Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Eliminating Ineffective Channels: Send Out Less Stuff, and Employees May Pay More Attention

Sometimes the best thing to do is to stop doing something. As you add more and more channels to your internal communications program, whether that’s updating the intranet to a more social platform or developing communications toolkits for managers to cascade messaging, you can reach a tipping point where too much is, well, just too much.

Stop and make an assessment of what’s working and what’s not. Are there six different newsletters from various division and regions? Maybe you could retire a few, or at least use a more targeted list of who gets what. Do employees have several different sites serving various functions of an intranet? Maybe you could shut one of those down, or migrate the content that’s actually being used to another internal site that gets more traffic.

Also consider the Use By date on communications meant for a specific time window. If you ship posters to all locations and ask them to put them up in the break room, do you also let them know when it’s time to take those posters down? When open enrollment is over, when the United Way campaign is complete, removing those posters leaves visual (and mental) space for other messages.

But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If a channel doesn’t seem to be working very well, consider updating what flows through that channel. That digital newsletter that nobody reads might be a winner with an updated design and improved content.

How do you know what’s working and what’s not? The best way is to do a communications audit, using any metrics you have plus an additional employee survey and possibly even some employee focus groups. When Tribe conducts such an audit, the resulting recommendations usually include some combination of 1) channels to keep because they’re working great as is; 2) channels to tweak because they need more strategic thought and/or more engaging content; and 3) channels that have served their time and are ready to retire.

The conundrum is this: there’s always the risk that you’re communicating too much. Just as there’s always the possibility that you’re not communicating enough. If this stuff was easy, it wouldn’t be so hard.

Interested in giving your portfolio of communication channels the once over? Tribe can help.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Three Reasons to Shoot Your Employees

Stock photography is cheap and easy, but it’s not always a great idea. In certain situations, of course, it can be a good solution. When you want to communicate a concept, like collaboration or growth, you might use symbolic or metaphorical photography. If you want a simple visual to illustrate a topic like the 401K, you can find tons of nice shots of piggy banks or gold coins or other relevant objects.

But don’t use stock to represent your employees. It instantly communicates inauthenticity, but even more important, it’s forgoing a fantastic opportunity to build engagement.

Let’s start with the inauthentic part. People can spot a model a mile away. When you use stock in employee communications — to represent real employees — you’re not fooling anyone. Everybody knows those aren’t really employees on the intranet or in the brochure or wherever you’re using stock photos.

Then consider what happens when you photograph actual employees. All three of the following benefits make it worth considering the effort and expense of original photography.

1. Making heroes of your employees: Our culture is fascinated with celebrities, and when you use photographs of real employees, some of that show biz stardust falls on each of those individuals. But like a pebble in a pond, a heroic shot of one employee also creates a sense of pride for all those other employees out there who can look at that photo and say, “Hey, that person is just like me.”

2. Connecting employees across silos: One of the best ways to break down silos is to help employees develop human connections with the people in other silos. When you can put a face on a colleague, whether that person is down the hall or across the globe, you humanize them. Besides, employees love looking at photos of each other. Employee photos consistently get positive responses in all sorts of internal communications. If you’re creating a library of employee photography, or shooting numerous photos for a large project like a vision book, try to include as many silos as possible. Try also to cover a diversity of job function, seniority levels, ethnic backgrounds, age and gender.

3. The shoot itself builds engagement. When you have a professional photographer in the building — along with the accompanying lights, cameras and makeup stylists — it creates excitement. Employees want to know what’s going on, they want to be involved, and they will tell everybody they know about the shoot at work. Create more assets to use in internal comms with “behind the scenes” photos of the shoot in progress. Get shots of employees in the makeup chair, the photographer working with his subjects, the glamour of a working set. Those BTS photos are sometimes even more engaging than the professional shots by the real photographer.

Interested in the possibilities of employee photography in your organization?Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Letter from the CEO: Tips to Get Employees to Actually Read It

Having the CEO or another leadership team member write a letter or email to employees is a huge opportunity to build engagement. But only if it’s done well. A 500-word missive that’s one long stuffy sentence after another is not engaging and will bore employees long before they get to that final paragraph. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when your communications plan includes leadership communications of that sort:

