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.

Advertisements

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. 

Rule Number One: Throw Out the Rules

 

Rules are important in writing. Punctuation, spelling, grammar: these things do matter. But (to mangle the proverb) one person’s rule is another person’s straitjacket.

Some of the rules we learned in school (if we were lucky enough to be taught any) aren’t rules of grammar, they’re rules of style. As such, they’re subject to debate. Others were once considered rules of grammar but, in the opinion of most grammarians, no longer apply. Like the language itself, proper English grammar changes over time. If you haven’t spent time lurking on online grammar forums, you might be amazed at how many “rules” are open to interpretation. With grammar, as with style, some of the truisms you thought you knew may turn out to have been written in sand.

In any case, I’m a firm believer that all rules play second trumpet to rule number one: the purpose of writing is to communicate. In other words, if what you’re trying to communicate can be better said by breaking a rule, it is your solemn duty to break it.

Here are some examples of “rules,” either real or imagined, that beg to be broken:

“Don’t split infinitives.” I seem to casually break this rule twenty times a day—in fact, I just did. The so-called “correct” wording would have been, “I seem to break this rule casually twenty times a day.” I don’t think there’s a true linguist or grammarian alive today that believes this a rule to be followed. Most agree it was imposed upon the language by fussy scholars a few centuries ago, who were trying to tighten up the structure of English and make it adhere more closely to Latin. It isn’t a natural part of English as it evolved, and it has no inherent value. To boldly go where few dare to tread, drop it from your rules list.

“Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.” But what if it’s the only way to get across your message? Or just sounds better? This isn’t even a rule of grammar, it’s a (pointless) rule of style.  Feel free to ignore it. And move on.

“Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” I used to think it was Winston Churchill who said, “This is a rule up with which I will not put.”  Apparently, it was actually someone else who said this, possibly scribbling it in the margins of a document by Churchill, in response to the scribbles of an over-zealous editor. But the fact is, this is another piece of so-called “grammar” nonsense that was invented by some fussy Latin scholars centuries ago. It’s almost an urban legend, in that people have been solemnly correcting each other on the subject for centuries, but it apparently doesn’t even appear in old grammar books. The fact is, you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when you’ll have the same meaning by leaving it off. You shouldn’t, in other words, say “Where are you at?” because “Where are you?” conveys exactly the same meaning. But by all means say, “What is this thing for?” and “That’s the table I left the book on” and “this is a rule I won’t put up with.”

“Never use passive voice.” This style “rule” was beaten into my head by my otherwise wonderful ninth grade English teacher. He was a Viet Nam vet, and he’d get quite passionate in his condemnation of war-mongers who would sidestep responsibility for their actions with sentences like “Bombs were dropped,” instead of “We dropped bombs.” He had an excellent point. Passive voice can be evasive. It can be cold and bureaucratic.  It can wring all personality and humanity from a sentence.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its uses.  Look at the start of my last paragraph. “This rule was beaten into my head by…” In this case, I purposely chose passive voice to emphasize the most important parts of the sentence—beatings, and my head. (I guess I’d better clarify that the beatings were metaphorical…don’t want to get poor Mr. Cohen in trouble.) I could have written the sentence in active voice, but it would have been at least a notch less interesting: “My high school English teacher beat this rule into my head.”

“Don’t write sentence fragments.” A good rule. Except when it isn’t. Actually, this is an example of a solid rule of grammar that sometimes conflicts with the rules of style. Sometimes, in the flow of communication, a sentence fragment is exactly what you need to make your point. Just like passive voice. Just like it’s been throughout this paragraph. I’ve just discovered that these useful kinds of sentence fragments (as opposed to the ones that are simply grammatical mistakes) are sometimes called “verbless sentences.”

“The verbless sentence is a device for enlivening the written word by approximating it to the spoken. There is nothing new about it. Tacitus, for one, was much given to it. What is new is its vogue with English journalists and other writers . . .. (H.W. Fowler and Ernest Gowers, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 1965)

The tricks to using sentence fragments successfully are to do so intentionally, don’t over use them (like I did in the paragraph above), and listen carefully to make sure your meaning will be understood.

