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Tailored messaging for effective employee engagement

Karin Petersen

Beyond the theory of effective employee engagement lies the challenge of implementing effective internal communication that is going to engage, inform and act as a call-to-action. In my consulting practice, there are assumptions that I see detracting from effective internal communication all too often. Tailoring messages to audiences is both an art and a science and for your communication to be effective, you need to get this balance right. Read on to find out how to do this.

The most common of these assumptions are:

a) Lack of understanding of the employee's highly variable communication needs. Workforces have never, in history, been so diverse in terms of language, culture and communications needs and accessibility as they are today. They have certainly never embraced the broad age categories that they currently do.

b) The same message for all people. Why do we insist on blanket communications for a workforce, which we know is diverse from every human angle?

c) The delegation of messaging to a particular function. Either HR or the communications department is allocated, or grabs, the responsibility of internal communication and insufficient thought is given to upskilling other departments in effective communication. Great concepts get lost because they aren't rolled out beyond silos or job grades.

d) Predictability.

It is possible to overcome these barriers to effective internal communication. Below, I've given five tips to help you do this.

1. Begin with your corporate vision

Beneath all communication pieces should be the foundation of the company's vision and values. This doesn't require the crudeness of spelling out each of the elements of, for example, carefully constructed icons that represent each strategic pillar can be used as visual links. There are many ways of subliminally bringing this element into communication.

For effective employee engagement, prioritise culture-shift communication over the nice-to-know information.

2. But get rid of 'corporate speak'

What quicker way is there to have your employees switch off to what you are saying? It's a guaranteed way of making sure that your message gets lost in the never-never land of ignored messages. Keep your information short and to the point.

Use a conversational tone for general communication pieces and make sure that longer communications have bullets, bold headers with information in bite-sized chunks and the opportunity to explore each subject further – either by requesting it via mail, on the intranet or an Internet microsite.

3. Consider your audience by medium

Toss a lengthy e-mail at a young marketing exec and you've wasted valuable keyboard time. Try to get an almost-retired bookkeeper to navigate her way through a minimal copy infographic, with eclectic font combinations and visual clues, and you may as well have tossed out her favourite knitting pattern.

Academic communication lecturers are fond of hammering Marshall McLuhan's 'The medium is the message' theory: a theory that has gargantuan holes in it in a world of digital conversations. The message must be shaped to maximise the medium – that is all.

Even baby boomer brains are attuned to social media and the short, sharp, quick-impression information that comes with it. Use this to your advantage by including lists, bullets, images, infographics, talking heads, interactive charts and video clips in your core content.

Surprise and delight. Get employee's attention in new and unexpected ways to break through the noise. Get over town halls, intranets and posters.

4. Segment your audience by message

If 'transparency' is a company value and financials need to be communicated across the employee spectrum, the message to the executive band is going to differ considerably from the one going to the factory floor. This doesn't mean excluding blue collar workers from part of the messaging. It's a question of tailoring the contents to their understanding – and always with a guide on how to explore the message further, if they so wish.

Segmenting messages means that you respect your colleagues' time and only want to share and communicate the most relevant information with them. Keep it simple and neat, and don't over share.

5. Use others to tell your story

Internal communications is a challenging young beast: there is no standard department placement for it as it straddles both HR and communications. Whoever holds the controlling stake or the last word should own - but not take ownership of - the process. Consider giving up control.

Communication happens more credibly through other people: fellow employees who become conveyors of messages and tellers of stories. Pass the information on for divisional or department heads to disseminate with the bare minimum of restrictions. Provide guidelines about the business or action outcome you are seeking provide information and materials then leave them to get on with the job.

If your line management isn't comfortable with communication train them, equip them and mentor them to find their voice. It's going to be a powerful tool for you.

The challenge in the HR space is that practitioners aren't trained communicators – but there's nothing shameful in that. You don't make your own wedding cake, or service your own car – you call in professionals. The internal communication space is no different. Specialists will not only assist you with structure and strategy but bring a wealth of tried-and-tested – as well as new – ideas. They have the privilege of working at the heart of diverse companies and have best practice at their fingertips. Some words of caution. Your stock design or advertising agency may be in the field of communication but theirs is an entirely different world from that of internal communications. Find specialists or a referral agent to introduce you to the team that is going to best understand and accommodate your needs and for best leverage, ensure that the service you buy from them includes skills transfer to enable your team to up its game, sustainably.

Karin Petersen is an independent communications consultant, with a particular interest in internal communications and innovative, effective employee engagement. Armed with a degree in communications, she took on – and thrived in – the world of international branding, advertising and deal-making before returning to her first love: strategic communications. She has local and international companies in her portfolio and specialises in matching her broad portfolio of communications suppliers to her client's specific needs to achieve sustainable results that are simple, on strategy – and work!