By Kurt Nelson, Ph.D. & Ben Granlund
Overall, organizations communicate poorly. There, we said it.
Whether it’s too much, too little, bad messaging, or something else – corporations struggle to communicate impactfully with their employees.
This is a much larger problem than most people or companies realize.
Here is just one example. Several years ago, we worked with a large Fortune 500 company helping them communicate their sales incentive plans to approximately 2,000 sales representatives. They had stated that they were getting a number of questions on how the plan worked, and it seemed that there was a lot of misinformation out there. When we asked them how they had communicated the plan the prior year, they forwarded on a one-paragraph email with a 30-page, 12-font word attachment in which the first four pages were legal copy. We knew there had to be more, so we asked if they had done any other communication – a webinar, workshops, or PowerPoint? They looked at us with a pained expression of regret and remorse, and slowly shook their heads, no.
And they wondered why nobody understood the plan.
We often see companies sending out hundreds of emails or texts regarding projects, new initiatives, corporate policy, corporate vision, competitive intelligence, incentives, and a countless barrage of other essential items.
We hear company leaders leaving voicemails or giving webinars to ensure that everyone is on the same page, that the goals are clear, that the vision is adequately seen through. We’ve been in the audience when executives take the stage, trying to motivate and build up an “esprit de corps” within the company.
And, we’ve seen many of these initiatives fail to hit the mark.
It’s not just because they are relying on too much company jargon and corporate-speak (although that can be a problem – click here to hear why). It’s not that their slides don’t look pretty or that the emails are using bad grammar. It isn’t that the executives have a poor stage presence or don’t care either.
Often, the stage presence is excellent, the message is positive, and the slides are nicely designed. So, why then do so many communication initiatives fall flat?
Most companies forget that they are dealing with emotionally driven human beings when they communicate.
Merely making a communication look pretty and appealing isn’t sufficient in today’s hyper-paced world where everything is vying for our attention. Organizations need their communications not just to inform, but to engage and to spur new behavior and actions.
Company communications typically provide a lot of facts and figures. They overload employees with data and information. They don’t think about how, we as humans, process that information. They act like employees are rational actors and not emotional beings who don’t always work in their best interests.
As humans, we know we should eat healthily, yet we eat that chocolate cake in the break room. We know it would be better to go to bed early, but we get caught up binge-watching the latest Netflix series. We make quick judgments of people based on how they are dressed or the style of their hair (or lack of it, in Kurt’s case). We spend a lot of time obsessing over the fact that we didn’t get invited to that meeting – even though we hate meetings. If we know that this is how we act, then why do companies communicate as it weren’t the case?
Understanding human behavior and applying behavioral science insights to company communications can help those communications be more productive, better received, more actionable, and more memorable. Here are a few insights you can start tapping into today to communicate more effectively. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but just a few items that you can begin to use right away.
1. Narrative – “The Power of Story”
Humans evolved for tens of thousands of years without a written language. So how did we communicate? We told stories. Our brains are wired for stories. When we tell stories, we become far more engaged and remember more of the information that is presented.
If you are communicating about an organizational change initiative, knowing the ‘why’ behind that change or decision (e.g., the story) helps make the communication more engaging and motivating. This story not only improves engagement, but it also helps to legitimize the content to the audience.
When communicating data, sales incentive plans, financial reports, or anything “heavy,” in many cases, a story is more powerful than data. The data is still essential, but formulating the narrative behind that heavy information can make it far more powerful.
For example, imagine you are rolling out a new employee tool. You have done all of the analytics, run all of the numbers, and sent out all of the preparatory emails and “how-to guides” to let your teams know when and how to use it. Yet, adherence is poor. Part of this is the human tendency to resist change, BUT there are ways to reduce that friction. A great way to tackle this issue would be to source an employee success story. Look at the direct impact that this new tool has had on their workflow, efficiency, and time-management. Bring it to the rest of your team as a story about their success.
Here is how an employee story could be used:
The story of Jill
Jill worked for this team for three years as a call center rep. Her desk was filled with pictures of her husband and two kids, a picture with her best friend at the beach and a handwritten note from her boss, congratulating her on being number one in the country on customer satisfaction. When asked what Jill attributed to being number one, she stated, “I embraced the new call platform…I mean, really embraced it. I took all the training and started to use all the features, not just the ones on the landing page.”
2. Cognitive Overload
Our brains can only process so much information at one time. When they become overloaded, memory shuts down. Too often, organizations try to jam as much information into a presentation, email, or video as they can in hopes that this means the message will get across.