  1. Don’t ghostwrite it: Or at least don’t make it sound like someone ghostwrote it. If the exec doesn’t have the time or inclination to write the piece for himself or herself, do whatever you can to channel his or her voice. What are the words and phrases this person uses frequently? If they like something, are they more likely to describe it as really cool, awesome, outstanding, fabulous or terrific? Is there a word or phrase they use frequently to reinforce an idea,  like “absolutely” or “no doubt?” If you don’t have frequent contact with this particular leader, search online for videos of interviews or speaking engagements to pick up details of how they speak. Even better, get five minutes of their time to talk about what they want employees to get out of this communication.
  2. Show some personality: Tribe’s national research with employees indicates that they want a personal connection with their leadership teams. They want to feel like they know something beyond business facts about the person behind the title. Some more introverted leaders resist talking about themselves because they think it comes off as self-centered or bragging. Explain that it’s humanizing rather than hubris. If the big boss is training for a marathon or writing a detective novel on the side, that’s the kind of personal detail employees are craving.
  3. Cut roughly 20% of what you wrote: Or even 30%. Take a look at what you think is the final draft and figure out how to make it shorter. If it’s a letter, absolutely do not let it be more than one page, and try not to fill that page with ink. If it’s an email, three or four brief paragraphs is probably about as much as employees will read. For a blog, you can go a little longer, but still, short and sweet is more likely to be read.

Interested in improving your leadership communications? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Balancing Collaboration and Efficiency

A premium is placed on collaboration in many, if not most, large companies. As knowledge and expertise become increasingly specialized, collaboration across functional areas becomes even more critical for successful business results.

At the same time, efficiency is also a priority. Companies feel the pressure of delivering improved speed to market, quick response to changing business factors and the ever-increasing demand to be faster than before.

The challenge is that collaboration and efficiency work against each other. To collaborate requires rounding up people in diverse roles across the company, and usually across geography. Coordinating the schedules of everyone in the group for an in-person meeting or conference call is no easy feat. It’s not always going to happen this week, or even this month.

It’s much faster for one functional unit to make decisions and move on. In Tribe’s national study on collaboration, many respondents cited this time drag as a reason why they often skip the step of getting input from other areas in the company.

But are the right decisions being made? There are no doubt insights the sales team can share about what customers are really looking for; that the programmers can clarify in regards to what the software can really do; or that one division of the company can offer regarding a key customer they share with another division.

This tension between collaboration and speed isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It forces people to set priorities, to weigh the need for one over the other. In most corporate cultures, the pendulum will swing towards one over the other.

One principle for maintaining a balance between the two is to separate the two functions of collaborating and making decisions. When people come together to collaborate, it should be for the purpose of providing their unique expertise, input and feedback. The collaborative meeting is not the place to make decisions. Trying to reach consensus on a decision is not only difficult, it’s unlikely to result in the best decision.

Give everybody a voice, but not a vote. The happy medium – or the Middle Way, as the Buddhists would say – is to invite many different perspectives but not give away the power to make the final determination. The responsibility for decision-making should remain with those who own the project or initiative under discussion.

Interested in balancing collaboration and speed in your company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Intranets, Magazines and Emails are Only Envelopes

The medium, in fact, is not the message. (Apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined that phrase back in the 1960s.) Although we now have more possible internal communications channels than ever before, each channel is nothing more than an envelope in which we deliver content. Is your content fresh and relevant? Is the design appealing so people want to see what’s inside that envelope?

If a channel hasn’t worked before, maybe it just needs to be done better. Occasionally when Tribe recommends a new approach to an existing channel, a client will say nope, we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work. Maybe a bad magazine didn’t work, but one that’s beautifully designed with engaging articles just might.

For instance, it’s not the intranet’s fault if nobody goes there. Compare your content and design with what employees see online every day, from news sites to social media to retailers. Does your site seem pretty bleak in comparison? Even when you’re stuck with an existing platform, you can re-skin the graphic design and rethink your content.

Often the issue is not quality of content but quantity. If employees aren’t reading internal communications emails, could it be because they’re ridiculously long? Cutting the word count from 500 to 50 and adding some visual interest might make that channel highly effective. If you’re afraid a short email can’t possibly give employees all the information they might need, direct them to the intranet for more details.

Same goes for corporate videos. It takes discipline to keep them short, but when a video drags on and on, few people will watch all the way to the end. We once worked with a client on a collection of videos that was were one person talking about one topic for one minute. Employees loved them.

So don’t discard an old envelope just because it hasn’t been effective in the past. It’s what goes in that envelope that makes all the difference.

Interested in refreshing an existing channel? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

If you want collaboration, encourage conversations that aren’t about work

See that group of employees standing around the coffee maker chewing the fat? The ones talking about things that have absolutely nothing to do with work?

That sort of idle chit chat is exactly what you want if you’re hoping to build a collaborative culture. In Tribe’s national research on collaboration, respondents stressed how important it is to know the other people, at least casually, in order to feel comfortable sharing ideas and collaborating on work projects.

One of the major hurdles to collaboration is how vulnerable people can feel sharing fragile ideas that are still half-baked. But that’s exactly when you want to get those ideas out on the table so people with different expertise and perspectives can contribute to moving the idea forward.

