Some years ago I got a mailing at home from an employer. Official company envelope. Inside, a Xeroxed flyer on purple paper. Lilac is probably a more apt description. I was tempted to just discard it. The optics suggested this was not an important communication.
But I did read it and while it wasn’t life critical, it did announce an important benefits issue.
I called the sender the next day to ask about the purple paper and was told “it was really important, and we wanted it to stand out.” Interesting approach. I imagined the brainstorm that resulted in this communications epiphany: “But it’s really important, let’s put it on purple paper.”
What does “important” look like, I wondered? Like beauty, it is most certainly in the eye of the beholder. For a benefits message, it seemed like there might be a more thoughtful approach than color choice. Clearly the team’s heart was in the right place, and I feared that they were guided by anecdote or survey data or both and had concluded what many of us have seen over the years: too often these messages just don’t get through and have the impact (open, read, understood, acted upon) we need.
That’s a problem.
Over time one can begin to change this dynamic. First, be guided by the “rule of what matters” to the reader and the words THEY would use in describing them. “Health Care Benefits Update” is sufficient to get peoples’ attention generally. Only add “Important” if it truly is, or when you really do have something important you’ll be disadvantaged. Don’t be afraid to ask…”Is this a big thing or a little thing?” It’s always important to the team who is working on it, but IS it important to the person receiving the communication?
I’d suggest a practice of standardization, consistency, and headlining. Develop business-like and disciplined structure for such things…your own organization’s AP Style guide, if you will. Build out a hierarchy for your employee communications. What needs to be personal, what needs to be segmented, when is “one size fits all” good enough? What does “important” look like? Who needs to know? Does it require action or is it simply notification? Do all employees really need to know or just a few?
If you consistently send me stuff that doesn’t matter to me, I generally stop opening it. There is no shortage of academic studies that underscore this dynamic.
Here’s another one: “We are required by law to provide you with the following information”. Good lord, really? That suggests the writer wouldn’t otherwise do it. There is no shortage of mandatory communications requirements and right-to-know obligations. I’ll make no value judgment on them per se. It’s the law. Do your job while embracing the underlying context. Some governmental entity has determined that this is important information, be happy not coerced. Share it with a sense of engagement on the underlying issues that matter, not with an implied protest. That’s a good way to build bridges on topics that matter to the people you care about.
Tom Buckmaster retired after more than 30 years in agency and corporate communications. He led communications at a Fortune 100 global manufacturing company and held senior positions at Fleishman Hillard, Hill and Knowlton and Edelman. He is also a former IPR Trustee.