 Deadly Sins. Communicators get so beaten down and abused by the “approval process,” that they start creating copy that they know will make it through the process, rather than writing copy that someone might actually read.

For example, let’s say you are writing an article about a new training portal for employees. The right lead would be: “The new training portal offers employees dozens of resources, classes, and other opportunities to advance their careers.”

That is written for the user. Fast, to the point, sells the benefits up front.

BUT . . . the person in charge of that portal has to approve the article, right? And she wants to dress it up! You know, get some bigger, more corporate words in there! So she changes the lead to:

In an ongoing effort to optimize a best-in-class, engaged workforce where employees are the company’s most important asset, Human Resources is very proud to announce the grand opening of The Training Portal, a world-class provider of optimized solutions that employees can leverage to further their professional development core competencies.”

Yuck. Approvers and internal clients aren’t writers. You are. Never forget that! And never write a paragraph like that second one, just because you know it will sail through approvals.

Deadly Sin #2: Falling victim to the “Gone With the Wind Syndrome.”

Video is all the rage these days, especially with executives. Which is great. Except when it’s not. And it’s not great when executives insist on doing nine-minute video messages to employees. Nine minutes? You might as well ask employees to watch Gone With the Wind.

Communicators need to speak truth to power. They need to say: “Mr. Snerdly, I know you are so intelligent, and have so much to say to employees. But, all the research in the world says videos need to be 90 seconds, at the most.

The message has to be: Doing a long video is a flat-out waste of time.

I know some communicators at a company in the UK who use a neat trick to avoid committing this sin: They actually bring a stopwatch to the executives’ offices, and time them. It leads to some very informal, non-corporate, often funny videos, as executives do their best to explain business topics in under a minute.

Communicators shoot the video with an iPhone, and coach the executives to have fun with it. And guess what? People watch them! (We show some of those videos in our Employee Communication Master Class February 2-3, 2022)

Deadly Sin #3: Being fooled by the “Communication Illusion.”

Remember that nine-minute video nobody watched? That is the perfect example of “The Communication Illusion.” The executive assumes that because he recorded the video, and distributed the video, that he has “communicated.”

No, he hasn’t. Because nobody watched it.

The same can be said for any communication—e-mail, intranet articles, and other content. Communicators (and their internal clients) like to “check the box” when it comes to corporate topics. It sounds like this:

“Hey, want to communicate about safety? Here’s an e-mail on the topic. (Hits ‘send.’) Done! We have communicated about safety.”

No, you didn’t. You distributed some information about safety. But if nobody opens the e-mail, or reads the e-mail, or acts on the e-mail, then what have you accomplished, exactly?

Distribution is not communication.

Deadly Sin #4: Writing a “War and Peace” Communication Plan

There are two ways you can screw up a strategic communication plan:

  1. Not even have one (which a surprisingly number of communicators don’t have); or . . .
  2. Have one that is so huge, so unwieldy, so complicated, so convoluted, that you never actually use it.

We call the latter the “War and Peace Communication Plan Syndrome.” Printed out, the damn PowerPoint weights more than “War and Peace” . . . and takes longer to read!

Here’s the thing: companies are known for having too many initiatives. They have Goals, KPIs, Objectives, Pillars, Targets, Change Communications, HR Initiatives, IT Initiatives, This Flavor of the Month, That Flavor of the Month, and on and on.

And then, leadership changes, and they add even more stuff to the pile, because of course they have to put their personal stamp on things!

The result is that communicators have no idea what to communicate, so they build a plan to do it all . . . and end up doing most of it in a half-assed fashion.

When it comes to communication planning, our advice to our clients is simple: Work with leadership to figure out two or three important business initiatives you should focus on. Pick ones where employee communication can actually change behavior and make a difference.

And create a dashboard where you can measure your progress. (We cover this process in our Employee Communication Master Class, Feb. 2-3, 2022.)

Then, write a simple, concise communication plan around those two or three topics . . . and hit them hard! And reevaluate after three months. Yes, every quarter you should reassess what  worked and what didn’t. Talk to leaders to see whether you need to shift your focus due to what’s happening in the business and/or the industry.

