Wondering how you can keep your writing fresh and current?

In episode 16 of Employee Buzz, senior director, Cheryl Ross, shares her expertise on writing content for employees. From tips about writing for different types of media to the top three mistakes you should avoid, Cheryl helps listeners understand how they can keep employees engaged.

Tune in to learn how you can get started!

Episode transcript: 

Alyssa: 
Hey everybody. Welcome back. Thank you for being here again. I am Alyssa Zeff, your rec baseball coaching, card game playing, bourbon drinker. I’m here with Cheryl Ross, a senior director at Davis & Company. Cheryl is a true crime junkie, aunt of the year, and servant to her toy poodle. Thank you so much for being here, Cheryl.

Cheryl:
Thanks for having me. All things true. Very true.

Alyssa: 
So today we’re going to talk about something that you and I are very passionate about, which is writing for employees. It’s complicated. You have to take so much into consideration: the voice of whatever business or company you’re writing for, best practices when it comes to writing, the medium or vehicle that you’re using, key messages, what’s in it for the employee. Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re thinking about all of that, how do you even get started?

Cheryl:
Well for me, the most important thing to do with any piece that you’re writing is to start with an objective. First off, if you don’t have an objective, then why are you even writing? There’s no point and you don’t even know what to write. On the other side of that, you don’t want to have too many objectives because if you have any more than three, you’re going to have too many focal points for the reader to try to digest and it just becomes too complicated.

Cheryl:
For me, then, the next thing after you have an objective is to really think about your audience. So you mentioned best practices. For us at Davis & Company, we really talk about focusing on the audience, on the employee. And something we use in the communication industry is a phrase called “WIIFM”, which stands for “What’s in it for me.” So you need to figure out what’s in it for me for the employee. And whenever you’re writing any kind of piece, you need to focus on that.

Alyssa: 
I’m sitting here nodding emphatically agreeing with everything that you are saying. I’m sorry, go ahead.

Cheryl:
So yeah, I mean those two things are the most important for me. Objective and audience. Once I’ve got those two things, I can take any pieces of content and create an outline. I’ll start with figuring out what’s the most important point. I studied journalism, so that’s my background and that’s where I come from when I’m writing. In journalism, we have something that we call the nut graph, which is the main line within any article. And that actually stands for, “in a nutshell” ... is what not stands for and “graph” is short for paragraph. So it’s the story in a nutshell in one paragraph. If you can shoot for figuring out that main point, going back to what I said what’s in it for me, then you can write your story off of that.

Alyssa: 
Yeah, I mean it’s outstanding advice. I totally agree with everything that you said, as I mentioned. And I think you briefly touched on outlining. And for me, I feel like that has become such an important step in this role because it gets at everything that you were saying. I used to sit down and just start writing and see what happened. But now it’s thinking through all of those things and outlining it first to make sure it makes sense and then really putting pen to paper on it, so to speak.

Cheryl:
Yeah. That helps you prioritize what’s the most important thing for the reader and then what’s just filler later on that if they don’t have time to read it, they don’t have to.

Alyssa: 
Yup. So I want to focus on channels and how you write for different types of media. So I will share a channel with you and maybe you can give a tip for each one.

Cheryl:
Alright, let’s do it.

Alyssa: 
Email.

Cheryl:
So email. For me, the most important thing is the subject line. It’s the way that you’re going to grab your reader, hopefully, if you do it right. So the best thing to do is think about a headline and treat your subject line like a headline. Can you offer advice or put an action in that subject line so that you really entice the reader, try to help them get something done. Something like, action required, or attend this webinar, or learn three tips to advance your career. Those are things that are going to get somebody to open an email.

Alyssa: 
Okay. Poster or digital sign.

Cheryl:
This is completely different. You really want to actually think about the visual first before you even think about writing. The trick with digital signs and posters is that somebody should be able to read them while walking by without even breaking their stride. That means you need to have as little text as possible. And in order to do that, you really need to find a great visual or set of visuals that kind of does the work for you, so you don’t have to write as much.

Alyssa: 
Okay. Next one. Video script.

Cheryl:
Video scripts, for me ... this is one of the hardest areas because as, again, a trained journalist, I write in full sentences, grammatically correct, and that’s just how I write. It comes naturally to me that way. In video scripts, you actually want to do things differently. You want it to be super conversational and friendly, and you also want to keep your phrases short because a best practice in video is to have the video be as short as possible. Our attention spans just don’t last that long. So you can think about writing in phrases that work with the way we speak. We don’t always speak in full sentences and you don’t have to write that way for video.

Alyssa: 
PowerPoint.

Cheryl:
This was one of the very first big lessons that I learned when I came to Davis & Company, which is eight and a half years ago now. Our CEO, Alison Davis, said to me, “Slides are free.” There’s no charge in PowerPoint for extra PowerPoint slides, right? So the idea here is that you should only have one main point per slide. So often, we see these presentations with four, or five, or six different main points crammed onto a slide and it just makes for an eye chart. And what happens is the attendee starts focusing on the PowerPoint and stops paying attention to the person who’s speaking. The slides, instead, should really be more visual heavy and be a backup to what the speaker is saying. So if we can get as little text as possible and just focus on one main point per slide and have more slides rather than fewer crammed in slides, that’s the way to go.

