Benefits Communications: The Basics Still Apply

The signatures of President Barack Obama, Vice...

Just about now, as fall tiptoes ever closer, benefits administrators everywhere are dreaming not of crisp new back-to-school outfits or a bountiful harvest, but of benefits open enrollment. Those dreams are not likely to be the happiest during the best of circumstances, but with regulatory changes big and small brought on by the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), they’ve probably turned into nightmares for some this year. (Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Obamacare. I just know it’s giving headaches to a lot of benefits administrators and their communications departments.)

How much your company’s benefits plans and policies will change depends on all kinds of factors, from how big your organization is to what you’ve offered in the past. And it’s likely you’re still scrambling to figure out what many of the changes are going to be, as well as what you need to communicate and when. In fact, if you’re still depending on old-fashioned print for open enrollment materials, this may be the year to explore some more easily-updated electronic formats.

But whether you are communicating via quill pen or Yammer, the cardinal rules of good communication still apply:

Put yourself on the employees’ side of the desk. Chances are, employees will most care about:

  • Cost: Will health benefits cost more (or less) than what I’m now paying, and by how much? Remember that cost usually comes down to numerous factors that not all employees will be considering, so it’s up to you to fill in those gaps. If they choose the new lower-premium plan, how much higher will their deductible be? If they opt for the more expensive plan, will they still be saving as much on co-payments as they did last year? Ideally, give them some concrete examples to illustrate your points.
  • Coverage:  Are there any important differences in service coverage among the different plans I can choose from? Are there any changes from last year? While coverage questions may be a little more straightforward than questions of cost, you still want to be sure to direct employees’ attention to things they might not have considered. Have there been any major changes to the prescription drug formulary? To the networks? Are referrals needed in order to see a specialist?

Remember a key rule of the late, great crime-writer Elmore Leonard and “leave out the parts that people skip.” The things your employees will likely not care to know about include arcane bits of legal mumbo-jumbo. Sure, some of that stuff has to be included in your communications. But, as much as possible, try to get it out of your central text and into fine print or, better yet, links.

Be clear. You, yourself, may eat, sleep and—as I mentioned earlier—even dream in benefits jargon, but many employees wouldn’t know a PPO from an IPO from HBO. Stick to the simplest possible terminology and define it every step of the way. (Remember, this has nothing to do with education or intelligence. Most people not steeped in the benefits world really don’t know how coinsurance differs from co-pay.)

Be detailed. The details you don’t want are those the lawyers want you to include. (Ok, yes, you may have to include some of them anyway.) But the details you do want are the what, how, when and where of benefits enrollment. What do employees need to do, how and when do they need to do it and where can they get more information?

Be available. The best benefits communications, provided in the best possible formats, can’t cover every employee’s situation or answer every question. Set up a hotline or a dedicated email box. Invite employees to text you. Do it however you want, but make a live human being available—ideally not only to employees, but to their family members.

Be honest. If the options aren’t quite as comprehensive as last year or costs have increased (or both), say so up front. With luck, you’ll also be able to communicate that costs are going up everywhere, that your organization is still delivering a tremendous amount of value, and that you’ll continue to look for ways to bring coverage up and costs down. If your company has made a habit of honesty in its communications, your employees may even believe you.

Need some help with your benefits communications? Drop me a line: robin@robinhardman.com or give me a call: 718-628-4753.

I’ve been trying to figure out how the Affordable Care Act is affecting benefits communicators this year. If you have any thoughts to share, please, please contact me and let’s set up a time to talk—on or off-the-record, it’s up to you!

Check out my newly-refurbished website at www.robinhardman.com and, while you’re there, sign up to get this blog delivered directly to your mailbox.

“Email Communication” Doesn’t Have to Be an Oxymoron

We agonize over our web content and print pieces, but many of us don’t give a second thought to the emails we compose all the time, often to convey important information. Meanwhile, messages pour into the inboxes of those we’re trying to reach. What are the chances of survival for our besieged bit of communication?

When I google “email tips” I find dozens of articles and blogs expounding on the fine points of email etiquette—very important of course, but what about email as communication? How do you get employees and others to open and read that critical bit of information you need them to have? How do you ensure they’re going to hear what you have to say,  do what they have to do, get back to you with what you need?

