Great Writing is built on specificity

Great writing is built on specificity

By Steve Crescenzo

Organizational leaders love to talk about “the big picture.” They love to talk about the view from 30,000 feet.”

Why? Because that’s where they live. They sit up there on the corporate version of Mount Olympus, and hurl communication thunderbolts down upon the masses in the form of executive letters, columns and memos.

And all of those communications represent the view from 30,000 feet, because that’s often the only view the executives see. And that’s fine. People need to see that bigger picture. They need to see the larger perspective, and understand how the various components fit together.

We’re not denying that the view from 30,000 feet is an important one. But at some point, corporate writers need to strap on a parachute and get their butts down to the ground level, because that’s where the action is.

Great writing is built on specificity. And there’s very rarely any specificity when you only look at something from 30,000 feet. Everything is kind of . . . blurry.

The classic CEO column in most employee publications is a great example of this. In the column, the CEO might talk about six or seven important projects or topics . . . but he’ll just touch on them. He might give an update, or mention that “the team” is doing great work. And then, in his mind, the job is done.

But for the communicator, the job is only beginning. Let’s say the CEO mentions that “The ongoing initiative to restructure the supply chain is proceeding according to plan, and the Six Sigma team assigned to the task is on schedule for a February rollout of the new system.”

That’s a nice big-picture update. Just what you’d expect from the CEO.

But now it’s time to tell the story. It’s time to put boots on the ground where the action is. It’s time to talk to some of those Six Sigma black belts who are actually doing the work. What problems have they faced? What has been their biggest challenge? What will success look like? How will it affect individual employees? How will it affect the company as a whole?

On the ground level, we’re looking for examples and anecdotes and specifics and drama and people. We’re looking for stories! And you can’t see those stories from 30,000 feet.

 

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Bar Charts don’t equal an infographic

 

Gotta call it

Sigh … it seems that too often, left to themselves organizations will always create bad, boring content. In our Creative Communications case study in this issue, we  showed you how an infographic can be a creative and powerful way to tackle a complicated topic. But, that’s because it was well thought out and designed.

Just because you have bar charts doesn’t mean you have an infographic. Don’t do creative communications just to do it. Just like any other story you put together, infographics need to be thought out and well planned. Otherwise, the result is … well you know.

Bad Teacher Infographic

 

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What is the communicator’s role in engagement?

While some companies spend thousands of dollars on useless “engagement surveys” smart communicators do their own thing to drive employee engagement

This month, I’m giving a speech in Warsaw, Poland on the communicator’s role in employee engagement. And make no mistake: I believe a strategic, creative communications team do a lot to drive employee engagement.

But where I’m skeptical is how folks then turn around and measure that engagement level. And I’m also skeptical about what some companies think engagement really is.

In the communications biz, we throw the word “engagement” around a lot. We’re always trying to figure out if our workforce is “highly engaged,” or “somewhat engaged” or “disengaged” or some other kind of engaged.

But the problem that none of the high-priced engagement consultants want to admit is, it’s really, really hard to tell if an employee is engaged in his work, and in the company as a whole.

Supposedly, these consultants, like Gallup, have ways of telling. They do intensive, incredibly expensive surveys, and ask magic questions (such as, “Do you have a best friend at work?” and “Do you feel your coworkers do great work?”) that will reveal the level of someone’s engagement.

Which is all bullshit, of course. Because you can’t tell anything from a survey like that. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that you are a male employee in a manufacturing environment. And let’s say that you are having a torrid sex affair with a female coworker.

It’s a scenario everybody should be allowed to experience once in their lives: sex at work!

And you have all kinds of cool code words and phrases with your coworker/lover.

For instance, if you say: “I’m going to get a bagel. Do you want one?” It really means:

“Grab the grease gun and go wait for me in the janitor’s closet.”

And, “Where are you going for lunch?” really means:

“Go in the tool shed and take off everything except your hard hat and your boots.”

And all kinds of cool stuff like that.

So you’re having sex two or three times a day, while you’re supposed to be working? And why can you do that? Because you’re not really doing any work! In addition to screwing your coworker, you’re also screwing the pooch on any one of a number of projects.

