I once attended a talk on the subject of employee communications by this wonderful Ragan Communications guy; I wish I could remember his name. He had us imagine a tableau I’ve carried in my head ever since: It’s lunchtime at your office. A mid-level employee takes a sandwich back to her desk and reaches for something to peruse between bites. Two publications are at hand. One is the latest edition of the employee newsletter. The other is Cosmopolitan. Which do you think she’ll pick up?
Mind you, this particular presentation happened nearly ten years ago. Pre-YouTube. Pre-Facebook. Pre-Angry Birds.
Just because you have something to say, doesn’t mean your intended audience is listening.
So what’s an employee newsletter editor to do? You can’t produce Cosmopolitan out of your communications desk. And if you did, you’d no doubt be fired. But you can keep this very real scenario in mind when writing stuff you want employees to read.
No matter what your corporate culture, there’s no law against writing catchy, readable prose.
Sure your subject matter isn’t always as titillating as the stories the Cosmo editors get to order up. But you have an edge Cosmopolitan doesn’t have. Most of your employees have a vested interest in the information you have to give them. Even if doesn’t affect them directly, it does affect the company they work for. Believe it or not, a lot of employees care enough about their companies to want to know more. But the competition (for their attention) is whispering in their ears. So you have to meet them halfway.
Here are three tips for doing just that:
Find the hook. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while researching the story? I was once asked to write an article about a sales conference at a drug company. For background, the editor sent me a story about the same conference that had just been published in another division’s newsletter. About six paragraphs into a boring article about what seemed to be a boring conference, the writer mentioned that conference attendees had been invited to walk barefoot across a bed of hot coals at a session about the nature of pain. Six paragraphs in! Why, oh why, did the story not open with this amazing tidbit? Ok, not every story’s going to come with this kind of obvious, built-in hook, but most have something that stands out as interesting. Search that stuff out and be tenacious about following up if you find it. Another assignment I once had was to write about two employees who’d won industry awards. Again, a pretty boring topic on the surface. But when I called them up to interview them, I discovered that the awards were announced, as a surprise, at a conference that neither of them had been planning to attend. The conference planners had to go to great lengths to get them to change their minds about attending the conference, without spoiling the surprise. Now that made for a good story.
Bring it to a human level. Introducing a new program or policy? Describing a new product? Find someone that program, policy or product affects and tell that person’s story. Here’s the way a lot of employee newsletters I’ve seen might talk about a new online database:
LuceBoltz Aircraft has partnered with Air Literature, a new online aircraft-related database, to deliver real-time online solutions for aircraft-related product research. The searchable database, now available to all employees through LuceBoltz Online, contains millions of articles and other downloadable resources.
Yawn. Why is it necessary to write like that? Can you picture a feature on this sort of topic in your local newspaper? How would it open? Unless you’ve got a really awful local newspaper, it would probably go something like this:
When Hank Dinsmore, Regional Marketing Director, needs background information for a product, he generally calls the LuceBoltz reference librarian, or takes a hike up to the 6th floor library, himself. If the librarian has the information he needs on hand—great—if not, Hank completes an acquisition form to order the reference document and puts aside his project until it arrives.
“It’s time-consuming at best,” says the veteran LuceBoltz employee, “And it’s frustrating, since I know that information is out there.”
But things are about to get a whole lot better for Hank. Thanks to Air Literature, our new online aircraft research database, Hank will be able to locate and download the information he needs within minutes, straight from his desk. So will every other employee at LuceBoltz.
Still there? See, even news about a fake product for a fake company can keep you interested, if it tells a good story.
Get your leaders to talk like human beings. This last may be the hardest one of all. For some reason, when perfectly normal, interesting, even funny people step across a corporate threshold and are asked to comment, they turn into jargon-spewing robots. They think every sentence has to be in passive voice, every word has to be 3 to 4 syllables, and every thought has to be a cliché. This tendency is made 1000 times worse by the fact that most leaders, when asked to comment for the record, don’t actually say anything (out loud) at all. They write something down. Or worse (depending on how high up on the chain they are) they have their PR guy write something down. The result is something that bears as much resemblance to natural, human speech as Pringles do to roasted potatoes.
You can’t always do much about this. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Catch the boss saying something to a colleague, off the cuff. Or turn to your inner screenwriter and write some catchy dialog, yourself. (You’ll have to have it approved, of course. Be ready to explain how you’re trying to get employees to actually read the article, and care about what the boss says. Show her a copy of this post, if that will help. Remind her that just because someone says something in a natural way—the way they really would say it, out loud, in the real world, doesn’t make it unprofessional. It just makes it human.)
You do these three things, and see if that employee isn’t picking up the employee newsletter first. At least for a quick read. So she can get a bit of news, then turn her attention to Cosmo.