“I think that 99% of companies are kind of stuck in the '90s when it comes to their culture.”
—Brian Halligan, CEO, Hubspot
Although employee communications have never been an official part of any full-time writing position I’ve held, I’ve nonetheless been asked to write many over the years, including:
Partnerships and acquisitions
As a freelancer, I’ve also written policy and code-of-ethics communications about workplace violence, fraud, safety, the dos and don’ts of submitting travel and entertainment expenses, and even the importance of winter tires.
In other words, I’ve written a lot of dry communications that many people have cursorily glanced at or ignored altogether.
Here’s why I say this.
“Good communication is just as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after."
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Some years ago while working as a full-time writer and IPG Specialist for TV Guide Canada, I noticed how TC Media (parent company to TV Guide) tended to email out the same employee communications about workplace etiquette, IT policy and the like. And as an employee-level observer, the reason for the repetitive communications seemed clear to me.
The communications were written in the top-down style that talks at people and not with them. To make matters worse, the writing style was corporate and dull.
As a result, the emails provided little incentive for people to take time out of their busy day to read them. So they just sent them to the trash. And for those who did take the time, the lack of engagement value meant that many people simply skimmed over the emails out of a sense of responsibility but didn’t retain much of the information.
Deciding there had to be a better way to write communications, I conducted an experiment.
“If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.”
—John Mackey, CEO, Whole Foods Market
In 2010, TV Guide management asked me to write a series of style guides and IPG procedural handouts for the editorial staff in response to client concerns about quality assurance. To engage people (and thereby ensure better information retention), I wrote and produced two issues of an employee communication called TV Bride.
Created as a print handout, TV Bride combined humor with instructional information, and the experiment worked.
Employees read the communications, retained the information (even though some of it was lengthy and technical) and applied it, and many still remember TV Bride today.
According to the Pew Research Center, viewers of humorous news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report exhibit higher retention of news facts than those who get their news from newspapers and network news stations like CNN.
Encouraged by the results, I took the experiment a step further. Noticing how the IT department routinely sent out reminders for employees to contact the IT Help Desk in the event of computer problems, I created a humor-based employee video set to an original parody song called “Computer Freeze.” Modelled after “You and Me” by Lifehouse, the song sympathized with people and the frustration of dealing with computer problems before concluding with the message to contact the IT Help Desk. I wrote the lyrics and musician Andrew Huang recorded the music and vocals.
My first freelance employee communications were a series of employee wellness handouts, written in 2007 for Michelle Johnston, Founder and Executive Director of WorkingWell - Workplace Wellness Solutions, whose clients now include Yahoo! Canada, L’Oréal Canada, and UNICEF. Michelle embraced the idea of communications delivered with a bit of humor and conversational tone to help improve engagement and retention, and in many ways helped me shape what would be a recurring approach in future communications for others.
Employee responses to the video were very positive. Several department heads indicated interest in making more such videos, and “Computer Freeze” was even signed for limited distribution by the Ottawa-based music distribution site Weekly Indie. Further encouraged, I took my experiment yet another step further.
In 2011, TC Media introduced their Innovation Challenge (now the TC Media Incubator), an open call for employees to express their creative potential and present ideas focused on customer needs, technology trends and business challenges. To me, happier employees seemed a sensible investment to serve outward-facing company goals. So in 2012, I participated in the Challenge and presented the idea of company-wide communications produced along similar lines as TV Bride and “Computer Freeze.” I further presented the idea of offering open involvement in such communications to all employees to show off their creative talents.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was essentially proposing a modification to top-down employee communications to include a form of people-to-people communications—a concept that has now only dimly begun to appear in business within the context of social proof, talent acquisition and talent retention.
“There is a steep decline in trust among elites – including CEOs – and a rise in peer groups and employees as trusted spokespeople.”
—Katie Macaulay, Managing Director, AB employee communications agency
Basically, the idea behind people-to-people communications is that a company can say they support an environment of employee satisfaction, open communications and creative outlet, or they can demonstrate social proof in person-to-person format to help build trust, retain employees and attract talent.
The people behind the Innovation Challenge did not embrace my idea or write back, presumably because my idea did not represent an income opportunity.
After TV Guide closed in 2014, I decided to revisit the idea of humor-based employee communications. Choosing the subject of social-media responsibility (a recurring internal communication in most companies), I wrote and recorded a script for a video and Brian Richardson of BehindTheCouchTV animated and produced the video, which I presented to numerous companies as an example of what I was proposing to help invigorate their internal communications.
Although TV Guide continued until July 2014 as a listings provider to cable and satellite companies, and supplied entertainment news to Sympatico, the last print edition of TV Guide appeared on newsstands on Nov. 20, 2006., ending its 61-year existence.
“At an organizational level, some organizations are tapping into what I’d call the humor advantage. Companies such as Zappos and Southwest Airlines have used humor and a positive fun culture to help brand their business, attract and retain employees and to attract customers.”
—Michael Kerr, author,
The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank
In the end, it was the Innovation Challenge all over again. No company wrote back.
Today, companies still ask me to write employee communications. They ask for traditional top-down communications with varying degrees of dryness and dullness. And that’s what I deliver, because that’s what they want, and I certainly understand that some subjects like workplace violence or fraud do not lend themselves to anything less than a serious approach and treatment. Yet many workplace communications fall outside the same level of seriousness. And in such cases when someone comes to me asking for help to improve engagement for some employee communication that's falling flat, I still occasionally offer up an alternative in the form of person-to-person communications mixed with humor, as in the following example designed to boost employee response to TINYpulse surveys.
After producing “Social Media Responsibility" (above), I wrote and recorded six additional video soundtracks in preparation for future presentations.
"The most vocal challengers to most cultures are the first to be shown the door. It’s in human nature to want to eliminate the most disruptive people. And it’s also human nature to want to bring in more people that fit in well. Repeat these two behaviors over time and culture becomes homogeny, even if everyone still believes the culture values diversity."
— Scott Berkun, author
The Myths of Innovation