Alyssa: 
Intranet article.

Cheryl:
This is a fun one because we often get articles that are very copy heavy, long, not written to the employee’s point of view. One of the most important things to do is to break up the copy in the article to make it look easier to digest for the reader. So if you can make it easy for the reader to kind of skim through the article ... Use subheads so that they can read the subheads and figure out whether I want to read this paragraph or not. Bulleted lists wherever possible, numbered lists if you have steps, call-outs, sidebars, link to extra information so you don’t have to have all that information in the article. All of these things just make it easier for me to, as a reader, look at an article and feel like, “Okay, I have the time to read this.”

Alyssa: 
What’s so interesting to me about that conversation and your points is one of the biggest mistakes I see is people have an approved set of core messages, and so they cut and paste, right? “Okay, here’s what it’s going to look like on the poster. Here’s what it’s going to look like in the email. Here’s what it’s going look like in the article.” But each channel does have its own nuance and you have to think about writing for that channel. So speaking of mistakes, we’re often tasked with editing other people’s work.

Cheryl:
Yes.

Alyssa: 
So rapid fire, what are the three writing mistakes you see most often?

Cheryl:
All right, number one, way too much copy. Always number one. Just way too much crammed in. The reader doesn’t know what to focus on when there’s so much to read, and frankly it’s daunting. Number two would be that it's not written to the employee’s point of view. If it’s an announcement of an initiative or some project that happened and I don’t understand why I should care, then I don’t care, and I’m not going to read it.

Cheryl:
A third one I would say is just too many cooks in the kitchen. So often, we’ll have a writer and a subject matter work on a piece and then the HR team has to review it, the legal team has to review it, four more subject matter experts have to review it, senior leaders have to review it. And what started out as a really great, employee-friendly, concise piece of content gets muddied and just not as great as it could be.

Alyssa: 
I completely agree with those as top three and one that I would add that’s kind of related is I often see pieces that have no structure. It’s not clear to me early on why I should care or keep reading and there’s no nut graph, to use your terminology, and therefore, I just don’t really get what the point is. It doesn’t tell a story in a way that makes me care about it.

Alyssa: 
Cheryl, you and I have both been working in communication for a long time and I think we can say with confidence that the further we get in our career, the more we write similar things. So we’re writing similar articles, even for different clients, or similar emails, and everything, and it can get stale and sometimes we kind of get complacent. What do you do? What are some of your tips to keep things fresh and current?

Cheryl:
Absolutely. I mean, every year there’s going to be a new company strategy, and every year there’s going to be an open enrollment, and every year there’s going to be performance management. So yes, we’re writing the same things over and over again. It’s important to always have a few things in your bag of tricks. For me, as a consultant, I have the luxury of writing for different types of clients. So I get to think about changing up the style of how I’m writing based on the employee base that I’m writing for. So, for example, am I writing for Wall Street, you know, financial institution that needs to be more buttoned up? Or am I writing for a tech company in Silicon Valley? Can I be a little bit more playful in the style of my writing or do I really need to be straightforward? And within companies, we can do that by thinking of, “Are we writing to millennials? Are we writing to the senior leaders? Who are we writing to you at this very moment?” And we can think about that style. So that’s one way to keep it fresh.

Cheryl:
For me, another thing is researching how to innovate. There’s a great book that I discovered a couple of years ago. It’s called “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko. And one of my favorite tricks within this book is something called making a forced connection. So what you do is you pick a random word from the dictionary and you force a connection between that word and your challenge. And it may not give you right away the idea that you’re really looking for, but it might spark your imagination. So for example—

Alyssa: 
Hold on. I want to try this. I’m sorry. We’re going to totally try this and I’m just going right off the top of my head. Your topic is performance management and the random word from the dictionary is ukulele.

Cheryl:
Alright, so performance management, ukulele. Ukuleles make music. You can have songs. So maybe my angle for this piece is something about marching to the tune of your own drum. And that’s the angle of the piece ... is make your career path the way that you want it to be based on your songbook. Something like that.

Alyssa: 
Wow, nice. I love it. Way to go.

Cheryl:
So, yeah. I mean, totally crazy. Ukulele has nothing to do with it, but it sparked my imagination so that I could come up with some kind of angle to make this article, this story, sound a little interesting.

Alyssa: 
And I think as writers, the best way to stay fresh, to stay current, is to absorb as much content as you can, to be an avid reader of all different types of content. Not only employee content, but also just consumer content, and magazines, and newspapers, and everything that you can get your hand on just to stay fresh because that’s what makes us good writers. Cheryl, I think everyone who has a role in employee communication can identify with our topic today and I really think that we’ve shared some great advice. I appreciate it. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing insight today.

Cheryl:
Thank you. It was a blast.

Alyssa: 
Thanks for listening to Employee Buzz, where practical advice meets fun.

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