That’s why I was pleased to find Bryan Garner’s post in the Harvard Business Review, focusing not on email etiquette but on email communication. I agree with Garner on the importance of an informative subject line, of providing background, of trying to walk the line between brief and non-communicative, etc. But, naturally, I couldn’t resist coming up with some additional pointers of my own.

So here, forthwith, are the Robin Hardman Communications (additional) keys to getting your email read:

  • Give readers a heads-up about what’s coming. While it’s true, as Garner says, that emails shouldn’t be too long, sometimes you can’t help it—you just have a lot of ground to cover. Make sure your reader doesn’t take any shortcuts by laying it out from the start: “I’ve got four points to make about the Benzene letter” or even “Be sure to scroll all the way down, as there are important next steps at the end of this message.”
  • Keep it short(er) by remembering your audience. As a loyal follower of this blog, I’m sure you’ll know this thread pops up a lot—including in my very last post. But once again, apropos of today’s topic: include all the stuff your readers will want and need—and none of the stuff they won’t.
  • Make judicious use of bold. Nobody wants to open an email that’s shouting at them, which is why everyone hopefully knows by now not to type in all caps; use bold sparingly for the same reason. However, if you have some nugget of vital information to get across, or something you need your reader to do when they finish reading, don’t let them scroll by it, unnoticed. Go for the bold.
  • Summarize links and attachments. Links and attachments can be incredibly useful, but don’t depend on them to convey your message. Summarize the salient points and use your attachments as back-up. It’s a busy world!

 And, on a note that may be more about etiquette than communication, minimize “oops” moments with these two tricks:

  • Always attach documents FIRST. How many times have you sent (or received!) an email saying “I’ve attached xyz”—with no attachment? It’s so easy for this to happen—you get your document ready to send, then, while you’re crafting your email, you forget all about it. Make a habit of attaching it first, and it’ll never happen again.
  • Always address your email LAST. This is a really helpful way to avoid that moment when you lean over for a pencil and accidentally hit “send” mid-sentence—or mid-word. It also is a nice little electronic speed bump that might slow you down just enough that you don’t send something you’ll regret. (It doesn’t work, of course, if you’re replying to someone else—unless you take the time, as I sometimes have, to remove the return email address and only type it back in when I’m good and ready.)

If you follow this blog (and thus have received it via email) I hope you made it to the end! If you don’t, sign up to follow it now!

And if you’re looking for someone to help you with any of your communications projects, from email to tome, give me a call!

Render Unto Caesar

Plagiarism is rarely a concern for internal communicators. In many cases, whatever corporate program you’re writing about has been written about before, and you’ll have heaps of existing material to steal from.

It’s not only fine to do this, it’s often important to do so. The way you talk about a program or policy is part of its branding. It generally makes sense to have some sameness in your messages.

But, as with Spellcheck (and, Lord help us, Autocorrect), cutting-and-pasting brings dangers of its own. Just because someone has written about a program before, doesn’t mean what they’ve written is right for what you’re writing now—even if you’re the one who wrote it in the first place. (Got that?)

I can’t say it enough: always remember your audience.

  • If you’re writing to promote a program for employees, tell them what’s in it for them and tell them how to sign up. Don’t tell them the arcane details of arrangements you’ve made with the program’s vendor.
  • If you’re writing to describe a policy in a “best place to work” application, don’t include the mechanics of enrollment or list the legal restrictions you include in your internal benefits materials.
  • If you’re writing to urge a behavior that would be helpful to you (say, using online benefits enrollment instead of handwritten forms), don’t focus on how it makes your life easier, write about how much easier and faster it is for employees.

As with so many rules of communication, this all probably seems rather obvious. Advertisers don’t say “buy our smelly overpriced soap so we’ll meet our quarterly revenue projections.” They say, “buy our smelly overpriced soap so you’ll find a date.” (Note, by the way, that they also don’t usually say, “buy our yadda yadda soap so you’ll smell good.” That’s just an intermediate benefit. Another marketing rule of thumb is to focus on the ultimate benefit—in this case, catching that elusive man.)