Tossing some of these rules in the trash and treating the others with a proper skepticism can make your communications more fresh, forceful and clear. But let me add one caveat, so I don’t get socked with a malpractice suit: There are still people out there who are true believers, however misguided their beliefs. If you’re writing something that you will personally be judged by—like a cover letter for a job—you’d probably be wise to stick to language that doesn’t make you sound like an English language scofflaw. Other than that—go ahead, throw out the rules!

What are the rules you love to ignore? Step up and share your thoughts in the comment section below!

And remember, if you have questions about something you’re working on, or just want to get it of  your hands, contact me anytime! 

Houston, We Have a Challenge

Raise your hand if “integrity” is one of your company’s official values. Or maybe “honest” “candid” or “open” communications are on the list?

Why is it, then, that internal communications are so often dishonest? I don’t mean the outright-lying kind of dishonesty, although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that goes on in some organizations. I’m talking about your beating-around-the-proverbial-bush, euphemism-spouting sort of dishonesty.

This is the kind of dishonesty that thinks words like “problem,” “bad,” and “weakness” are profanities—never, under any circumstances, to be used in civil company. This is the sort of dishonesty that throws around words like “redundancy” and “right-size,” or that makes managers say things like: “That’s a great idea and [insert statement making it clear your idea will go absolutely nowhere].” That’s right: the sort of dishonesty that categorizes “but” as a dirty word.

Where does this fear of  “negative” words come from?  

For some, it appears to be a kind of magical thinking: if we say things are bad, they will become so—and conversely, if we pretend things are better than they really are, maybe they’ll get better. Others apparently believe negative words are too scary: write or say anything too negative and your audience will become so upset that your intended message will fly right past, unnoticed.

I don’t mean to mock these ideas. A lot of careful psychological research has gone into findings about the power of optimism and about how people hear or don’t hear what we have to tell them.

The problem is, whether or not there is some truth to these theories, there exists something a lot scarier than the unvarnished truth. And that’s dishonesty. Because when you use words dishonestly, here are just a few of the barriers to communication you start nailing into place:

  • You put a chink in your credibility. Do this enough times and you might as well give up on getting anyone’s attention, ever again. (If there’s no fable called, “The Boy Who Cried ‘No Layoffs Coming,’” there ought to be.)
  • Your message loses its point. Think of it this way: if you’ve sugarcoated a potential disaster, why would employees shift into “urgent” mode to address it?
  • You lose certain otherwise-useful words, wed forever to their euphemistic meaning. No, I don’t think anybody will miss “right-size”—which wasn’t even a word in the first place. But what about “challenge” and “redundant,” for example? These words have perfectly good, useful meanings already. If you colonize them to mean something else, you could find yourself without a good word when you need it.
  • You condescend to your reader. This is a topic worthy of a post in itself, so I won’t go into it in great detail here, but just think how much better a response you’re likely to get from employees if you treat them like the adults they are.
  • You risk confusion: “What, exactly does it mean when you say you really like my idea and you have no intention of using it?” Or (worse): “What do you mean you’re firing me for lousy work? Last I heard, we were talking about all my ‘opportunities for improvement.””

I’m not saying that your messages to employees when bad news strikes should be missives of doom.

You can put things in a positive light by pointing to the actual  positives involved—and there is nearly always a positive. You can emphasize everything the company is doing to mitigate the current damage and to prevent bad things from happening in the future. You can highlight the goals of whatever action you might be asking employees to take, and linger on how good it will feel to reach those goals.

You can create a mood with words, and you should think about what mood you are creating. But don’t do this by using words dishonestly. Because if you do, you’re doing a disservice to your employees, your company and the entire English language.

Have you seen an example dishonest internal communications? Comment below! 

Need help with a communication? Contact me to get it done.