This can backfire. Let’s start with a well-known example. Take a minute to watch the following video. I want to see if you can remain focused on the number of passes that were made between the people on stage.
Did you see the gorilla? This was a famous study done by psychologist Daniel Simons. The point? We miss what we are not focused on. If your communication has too much information, your audience will decide what to focus on and miss the rest. We understand that often a legal document needs to go out; in these cases, consider making a supplemental infographic or reference guide that visually boils it down to the basics.
People become overwhelmed and shut down when you try to convey too much at once, so focus on the critical information and cut the fluff. To create a successful cognitive-communication, you need to simplify and reduce. Ask yourself: Do I absolutely need to convey this information now? Break complex information down into simpler, easier-to-manage bites.
A cascading communication campaign can be very helpful in accomplishing this. Before sending out any communications, storyboard exactly what you will be sending, when you will send it, and what media you will use. A simple postcard dropped at your employees’ desks announcing a new program can be just as effective as a one-hour workshop if designed well.
3. Use Graphics
People remember pictures and graphics more than just text. Corporate communications should utilize graphics and pictures more in order to help explain the story. This is even for emails. Particularly emails from leaders inside the organization. Too often companies overlook the simple power of a graphic
Infographics are powerful tools that companies have to explain, sometimes complex information in a simple and easy to understand format. While these take some time and skill to produce, if you are creating a training program, or trying to explain a new system, or looking at creating a new culture, infographics can be very effective.
One final bit of advice: ensure that graphics add and don’t detract from the message. Adding a picture of an adorable kitten can grab attention, but does it help convey and reinforce the message that people need to take away? If it distracts, remove it. If it enhances, keep it in.
We recommend reading “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” by Susan M. Weinschenk for a deep dive into designing around human behavior.
4. Communication Networks
Inside organizations, specific people are often communication nodes – that is, they are the ones that employees listen to or seek out to get information. Research by Silke Brittain found that in some organizations, 3% of the people influence 80% of the employee population. In the marketing world, these people are known as “internal influencers.”
Organizations do not leverage these individuals enough in their communication.
First, companies need to identify who these people are. Think of it this way, “Who is going to talk about this at the lunch table?”
This can be done through a network analysis study that surveys your employee population. Or you can get a good sense of it by just asking a few employees: “who do people listen to here?”, “who do you think has their pulse on the company?” and “who do you ask if you need to get the ‘real’ scoop?”. While not exact, it can provide a good starting point to understanding the spider web of communication that happens
Organizational leaders should ensure that these people understand the vital programs and messages. Informally talk with these people, before and after you launch a program. Work hard to ensure that they understand, not just the “how” to do something, but the “why” behind why it is being done.
5. Bonus fun idea!
When planning your Communications, let your imagination go wild (and then reel it in).
When asked to draw a picture of another person, a child typically does so without asking and is not ashamed of the outcome. When an adult is asked to do the same, they tend to hesitate, apologize for the outcome, or even refuse to show the finished product to the subject. Why is this? Simple – the child is not overthinking it; they have not let their imagination be squandered by years of social norms.
This is a fun one – when planning your next communication give it a try: be a child, let go of the social norms, ignore the “that’s dumb” impulse, and run with whatever jumps into your head. Once you have the wildest and wackiest ideas on the table, you can then let your “adult kick in” and streamline the content into an acceptable format. Some of our best ideas can come out by letting your brain go.
Remember, communication is a journey and a very human one at that. It’s doesn’t boil down to one single touchpoint, one perfect email, or all the right data. For it to be effective, it must be part of a larger, more cohesive story, a narrative. And along that journey, it must make frequent stops to align and realign with human behavior.
Want to get these concepts rolling in your company? Forward this to an internal influencer today.
Use the following takeaways to make the most of your communications.
Recap on Narratives:
- Use stories to get people engaged
- Source employee stories for social proof – identify real-world examples of what you want to convey and tap into that narrative
Recap on Cognitive Load:
- Too much information = no focus (you miss the gorilla!).
- Chunking information and breaking it into manageable chunks can increase focus a comprehension
- Use whitespace; it helps us focus
- Use movement (whiteboard videos are great at this!)
Recap on Graphics:
- Pictures are more memorable
- Use infographics
- Make them relevant, don’t take advantage of the kittens
Recap on Communications Networks:
- Identify your internal influencers
- Ensure they understand “how” and “why” something is happening or needs to be done