Take inspiration from college students to improve internal communication channels

When I’m not consulting on employee communication best practices, I’m teaching college students at Montclair State University. This semester, I’m leading one of the most intimidating courses for many students: Fundamentals of Public Speaking.

Did you know that studies show people fear public speaking more than death? Yikes! No wonder it’s a challenge getting students to participate. What I’ve learned is that the key to engaging students is to understand their needs and build communication that meets those needs.

The same is true when communicating with employees. The more you design your channels and content to appeal to employees, the more you’ll break through the clutter to capture their attention. Here are three lessons I’ve learned:

1: Know your audience

Even though people have a habit of considering college kids to be all the same, they are not the stereotypical beer-drinking Millennials you’d imagine.

Each semester, when I get a new roster of students, I analyze their demographics. Beyond the basics like age and gender, I consider other factors such as:

  • Do students work full-time?
  • Will this prevent them from attending campus events?
  • Do they have smartphones?
  • Will they be able to access our learning management system’s application on their mobile devices?

I then design my class exercises to take demographics into account.

I follow the same process when considering the best way to communicate to employees.

Demographics are important because attributes such as age, tenure, job location and ethnicity help you make decisions like which channels to use and what content to provide.

The lesson: Always consider demographics to design communication that meets employees’ needs.

2: Make content visual

When I walk around my classroom to see what students are actually doing on their phones, they’re usually scrolling through Instagram. I could get angry and enforce a no-phone rule, but instead I have identified two insights from this student behavior:

  • Students are addicted to their phones (I’ll talk more about this in my next point)
  • Students are attracted to visuals

Before realizing this, I used to hand out a syllabus built on our department-issued template, which was about 10 pages of Times New Roman text. This translated to missed deadlines, confusion about course requirements and lots of conversations about attendance policies. Why? Because no one read the syllabus.

Now that I know visuals are what grabs students’ attention, I’ve given my syllabus a facelift:

  • I create clear calls to action, like assignment deadlines and exam dates, by using charts and callouts.
  • I add images. For example, remember the character Dwight Schrute in the TV show The Office? In one episode, he is asked to give an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony and he freaks out, so I include a funny image of him panicked at the podium. (We watch a clip of this hilarious episode later in the semester, and students love it.)

Chances are employees don’t like to read, either. Give your communication a facelift by slicing and dicing content into chunks of information they can consume. For example, use:

  • Subheads to categorize information
  • Callout quotes to highlight important information
  • Tables and charts to organize information

The good news is you don’t have to be a graphic designer to do this. Even the simplest text treatment (such as putting text in boldface type) can make your communication more interesting.

The lesson: Make communication easier to absorb with visuals.


3: Change up channels

Because students are addicted to their phones, I like to incorporate smartphones to enhance classroom learning.

One of the best ways to improve your public speaking skills is to record yourself. Since college kids are fluent in selfie communication, I have them use their phones to record an impromptu speech using the front-facing camera so they can see what they look like. Not only is this a great speech exercise, it’s a way to engage students through a device they actually use.

When considering the best way to communicate to employees, consider the following:

  • Your audience
  • The message
  • Tools at your disposal

Look at the pros and cons of each and then determine how each might help you best communicate. For example, email is right for quick, actionable information, but it’s wrong for providing detailed information or communicating tough topics. Print is effective for telling a story or putting issues into context, but it’s wrong for timely information or news.

The lesson: Choose the right tool for the job

Apply these three lessons in your workplace and you’ll get through to your employees the same way I do with my students.

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