But, perhaps because of how easy it is for those of us churning out internal communications to cut and paste, remembering your audience is a rule that (ironically) is often forgotten. Need some copy on the merger? Here, take it from this press release. And in goes the copy, without ever a thought put to the fact that the what the public wants to know about the merger (or what your company wants to tell them) is probably very different from what employees want to know. Introducing a new manager? Let’s just throw in the bio she uses for speaking engagements—never mind that it has little, if anything, to do with who she’ll be managing and what projects she’ll be overseeing.

We’re all busy. We already have to put the copy together and edit and proof the copy along with whatever millions of other things our job demands of us. But taking the time to take just one last look at whatever we’re about to publish, checking to see that it actually communicates what needs to be communicated—that can save a whole lot of time and trouble down the line.

Need some help communicating with your audience? Got too much to do and too little time? Contact me—I do this stuff  for a living and, believe me, I’m good at it!

The Uncanny Valley of Communication

Uncanny Valley graph (updated)

Uncanny Valley graph (updated) (Photo credit: Elif Ayiter/Alpha Auer/…./)

Here’s a fascinating question. How aware do you have to be that you’re being sold a bill of goods before you put up your defenses and refuse to buy it?

Who hasn’t been swayed—or at least tempted—by a cleverly-worded (or hip-looking) ad, choosing one product over another even while knowing they were probably about to pay a premium for something that wasn’t objectively any better than anything else? Or for something they didn’t really need at all?

Good old Shakespeare took this up (sort of) in one of his most famous sonnets, which has the fabulous opening lines:

When my love swears to me that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.

As the sonnet goes on to explain, much more gracefully than I’m about to, the speaker is a bit long in years, but is flattered that his girlfriend assumes he’s young enough to believe her nonsense. She, in turn, is pleased that he believes her (even though, presumably, she knows he doesn’t, really).

It all leads up to the closing couplet, complete with Elizabethan sexual innuendo:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

Altogether a stunning sonnet, but that’s not why I include it here. There’s a lesson, or at least a thought experiment, in this for us contemporary writers of somewhat (ok, a whole lot) less creative copy.

The sonnet popped into my head when I was pondering the question I began with. How is it that I can watch or read an ad or listen to a sales pitch, knowing full well the message has been artfully crafted to draw me in, and still find myself drawn in? How is it that I can sit in front of a schmaltzy movie, listen cynically to the swelling music, and still feel my eyes fill with tears?

And how, if at all, does this phenomenon relate to our work as internal communicators?

I spend a lot of time in this blog and elsewhere promoting my belief that when employee communications aren’t honest they lose all credibility. I moan about the misuse of words like “challenge” and “opportunity” to mean “problem” and “weakness.”

And yet, I also believe in the power of words to create actual concrete change in the world. After all, that’s the theory behind much of what’s often derisively called “political correctness.” Gender-neutral language, for example: as a woman who can remember a world in which “he” was still considered a universal designation for humans of either sex, I can attest firsthand to the power language can have to affect not only our feelings but our understanding and beliefs.

So it seems to me there is a line to watch for, especially when you’re conveying not-so-happy news: on one side is language that is aspirational—it paints the best possible picture of any given situation—and on the other side is, well, BS. There’s nothing wrong with trying to put your message in the best light, as long as you don’t step over that line.

People in the world of animation speak of the “uncanny valley.” The idea is that as animation has gotten more and more realistic-looking, it sometimes reaches a point where it falls off a cliff into creepy. The story goes that when the folks at Dreamworks first tested Shrek with a group of children, the kids were terrified. The animators had made the princess character so realistic that she looked almost human, but at the same time she was missing some essential element of humanness. The result was monstrous, in the eyes of these kids, and the animators had to backtrack, re-creating her character in a purposefully less realistic manner.

So, here is the challenge (yes, I’m using the word correctly) for internal communicators—really, for all communicators: get as close to the edge as you dare, but don’t fall into the uncanny valley of communication. In our case, it probably won’t actually scare your audience, but it will scare them away.

Do you have something that needs to be written or revised? Join my dozens of satisfied clients. Contact me here or just give me a call: 718-628-4753. 

Is Writing Dead?