Want to read more? Click “follow” to keep track of future posts. It’s busy season here at Robin Hardman Communications, but I squeak in a post whenever I can.

Making It Easy

At school, my kids see a “Do Now” on the board when they walk into class. At meetings, the agenda ends with “Deliverables.” But so many communications I’ve seen leave me scratching my head: when and where is this event, what am I supposed to do to sign up for this program, how can I learn more?

Your audience isn’t stupid. But you still have to connect every dot.

They may be very interested in what you’re telling them. They may want to follow up. But the fact is, they have too much to do. Like all of us, they have too much on their desk, too many meetings and appointments, too many digital distractions and personal responsibilities. Even as they’re trying to read the communication you spent hours writing, their phone is ringing, their email is chirping, they hear the buzz of an incoming text.

They have neither the energy nor the time to read between your lines, hunt for the phone number, or Google for more information.

You have to make it easy.

Remember “who, what, when, where, why and how?” Use it. The famous axiom of journalists can remind you not just what information to include about your topic, but what information to include about your readers’ next steps. Tell people exactly what they need to do; when, where, how and why they need to do it; and who they need to contact.

“Where” is also a crucial question to ask yourself as you put the information on the page, as in where should that phone number or hyperlink go? (Most likely, just after the sentence saying “Contact Ingrid Clatwitter to volunteer.” And again, at the bottom of the page. And, maybe even at the top, too.) Where should I link to?” is another vital question. (Answer: to the exact, specific place my reader needs to be in order to take action.)

C’mon, isn’t all this obvious?

You would think so, wouldn’t you? But it’s easy to get caught up in your own world, and forget that your readers are caught up in theirs. The very obviousness (to you) of the story you’re telling keeps you from remembering it may not be obvious to your readers. So here’s my list of “do nows” for anyone who expects their readers to do something based on a communication:

If you’re writing for the web…

  • …and promoting a program or policy, include a link to specific, detailed information about that policy or program, including how, exactly, to take advantage of it. And then include the link again.
  • …and announcing a training or an event, link directly to a registration form.
  • …and asking for donations, put the “DONATE” button right there on the page—with a link to Paypal. (And if you’ve mentioned those donations can be made in installments, make sure choosing that option is as easy and automatic as checking a box.)

If you’re writing for print…

  • …do all of the above, (with urls instead of hyperlinks) but don’t forget to include phone numbers. (Ever have the annoying experience of calling tech support because you can’t get on your internet, and having to listen as a chirpy recording suggests you look up your answer online?)

Plus:

  • Don’t be afraid of direct phrases like “Here’s how.” There’s a reason you hear wording like this on infomercials. It works.
  • Tell your readers what they will need on hand in order to take the next step. Employee ID? Credit card? Form 2XB-L1000? (If the latter, make sure to explain how to get said form—ideally by linking to it.)
  • If the next step for your reader involves contacting someone else, whether it be his/her manager or an HR helpline, be sure that “someone else” is expecting the call, and knows what to do when it comes in!

Do you have a question about your employee communications? Give me a call: 718-628-4753. Or contact me via this blog.

There’s No Rule Against Interesting

I once attended a talk on the subject of employee communications by this wonderful Ragan Communications guy; I wish I could remember his name. He had us imagine a tableau I’ve carried in my head ever since:  It’s lunchtime at your office. A mid-level employee takes a sandwich back to her desk and reaches for something to peruse between bites. Two publications are at hand. One is the latest edition of the employee newsletter. The other is Cosmopolitan. Which do you think she’ll pick up?

Mind you, this particular presentation happened nearly ten years ago. Pre-YouTube. Pre-Facebook. Pre-Angry Birds.

Just because you have something to say, doesn’t mean your intended audience is listening.

So what’s an employee newsletter editor to do? You can’t produce Cosmopolitan out of your communications desk. And if you did, you’d no doubt be fired. But you can keep this very real scenario in mind when writing stuff you want employees to read.

No matter what your corporate culture, there’s no law against writing catchy, readable prose.