Creating a culture where casual conversation and personal relationships are valued helps give employees that comfort level. Look for more ways employees can cross paths with those in other work teams and even business units. That might mean building more social hours into annual conferences or establishing an inter-departmental dodgeball tournament. It can be impacted by the architecture of your buildings. It can even be encouraged by stocking a really great break room with latte machines and coolers of energy drinks and bowls of fresh fruit.

The goal is to give employees, especially those in different disciplines, occasions to rub elbows. And then to encourage your managers to let those casual conversations happen. To some, it may look like employees are goofing off. But by establishing close social connections, your employees are doing something very positive for the company.

Interested in building a culture of collaboration at your company? Tribe can help.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

The Origin of Brainstorming: Or Why It’s Not Something to Squeeze into the Meeting Agenda

HiResBrainstorming happens to be one of my least favorite words. In the corporate world, the term usually means a bunch of people in a conference room shouting out things that someone else scribbles on a whiteboard or flip chart. In my experience, it’s not the best way to generate truly creative ideas. It’s too loud, for one thing, to hear that quiet voice of inspiration. That voice is more apt to raise its hand when just a couple of people are kicking around ideas, or later when one of those people is in the shower, or driving a car, or cooking dinner. But there’s something else that bothers me about this brainstorming thing.

At least I now know who to blame for coining this word. It was Alex Osborn, one of the founding partners of BDO, later to become the advertising giant BBDO. (Oldies quiz for those who’ve been in Atlanta for decades: Remember the ad shop known as BDA/BBDO? When the receptionist answered the phone, it sounded like someone falling down a flight of stairs.) Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming were later expanded upon by academic Sidney Parnes, with whom he partnered to develop what they called the Creative Problem Solving Process, or CPS.

I have a vague memory of my father explaining the phases of CPS to me as a child, saying that it mirrored the general process of the way his firm practiced architecture. The rules Osborn came up with for brainstorming were rules I remember my father using with young architects, particularly the first of those rules. They’re also second nature for most art director-copywriter teams in ad agencies, at least those in which I’ve been involved.

  1. No criticism of ideas
  2. Go for large quantities of ideas
  3. Build on each others ideas
  4. Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas

There’s a tradition in ad agencies that says creative ideas come out of the creative department only. Any account executive who didn’t know better than to pipe up with a headline was quickly schooled by his elders. The way we work now is far too fluid for rigid boundaries of responsibility, and I think most of us in the business of selling creative ideas will take a good one where we find it.

What’s useful about that ad agency tradition, to my mind, is a respect for the hard work of generating ideas. Before the brilliant idea that comes in a flash, there are generally many, many bad ideas. Before any of those bad ideas, comes a period of immersion in the subject matter. Even before those particular bad ideas, there are often years and years of experience trying to think up ideas for a living. There’s a certain way of thinking, of using the brain, that can be honed over a career in a creative business.

Which leads us back to the original meaning of the word brainstorming. According to CPS, it’s a process of 1. fact finding, 2. problem finding, 3. Idea finding, 4. solution finding and 5. acceptance finding. So maybe I’m fine with the word brainstorming. I’m just not a fan of thinking that the entire process is easy.

Want a more creative approach to your internal communications? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Writing for internal comms: Three ways to look like an amateur

This is how my great aunt would do internal communications
This is how my great aunt would do internal communications

The field of internal communications has come a long way. As more companies have recognized the business advantages of communicating with employees, investment in internal online, digital and print communications has increased along with the technology that enables their delivery.

Still, a whiff of the amateurish persists in some of the writing. We have to recognize that employees are accustomed to consuming mainstream media. Our internal communications don’t exist in a vacuum. They compete for attention with all the websites, apps and magazines that employees encounter in their day-to-day lives.

Readers make snap decisions about the trustworthiness of sources based on the professionalism of the writing. If you’re reading a website filled with grammatical and punctuation errors, you’re more likely to think it’s the rantings of a crackpot than solid medical advice from the Mayo Clinic.

It’s hard enough to create trust in company leadership and in the veracity of internal communications. Readers notice small cues, consciously or unconsciously, that indicate the professionalism of the writing. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with these three tragically common mistakes:

