internal communications photo of women

When Louis Sullivan, the influential 19th century architect, wrote about his guiding principle, “form follows function,” he was interested in designing buildings that met the functional needs of their inhabitants. Since all decisions (including aesthetics) supported the intended purpose, there were no extraneous elements to detract from the finished structure. 

It’s a principle that is great inspiration for internal communicators in the 21st century: To break through the clutter of information that swirls around employees, communicators must eliminate what isn’t essential. Today, we call this approach “employee centric”—putting employees’ needs at the center of your solution and refining the solution based on feedback.

If understanding employees’ communication needs and preferences feels like a daunting task, here’s a short-circuit solution: three strategies to help you think differently about creating communication deliverables. Put these three strategies to work and you’ll be on the road to designing communication that breaks through and connects with employees:

1. Use an approachable voice

“The key principle of getting and holding attention is to focus on the audience—to help your audience solve a problem, meet a need and answer a question.”
—Alison Davis, Your Attention, Please

Employees often see complex language (corporate speak) as a barrier. It’s difficult to understand, takes time to decipher, and separates leaders and employees. Use language that invites employees in—to be part of the conversation. 

Shift to simple, straightforward language in a voice that is honest and real. Phrases such as “Let’s kick off open enrollment,” “Join us” and “Want to learn more?” suggest we’re in this together. 

After language, turn your attention to leaders and managers. They are at the center of helping an organization feel open and approachable. Set up leaders and managers to exemplify approachable by helping them answer questions, seek feedback and involve employees in addressing challenges. 

2. Get to the point

“Everyone in your audience has two questions: ‘What does this mean to me?’ and ‘Why should I pay attention/care/take action?’”
—Alison Davis, Your Attention, Please

When designing internal communication, remember that employees crave information that is clear, concise and compelling. Put simply, keep it short. 

Focus on one idea—the thing you want employees to know or the action they need to take. And make that idea front and center in your communication deliverable. As they say in journalism, “Don’t bury your lead.” Move background and supporting details to other channels, such as the intranet or small group discussions. 

Once you’ve mastered the art of getting to the point quickly, consider which channels need short, focused content and which are better for long-form information. For example, even though email is often used as a primary communication tool, it excels when content is short, so employees can get in and out quickly. Long-form content is better suited to guides/brochures, learning sessions and group discussions. 

Here are a few examples of being clear and getting to the point:

If you want employees to: Do this:
Take action (for example, enroll for annual benefits)  Be direct and explain what’s required.
Learn about a topic (such as safety or the business strategy) Connect the dots—how the topic relates to their work, their group/function and the organization overall. Explain why it’s worth it to spend some time learning about this topic.
Visit a communication channel (for example, a new and improved intranet) Share how the channel will help them stay up to speed on issues that are important to them, make it easy to filter for relevant information and deliver content that lives up to your promise.

3. Stand out in a crowd

“The more technical and multi-layered the concept is, the more you need visuals to create interest and understanding.”
—Alison Davis, Your Attention, Please

Before we had 140-character tweets, we often said “a picture was worth a thousand words.” It’s still true today. Studies show that using visuals grabs attention and increases retention. 

Whether you’re drafting an email, creating presentations for a town hall or posting an article on the intranet, help employees navigate your content with three visual techniques: 

  • Graphics/images that capture a process or visualize a concept
  • Typography and design elements (such as callouts, headlines and lists) that establish a clear hierarchy and help employees scan (the way most employees describe how they read)
  • Color that supports structure and calls attention to important details 

Put your employee hat on

When you set out to draft your next communication deliverable, avoid the instinct to include every detail and consider employees: What would make this communication useful for them?

Take inspiration from Sullivan’s guiding principle, form follows function, and focus on details that will answer employees’ questions, help them complete their work or inspire them to feel part of a larger community. It’s what employees expect from communication

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