Death

Photo credit: tanakawho

I was talking to someone recently about some possibilities for presentation topics at a conference. She’d suggested a few options relating to work-life communications or social media. I said, “What I’d really love to do is a writing workshop.”

“Writing?” she asked. “Who writes anymore?”

I sort of understood what she meant. When we talk about communications, about media—social and otherwise—we’re all encouraged to think in grand terms: video, tweets, Powerpoint, info-graphics, podcasts, etc. And it’s true that any twenty-first century communications plan does have to include at least some of these media. But I still get most of my information from the written word—don’t you?

I’m starting to get the hang of Twitter, but mostly because I’ve discovered what a good source it can be of links to articles elsewhere. If I need to research a topic, or am seeking some “how-to” information, I start with Google, just like everyone else. I don’t reach for a book or head to the library. But nearly every Google search leads to written web content, a PDF, or a book.

I know we all have different favorite ways of getting our information, but I’ll bet there are plenty of others like me who, when finding that a search result links to a video, click away and move on to another link that will give me the information in writing. If I want to know how to do something, or learn more about a topic, I don’t have the patience to watch a video. A video organizes the information for me, in a way I may not want it organized, forcing me to wade through a lot of stuff I’m not interested in without being sure I’ll find the information I do want. I want a piece of text that I can search, skim, or read end to end, as I please. I want to control the pace, not have someone else’s idea of pacing fed to me in video form.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on it, even if you are taking in your information (or putting it out) in the form of a video, podcast, or PSA, someone still has to write it first.

It’s the new year, progress marches ever forward (I suppose) but words remain timeless. Don’t be deluded by technology—whether your audience is going to find you by linking from a Tweet or from Facebook, read you on an iPhone or a Nook, or listen to you through iTunes, in the end, you generally have only words to get your point across. Remember that at one time a printed book was a technical innovation. But it still made use of the same communication building blocks used by the ancient oral poets and the monastic scribes that came before: words.

No matter how you cut it, you need words to communicate, and to communicate effectively you have to know how to use those words effectively.

Writing lives!

Overwhelmed by that application for the Working Mother 100 Best Companies list? I’ve helped lots of companies get through the process and earn their place on the coveted list. Contact me and let’s set up a time to talk. 

Truth and Consequences

Watching the Democratic Convention a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of the thin line between promotion and hype.

This is not a partisan blog. If I sound like I might be about to pick on the Democrats, it’s only because their situation got me thinking. Consider. They are the party of the incumbent president at a time when there’s only one thing everyone seems to agree on: the economy is in a bad way. Who started it, what was done about it vs. what should have been done about it, whether we are better or worse off than we were four years ago—all that is open to debate. But that we are in an economic morass, with no easy answers in sight, is surely a given.

Combine this reality with the fact that the only real remaining functions of a modern party convention are to ignite passion in the base and perhaps sway a few undecided voters. What’s an incumbent party to do? Somehow the Democratic party had to demonstrate they take the situation seriously, while at the same time conveying an upbeat, rosy picture of how things stand. Demonstrating you take a problem seriously, without actually admitting there’s a problem, is not an easy thing to do.

(John McCain faced this situation four years ago—almost to the day. As the economy avalanched downward, he went for the optimistic view, announcing: “The fundamentals of our economy are sound.” Instead of boosting morale, it made him sound thoroughly out of touch—and the rest is history.)

Why am I suddenly writing about politics? I’m not, of course, I’m writing about communicating. McCain last time, and Obama this time, have had to walk the same fine line many a corporate internal communicator has to walk: fostering pride and boosting morale without losing credibility. In other words, promoting, but not hyping. As these candidates have found, this is especially difficult when times are bad.

So how do you do it?

You’re honest without being a “Debbie Downer.” If you’re careful, honesty can even be upbeat. “Yes, we’re going through a rough patch right now. But here’s what we’ve done to address it so far. Look how far we’ve come! Stick with us and see how much further we can go!”

Actually, the fact-checkers tell us neither party’s convention speeches would win a prize for accuracy. Apparently, politicians don’t care and neither do many of the American people. But I wouldn’t try this trick with employees. When it comes to their jobs, people are going to both know and care when you fiddle with the facts.