And how can you get away with this? Because your boss doesn’t give a shit! He’s been on the job forever, and he’s just treading water until retirement. On top of that, he’s a raging alcoholic who suffers from back-breaking, mind-crushing hangovers every morning, up until 11:30, when he goes to lunch for two hours and drinks seven beers.

Then, in the afternoon, he sits at his computer and plays with the stock market.

Now, let’s say you’re that employee who is having sex on the job rather than working. And now, the annual “Engagement Survey” comes in. You’ve got to answer all these questions about your boss.

What would you do? I know what I would do . . . I’d give the son of a bitch the highest ratings I possibly could, that’s what! Because if I grade him low, they’re going to make him actually work! And I don’t want that!

If you think this is unrealistic, you’ve never heard of the “Mark Five to Survive” mentality. I first heard about it when I was doing some focus groups for a large company that did this kind of engagement survey every year. In the group, I asked the participants about it.

“Oh, yeah,” said one woman. “We call that the ‘write five to survive’ survey.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, in my best focus-group-moderator voice.

“It means if you just give the manager all fives across the board, they’ll leave you alone,” she told me. “If you give him lower ratings, they’re going to start messing with you.”

Of course they are! Who wants someone from corporate to come nosing around, trying to fix your work group when it isn’t broken to begin with?

That’s why I’m so suspicious of those engagement surveys.

Now, I’m not saying communicators can’t do a whole lot to influence engagement. That’s what I’ll be talking about in Warsaw.

There are tons of things communicators can do to drive engagement . . . and none of them have to do with expensive engagement surveys that can be misleading at best, and completely off base at worst.

Next month, I’ll talk about some of the ways communicators can influence engagement. So stay tuned.

 

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Planning Strategy Quick Tip

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when it’s time to write a communication plan. Cindy Crescenzo shares an idea to help you create a plan that is relevant and realistic.

 

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Infographics are a great way to get the attention of people who have no attention spans anymore


A lot of information in a small package

Infographics are a great way to get the attention of people who have no attention spans anymore

Infographics are taking the corporate communication world by storm.

As attention spans get smaller and smaller, communicators are struggling with how to present complex information in easy-to-digest formats. And a good infographic can often be the answer.

Lori MacKenzie and her creative team of communicators and designers who work for the city of Aurora in Colorado, found this out when faced with the challenge of trying to communicate the city’s total compensation plan to employees.

They wanted employees to understand that total compensation goes a lot further than just salary—and also show them how the city’s compensation plan compared with other organizations in the Aurora area.

Employee compensation posterTo capture all that information and convey it an easy-to-understand format, she partnered with HR to get the data, and then graphic artists to come up with the design. Though it’s too early for any hard measurement numbers, she has gotten great anecdotal feedback from people who appreciated the information and the way it was presented.

LHF asked Lori a few questions about the process, and the lessons she learned.

LHF:  What was the creative process like? Did you provide an outside agency with the data, and they came up with the infographic? Or did you do it in-house?

LM: Everything was done in house from start to finish—including printing. Our communications team met initially with human resources to get the data and then we worked with our graphic artists to brainstorm and come up with the creative design.

LHF: Do you have any measurement numbers on whether or not it worked? Even anecdotal evidence? What kind of feedback did you get?

LM: We don’t have hard numbers, but we did receive feedback. Employees definitely read the information and found the format to be eye-catching. A few employees who are unhappy about the fact that raises have been minimal for many years didn’t like the fact that we were pointing out the total value of their compensation package, but at least we know they read it.

LHF: Why did you do it? How did you know there was a need for this information?

LM: As I mentioned, salary increases have been fairly slim (or non-existent) for many years. However, at the same time, the city has continued to absorb increased costs for our health care benefits. We are also fortunate to have paid vacation time and sick leave, and a solid defined benefit retirement plan. There was a need to help employees truly understand the entire value of their compensation package, and not just their salary.

LHF:  Why the infographic approach, instead of the standard article/poster/brochure? And where did this appear? How did people see it?

LM: We had some success with a report to the public we produced earlier in the year as an infographic. We thought it was important to do something like that for our employees that cut through the clutter of standard internal memos and handouts. We printed posters that were hung in all employee break rooms at all of our facilities throughout the city. We also posted the piece on our employee intranet.

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