  1. Incorrect use of ellipses: The dreaded dot dot dot is frequently misused by people who should know better. If you’ve deleted part of a quote, an ellipsis is warranted. It’s how you indicate to the reader that you’ve omitted something that was previously in that sentence. It’s not for creating a sense of drama. If you want to do that, maybe a long dash is what you’re after. If you’re using it to create a pause in the reader’s mind, keep in mind that it indicates confused or faltering thought. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, says “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” Generally, that’s not the affect you’re after in internal communications. If you’re doing it just because you think it looks nice, you might want to rethink that.
  2. Incorrect use of quotation marks. Whenever I see this, it reminds me of letters from my great aunt. Quotation marks, besides indicating actual spoken words, can be used to indicate an unusual word or term, something the reader may not have encountered before. Aunt Etta used them liberally, as in hoping I have been “hitting the books” at college or that I would postpone marriage until I found “the right one.”  She would also draw little ballpoint hearts and sunshines in her notes. And sometimes include a twenty dollar bill. She was awesome. In internal communications, quotation marks are often used  in the same way, around words and terms that anyone not living under a rock would easily understand. You don’t see them doing that in the Harvard Business Review.
  3. Overuse of exclamation marks: We once had a client who demanded at least two exclamation marks in everything we wrote for her. It kind of made sense for her, at least in her blog, because that’s the way she talked. But in most professional communications, there just aren’t a ton of occasions that warrant an exclamation mark. There’s no reason to put one (or three) after a sentence, unless the building is on fire.

Interested in improving the professionalism of your internal communications writing? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Authentic CEO Communications That Are Super Easy On the CEO’s Calendar

tCEOs are busy. They don’t always have the time, or the inclination, to pen their own material for employee communications. Having a leadership blog or letter to employees ghost-written by someone else, whether an internal communications professional or an agency, is a commonly accepted solution to that challenge.

But employees can smell fake a mile away. I was once in an elevator in a large corporation with the CEO’s latest blog posted on the wall. It was a nicely designed piece, with a photo of the smiling executive. Two employees who happened to be sharing the same elevator were chuckling at the ruse. “Oh yeah, like he really wrote that.” I glanced at the copy, and agreed with them. It read like a press release that had been revised by committee.

Yet it’s important to employees to know what the CEO is thinking. They want to know that he or she has a vision, that there’s a plan for the company’s future, that the work that they’re doing in their individual jobs contributes to some greater plan for success.

At Tribe, we’ve found a few ways around this conundrum. They all can be achieved with a very small chunk of time in the CEO’s calendar and result in authentic communications employees can trust. They also don’t require huge budgets.

1. The Q&A: This is the simplest possible solution. Rather than guessing what the CEO is thinking, just ask. Tribe has used this method for several clients on a quarterly basis. Here’s just how easy it is to do:

  1. Book 20-30 minutes on the CEO’s calendar once a quarter for a phone call
  2. Prepare a handful of questions related to the company vision, one of the values, a current business challenge or strategic objective
  3. Have a nice conversation with the CEO and record it (We usually use an iPhone and the Voice Memos app)
  4. Have the conversation transcribed (We use a professional transcriber, but any intern could handle it)
  5. Construct a Q&A column using quotes from the transcript (Most CEOs appreciate you cleaning up any stumbles or grammar faux pas)
  6. Have the CEO review it, make any minor tweaks, and you’re done

2. Leadership Video: Tribe recently shot a year’s worth of monthly videos in one day, requiring about 20 minutes per member of the leadership team. The CEO was interviewed on all 12 subjects, but that took only about an hour of his time. We covered everything from the Vision and Values to building a customer-centric culture to the balance between people and technology. That gave us enough material for more than a dozen ninety-second videos, each featuring the CEO and several other members of the leadership team commenting on the same theme. (We have a Tribe person off camera doing the interviewing, and then of course delete all that in the edit.)

3. Podcasts: If you don’t have the budget to shoot video, or if your CEO is shy about being on camera, use the same process above to record audio rather than video. Edit into short podcasts you can post on your intranet or email to employees.

Interested in trying some new forms of leadership communications? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Managers Want Tools to Help Cascade Communications

Do you use direct managers as a communication channel for non-desk employees? The default method for reaching employees on the production line, in the distribution centers and on the sales floor is usually to depend on their managers to communicate what corporate communicated to them.

The thing is, few managers in these settings would consider themselves communications professionals. In Tribe’s national research on non-desk employees, managers said they’d like more communications support in the form of tools and training.

When it comes to communications tools, putting them online can be best. Of those who said they wanted additional materials, 57 percent responded in favor of using online materials. Comments of respondents included,  “Printed material tend to be a waste unless you are going through them line by line,” and “I prefer [supporting materials] to be online reports.”

Other quotes included: “I would like [supporting materials] to be online resources,” “I think [support materials] should be online,” and “[I would rather] have online resources!”

 Providing tools like talking points or FAQs can be particularly effective. In fact, they address one of the few faults that the 2012 respondents found with communications delivered through direct managers: inconsistency of message.

These tools can be simple. In fact, they should be. No need for tons of paragraphs or pages. Give them a one-pager with the overall key message and a few bullet points. Maybe offer suggested responses to questions employees might ask.

Interested in developing communications tools for your company’s managers? Tribe can help.