You’re careful of context. Some pundits have suggested that Obama’s convention speech was slightly toned down because he had a heads-up that the jobs numbers due to be released the next day were not going to be as strong as expected.

Similarly, be careful not to break the news that there are going to be lay-offs right next to a feature story on “what employees tell us they love most about working here.”

You muster your facts. Bill Clinton is a great speaker, but it wasn’t just his performance that caused so many to label his speech among the highlights of the convention. He used hard data (or as hard as politically-motivated data can get) to tick off, one by one, the ways things have improved over the last four years.

What’s the good news you can share? What can you remind employees about how your benefits, compensation, record of lay-offs, culture or working conditions stack up against competitors? What have you enhanced lately—or refrained from cutting back on? Remember, this has to be fact-based though—simply reminding employees that you’ve won a “great place to work” award, for example, could backfire in hard times.

You encourage ideas and input—but only if you are going to take them seriously. What’s one of the most famous and often-quoted speeches in modern political history? JFK’s inaugural: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Sure enough, Obama echoed this in his convention speech: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating work of self-government.”

People don’t want to feel powerless in the face of bad news. Promote a “we’re all in this together” spirit by asking for suggestions and feedback about whatever problems your organization faces. Internal social media platforms (moderated but not whitewashed) are an excellent forum for this, especially if you can get senior leadership involved.

What are some ways you’ve walked the line between promotion and hype? Share your ideas with a comment below!

Never miss a post. Sign up to Follow Me using the button near the top right.

The Working Mother “Best Companies for Multicultural Women” application is out. You can’t get on the list if you can’t tell your story. Contact me for help telling yours.

Killing the Monsters

On the whole, I don’t believe in synonyms. Such is the magnificent complexity of the English language that only rarely do two words mean exactly the same thing. Even if the dictionary gives two words the same definition, they almost never carry the same connotation, which is what makes using the thesaurus such a treacherous game.

But sometimes, in some contexts, one word can be used as easily as another. That’s when some corporate communicators can always be counted on to reach for–the longer word. After all, why say something in one syllable, when the same thing can be said in two or three?

Hence we substitute “difficult” for “hard,” “utilize” for “use,” “assist” for good old “help.”

If we’re lucky, we land the big one: a whole phrase that can be substituted for a simpler word. Hence the steady creep of phrases like “at this point in time” and “in this day and age.” (“Now,” anyone?)

I assume this tendency stems from a misguided concept of how “formal” or “professional” language should sound. But it’s absurd. The fact is, professional language should (generally) be free of slang. It should steer clear of taboo or derogatory words. Spelling and punctuation should be correct. Grammatical rules should generally be followed. But there is absolutely no reason to use a cumbersome word or phrase when a simpler one will do. And there’s a major benefit to using simpler language: your communication will sound more natural–closer to the spoken word.

Think about it. When’s the last time you used “attend” rather than “go” in spoken conversation?

Even if you’re talking to your boss, do you say, “I need to make a determination about whether this project goes forward?” or do you say, “I need to decide whether to continue this project?” Most written communications benefit from being as close as possible to casual speech. You want your audience to be able to take in and understand your words as easily as if you were explaining something to them in person.  More easily, in fact, because on paper you’ve had time to organize your thoughts. You’ve left out the “ums” and “uhs” and “I means.” You’ve checked your facts and explained your terminology.

When you get ready to write, write down what you’d say to someone standing in front of you. Then clean up the grammar, spelling and organization, check your accuracy, root out clichés and jargon. You’ll be writing professionally, without hardening your language with an artificial veneer of “professionalism.” To see how well you’ve done, read your copy out loud. If you find stuffy, unnatural, “professional” language, kill it.

No need to feel conflicted about this act of violence. Consider it self-defense. If you don’t kill your monster words and phrases first, they will kill your communication.

This is a short post, coming to you from Florence, where I’m basking in the sounds of another gorgeous language. But I’m still available to talk to you via email. How about sharing some of your examples of misguided professional language?

Are you applying for the Best Companies for Multicultural Women List? Or entering a local “Best Place to Work” competition? You can’t win if you can’t tell your story. The essays I write for companies  are routinely cited by clients and judges as among the best they’ve ever read. Use the Contact me page to let me know what you’re working on, and let’s make some time to talk.