When you're presenting to the executive committee or the board or investors, you need to be buttoned up--to carefully script your talking points and rehearse every move. Success means no surprises.

But if you want to make a genuine connection with employees, formality is not your friend. Employees seek authenticity. They're suspicious of communication that's too packaged and perfect.

In fact, explains Colin Lange, North America executive director, brand engagement at consulting and design firm Landor, informal communication encounters--walking around, having 10-minute chats, asking a few people to have coffee, eating lunch in the cafeteria--are the best way to enhance employee engagement.

Every time you have an informal interaction, you send a strong signal. "By talking with an individual employee or small group, you demonstrate that you are interested in what people have to say," says Lange. 

That's why I love this fresh idea for informal engagement: Every leader who sits down to chat with employees should act like a gracious and welcoming dinner party host.

The concept is from Lois Kelly's book, Beyond Buzz, which gives advice on how companies can start conversations with customers. But the idea works just as well for internal communication.

As Kelly explains, an effective dinner party host: 

  • Offers a fresh point of view
  • Speaks politely and respectfully
  • Tells good stories to illustrate key points 
  • Encourages guests to join the conversation
  • Speaks intelligently on a variety of subjects but is not afraid to admit areas of ignorance
  • Avoids trotting out well-worn arguments that have been made time and time again
  • Listens with genuine interest

How do you apply this philosophy to informal communication with employees? Here are 7 ways:

1. Set objectives. Don't just show up; think about why you're bringing people together. Is it to share perspectives or would you like to gather ideas and act on them? Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can plan accordingly--and make sure employees know what to expect.

2. Decide on one to three topics. While a completely open forum sounds appealing, it's actually easier for participants when you focus on a topic or two. That way, employees have a reference point. For example, you could spend a few minutes informally talking about an initiative like customer service. Then ask employees questions: "What is going well about this? What challenges do we face?" and get the discussion started. Later in the session, pose an open-ended question: "What else is on your mind?"

3. Be selective about your guest list. For the liveliest conversation, mix up participants to include different roles, functions or levels. If possible, avoid inviting managers and their direct reports--that inhibits candor.

4. Provide ground rules. Start the session sharing what to expect: "I'd like to give everyone a chance to participate, so I may ask you to wrap up a comment or call on you to ask your viewpoint. Your candor is appreciated, but please be respectful of other people's viewpoints."

5. Allow enough time to let participants warm up, but not so much that the conversation gets stale. I've found that a 45-minute session is the ideal length of time.

6. Use real-world examples, advises John Medina, author of Brain Rules. "Examples work because they take advantage of the brain's natural predilection for pattern matching," Medina writes. "Information is more readily processed if it can be immediately associated with information already present in the brain. Providing examples make the information more elaborative, more complex, better encoded, and therefore better learned."

7. Emphasize meaning, not details. Our brains pay more attention to the core of an idea than to details. You know all those PowerPoint slides you prepare for the town hall--with data about finances, initiatives and a host of other topics? That information is just white noise, according to brain science. "If we don't know the gist--the meaning--of information, we are unlikely to pay attention to its details," writes Medina. The brain selects meaning-laden information for further processing and leaves the rest alone."

The solution, of course, is to ditch the data and emphasize meaning. "If you are trying to drive information into someone else's brain, make sure they understand exactly what it means," advises Medina. To do so:

  • Explain the context behind the concept you're trying to convey. 
  • Tell the story of how you got to where you are today. "First, we realized we needed to change this process. Then we studied different options. We chose the one that best meets our needs, and since then, we've been making adaptations, so it fits the way we do business."
  • Speak in plain language. I'm in the habit of asking experts to explain the thing the way they would to their mom, or their old school friend (the one who didn't get his Ph.D.) or his seventh grader. These people are all smart, but they're not steeped in the technology or the processes or the lingo.
  • Share the "why." Okay, you're doing this great thing. Why is it important? How does it fit into what's happening in the marketplace? Or society? Or relate to the company's priorities?
  • Relate this to something else employees are familiar with. You can develop your skill for creating metaphors by focusing on how your concept is similar to ordinary experiences. How is process improvement like cleaning a closet, for instance? Or innovation like cooking?

When your informal session is done, thank participants for their contributions and candor. Then congratulate yourself for having a meaningful, authentic encounter with employees.

Published on: Sep 17, 2019
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