Business communication topics change all the time. Your plan should be adaptable, to accommodate this.

When it comes to planning, Do Less and Do it Better!

Deadly Sin #5: Measuring the Wrong Stuff

Everybody loves metrics! Especially these days, when they are so easy to get! Every online tool, for the most part, can get you metrics: Opens, click throughs, time spent on the page, etc. etc.

But collecting those numbers isn’t measurement. It’s part of the picture, but not the whole thing. A good measurement strategy, as my wife and partner Cindy likes to say, has to be a balance between metrics and behavior change.

Who cares if 73 percent of employees opened an article in the newsletter if they didn’t read it, understand it, or act on it?

I will tell you who doesn’t care about that “open rate.” Leadership! They don’t care about metrics. They care about whether you are giving employees the information they need to feel engaged, to be an ambassador for the company, to feel informed about the latest business strategies, to feel like what they do matters.

Those are the kinds of behaviors we need to build into our communication dashboards. Metrics are a start. But behavior change is where we earn our money. We talk a lot about that in our Employee Communication Master Class, Feb. 2-3, 2022.

Deadly Sin #6: Giving Managers Too Much “Support” in Communications

Front-line supervisors need our help. They get it from both sides. Leaders are on them to “make their numbers” and run the business. Employees are hounding them for information . . . especially in the age of Covid.

We do about 100 focus groups with managers every year. At first, when you talk about communication, they say: “I just don’t have time to communicate.”

But when you drill down, you discover that they do have time to communicate . . . as long as someone makes it as easy as possible for them to do so.

That someone is you.

But here’s the catch: The more you give managers to do when it comes to communication, the less they will do with it. Elaborate “Manager’s Toolkits,” dense PowerPoints . . . these tend to sit on shelves, gathering dust.

Managers want to know three basic things:

  1. What communication do they need to know, but it is for “their eyes only.”
  2. What communication do they need to act on.
  3. What information do they need to share with their employees?

One of our clients does a very successful managers’ newsletter, and every short, concise article is assigned one of three icons: “Know,” “Do” or “Share.” It looks like this:

The newsletter itself is tight, concise, with no wasted words. Great news headlines for each article. Short summaries. You can get through the entire thing in about four minutes. If you can deliver important news to managers in a concise format that categorizes the information for them and gives them marching orders, they will love you for it.

Deadly Sin #7: Focusing On “The Four Deadly Ps”

Corporate writers don’t get to write about sex, drugs and rock and roll. We write about “The Four Deadly Ps:”

  1. Programs
  2. Policies
  3. Products
  4. Procedures

And all four of those things are dull as dirt. But they don’t have to be.  Because all of those things involve the Fifth P: People.

The more we can focus on People, the more readable our stories will be. The more real storytelling you can do. For example, most communicators know October is “National Cybersecurity Month.”

Most corporate communicators will start an article on the topic with this lead:

“October is National Cybersecurity Month.”

Blah. (Some people actually make that the headline and the first sentence. Double Blah!) Look at how one of our clients handled the same story (which is a classic, boring “Program” story). Here was her headline:

This cybersecurity expert lives for thwarting would-be attacks

 Yes! That is what we call a “Speed Bump” headline: It might just stop a busy reader in her tracks, get them to slow down. (And look at that verb: thwarting! Great headlines almost always have great verbs).

Then, here’s the fast first sentence:

“When Brittany Benninghoven comes to work each day, she knows this could be the day that she saves the company and its people from a cybersecurity threat.”

Boom!! We get a person involved right away. Then, they go on to describe what Brittany does, run a great, short quote from Brittany, and then eases into the fact that this story is tied to Cybersecurity Month, and what they want employees to do about it.

This anecdotal, people-based approach works on any boring corporate topic: Safety, wellness, corporate initiatives, mission/vision/values, corporate change.

We show a dozen examples of how to do this in our Employee Communication Master Class, Feb. 2-3, 2022.

Join us for the fun!!! And have a wonderful Holiday Season!!

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