Too good to be true
(A short digressional rant on internal communication inspired in part by various examples I’ve seen recently from a range of organizations. )
Internal communication plays an important role in informing staff about organizational priorities, key events, and new developments. It’s also helpful in building a sense of togetherness and pride in the work of the organization.
But, there’s a fine line in internal communication between motivating and inspiring your staff through success stories, and propagandizing them with your corporate message. Your staff, more than the general public, knows about how your organization works, its challenges and its shortcomings, and they know about the messy reality on the ground.
Jakob Nielsen (the web usability guru) explains that “promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts ‘Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,’ their first reaction is no, it’s not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them”. This is especially true of communications for your own employees, or for fellow practitioners.
We’re subjected to so much spin and promotion from politicians, advertisers and fundraisers that our brains no longer accept it. A bit more optimistic realism in workplace communications would be a welcome change and less of an insult to our intelligence.
If I’m at the receiving end of internal communication I want to know the facts not the gloss, and what those facts mean for me. If it’s a success story, I don’t just want to see the smiling faces and the statements about why it’s so great – I want to know why it’s a success and how it was done, so I can not only be inspired by it, but also learn from it. I also want to understand the challenges and how they were addressed and where there are still hurdles, because if I try to adapt them I’d like to know what’s in store for me.
I’d suggest this might be another place where an 80-20 rule applies. 80% positive and 20% negative in a story is much more credible, and much more interesting than one that is 100% positive, yet it’s not so negative that it loses its appeal.
I’d also suggest that concrete example trumps abstract concept any day. If you can give a real (or at least realistic hypothetical) example of how a new initiative will help improve efficiency it’s much better than simply asserting that it will.
It’s also worth remembering that the things people probably look for most in internal communications are i) career advancement opportunities ii) opportunities to get funding or support for their work iii) internal developments that will either help them in their work, or will make their life harder – and what they need to do to respond to these iv) specialized resources relating to their area of work. So it’s good to make sure these the most accessible. Basically it’s about your audience not about your corporate messaging, and if you want people to read, and to act you need to figure out how to relate it to their experience and what they want and need, not simply what you want them to believe.