Sure your subject matter isn’t always as titillating as the stories the Cosmo editors get to order up. But you have an edge Cosmopolitan doesn’t have. Most of your employees have a vested interest in the information you have to give them. Even if doesn’t affect them directly, it does affect the company they work for. Believe it or not, a lot of employees care enough about their companies to want to know more. But the competition (for their attention) is whispering in their ears. So you have to meet them halfway.

Here are three tips for doing just that:

Find the hook. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while researching the story? I was once asked to write an article about a sales conference at a drug company. For background, the editor sent me a story about the same conference that had just been published in another division’s newsletter. About six paragraphs into a boring article about what seemed to be a boring conference, the writer mentioned that conference attendees had been invited to walk barefoot across a bed of hot coals at a session about the nature of pain. Six paragraphs in! Why, oh why, did the story not open with this amazing tidbit?

Ok, not every story’s going to come with this kind of obvious, built-in hook, but most have something that stands out as interesting. Search that stuff out and be tenacious about following up if you find it. Another assignment I once had was to write about two employees who’d won industry awards. Again, a pretty boring topic on the surface. But when I called them up to interview them, I discovered that the awards were announced, as a surprise, at a conference that neither of them had been planning to attend. The conference planners had to go to great lengths to get them to change their minds about attending the conference, without spoiling the surprise. Now that made for a good story.

Bring it to a human level. Introducing a new program or policy? Describing a new product? Find someone that program, policy or product affects and tell that person’s story. Here’s the way a lot of employee newsletters I’ve seen might talk about a new online database:

LuceBoltz Aircraft has partnered with Air Literature, a new online aircraft-related database, to deliver real-time online solutions for aircraft-related product research. The searchable database, now available to all employees through LuceBoltz Online, contains millions of articles and other downloadable resources.

Yawn. Why is it necessary to write like that? Can you picture a feature on this sort of topic in your local newspaper? How would it open? Unless you’ve got a really awful local newspaper, it would probably go something like this:

When Hank Dinsmore, Regional Marketing Director, needs background information for a product, he generally calls the LuceBoltz reference librarian, or takes a hike up to the 6th floor library, himself. If the librarian has the information he needs on hand—great—if not, Hank completes an acquisition form to order the reference document and puts aside his project until it arrives.

“It’s time-consuming at best,” says the veteran LuceBoltz employee, “And it’s frustrating, since I know that information is out there.”

But things are about to get a whole lot better for Hank. Thanks to Air Literature, our new online aircraft research database, Hank will be able to locate and download the information he needs within minutes, straight from his desk. So will every other employee at LuceBoltz.

Still there? See, even news about a fake product for a fake company can keep you interested, if it tells a good story.

Get your leaders to talk like human beings. This last may be the hardest one of all. For some reason, when perfectly normal, interesting, even funny people step across a corporate threshold and are asked to comment, they turn into jargon-spewing robots. They think every sentence has to be in passive voice, every word has to be 3 to 4 syllables, and every thought has to be a cliché. This tendency is made 1000 times worse by the fact that most leaders, when asked to comment for the record, don’t actually say anything (out loud) at all. They write something down. Or worse (depending on how high up on the chain they are) they have their PR guy write something down. The result is something that bears as much resemblance to natural, human speech as Pringles do to roasted potatoes.

You can’t always do much about this. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Catch the boss saying something to a colleague, off the cuff. Or turn to your inner screenwriter and write some catchy dialog, yourself. (You’ll have to have it approved, of course. Be ready to explain how you’re trying to get employees to actually read the article, and care about what the boss says. Show her a copy of this post, if that will help. Remind her that just because someone says something in a natural way—the way they really would say it, out loud, in the real world, doesn’t make it unprofessional. It just makes it human.)

You do these three things, and see if that employee isn’t picking up the employee newsletter first. At least for a quick read. So she can get a bit of news, then turn her attention to Cosmo.

A lot of my clients know me for my work writing “best company to work for” submissions. But did you know I also write newsletter content? Contact me to find out more.