All over America, people managing internal communication are writing articles about important topics--company strategy, major initiatives, new product launches--for their employees to read. 

But here's the problem: The last way that most employees want to consume information is to read it.

In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, when it comes to external media, Americans continue to prefer watching the news (especially on television) rather than reading and listening to it. And TV is still the dominant news platform, with web consumption still lagging.

Before I dive into some key facts from the Pew research, let me remind you why it's important to pay attention to employees' external preferences: Those preferences influence expectations for how communication inside your organization. For instance, if employees can watch a 20-second video that succinctly captures a hot issue, why would they slog through 800, 600 or even 400 words of text?

The Pew statistics tell an interesting tale:

  • 47% of Americans prefer watching the news rather than reading or listening to it. That is unchanged from 46% in 2016 and outpaces the 34% who prefer to read the news and 19% who prefer to listen to it--both of which also remain on par with 2016 figures.
  • Television continues to rank first as the preferred platform. 44% prefer TV, compared with about 34% who prefer the web, 14% radio and 7% print. )The only meaningful shifts since 2016 are a small increase in online and decrease in print news consumption.)
  • Adults younger than 50 are more likely to prefer the internet as the platform for getting news, regardless of which format (reading, watching or listening) they enjoy most. About three times as many 18- to 49-year-old watchers and listeners prefer to get their news online as their counterparts ages 50-plus.

So since all this is true, what do you need to do differently? Here are 7 things:

  1. Make every communication as short and simple as possible. Since some of your content needs to be written, make sure that articles and other pieces are easy to scan and digest.
  2. Write like you talk. Many of us get a keyboard in our hands, and we stiffen up as if we're on our best behavior in school. We want to sound impressive, so we become more formal. If this happens to you, try two things: First, read your work out loud to make sure it sounds conversational and real. Second, if you still have trouble being conversational, record what you want to say on a tape recorder, then use the recording as the basis for your communication.
  3. Pretend you're communicating with one person--even if you're writing an email to 1,000 employees. Imagine explaining your topic to a new employee sitting across a table. How would you get that person's attention? How would you define unfamiliar terms? How would you appeal to that person's needs?
  4. Make it easy for people to know what to do. Here's advice from Jane Shannon, author of 73 Ways to Improve Your Employee Communication Program: "Whenever you need to communicate something that requires employees to take action, make it as easy as you possibly can for them to do the right thing,." She gives the example of when one company was introducing a disability program. The headline was this: "Protect your pay. Call 800-XXX-XXXX when you're out sick for more than five business days so your pay will continue." That's basically all employees needed to know.
  5. Commit to using visuals instead of words.There's no denying that we have become a visually mediated society. Words matter less and less; images are key. So communicating visually is a great opportunity for employee communicators. Visuals quickly get a message across. They don't require translation. Visuals tell a whole story, faster and with greater nuance than words. Employees want access to information that is fast and easy to digest and understand. Visuals support the need to "get it" fast.
  6. Develop infographics to explain complex topics.In a world where employees are pressed for time and attention spans have dwindled, you need to create quick, bite-sized morsels of information that will cut through the clutter. Infographics (visual representations of data) are a great way to communicate a lot of information at a glance. They are particularly useful for explaining complex processes or programs.
  7. Create short, compelling videos. No executive talking heads, please.As soon as I begin viewing many internal videos, I can't stop watching the clock. That's because the video is not drawing me in and making me forget about the other 15 things I should be doing right now. If a video isn't good, it's a time bomb--so you need to up your game and make fast-moving, highly visual videos that would be right at home on YouTube. (For inspiration, here are the top 10 commercials on YouTube in 2017.)

Hey, I was an English major, so I feel your pain that employees don't love reading. But it's time for every communicator to embrace the new reality and appeal to employees' preferences.

Published on: Dec 21, 2018