Make the internal pub your employee’s (second) best friend

Conquer these three questions and make your publication readable, even more exciting.

Conquer these three questions and make your publication readable, even exciting

There are four publications in front of me: Esquire magazine, a Google Reader full of blogs, The Wall Street Journal and an internal publication.

I will read Esquire, because I want to. The blogs I must read to write my Ragan.com column about the blogosphere. In the WSJ there’s a story about the apparent return of ventriloquists. I will read it, because the story is well-written and engaging.

Then there’s the internal publication. I’ll get to it—if there’s time.

“Internal communications is like your fourth best friend,” said Jim Ylisela, former journalism instructor and current president of Ragan Consulting. “Nobody ever pays attention to the fourth best friend.”

Let’s briefly visit that reading list again. Esquire is my best friend, because I want to read it; blogs, what I must read, are my second best friend; that article about ventriloquists—I have no real interest in them—is my third best friend. The internal publication, you guessed it.

“We need to try to move [internal publications] up the chain—maybe to third, occasionally to second,” Ylisela explained.

Here are three BIG questions you need to ask—and answer—if you want to make your publication a better friend to employees.

Question No. 1: What’s it about?

Corporate writing is usually abstract. Managers and executives use vague words that people don’t understand, like process, policy and, of course, initiative.

“No one actually cares about an initiative and yet the bosses are always putting these things together,” Ylisela said. “We’re going to have a new initiative and the initiative is going to have 17 something or others and it’s all very abstract. Abstract writing is hard to understand.”

How bad writing happens

Ylisela explains how a good sentence becomes a bad one.

Take this sentence: “It rained every day for a week.”

Pretty descriptive and direct, until legal gets ahold of it and asks, “Did it rain everyday? And was it really rain? Could it have been sleet?”

Suddenly that good sentence becomes: “A period of unfavorable weather set in.”

Vague, wordy, dangling preposition—yuck!

Every assignment you’re given is about something. The people in charge might bury the topic in acronyms and jargon, but it is there. You want people to read your stuff? Find it.

“You have to be able to say, ‘This is what it’s about.'” Ylisela said. “Sounds like, duh, but every piece of communication is about one thing, primarily. Find it and you can tell the story.”

If the suits want you to write about an initiative, well, learn about that initiative and how it will affect employees. Another topic communicators often tackle is meetings, you know, the meeting story. The story usually says: We had a meeting. You know what? People don’t care.

“I know there was a meeting,” Ylisela remarked. “I was there, and I wasn’t that interested when I was at the meeting. I don’t need to be told there was a meeting.”

Instead, find out what happened at the meeting. More importantly, determine how the outcome of that meeting will affect employees. They are your audience; appeal to them by finding out what the story is about.

Here’s a tip: Use lots of examples. Readers want them. “For instance …” and “one great example is …” should pepper your stories.

Question No. 2: Why should anyone care?

Now that you know what the story is about determine why your readers should care. If you can’t do that then the story isn’t worth writing.

Let’s return to the meeting. You got the scoop on what happened at the meeting and how its outcome will affect employees. So why should any of your readers care? Figure that out: Will there be layoffs? Raises? Cocktail hour every Wednesday at 3 p.m.?

Take this example from Wells Fargo. The financial company once ran a story in its internal publication about a decision to freeze hiring. The headline: “Is a hiring freeze really a good thing?” People will read that; it affects their jobs.

Plus the headline is strong—and a strong headline is critical. “Tell me why I should care and tell me pretty quick because I have the attention span of a flea,” Ylisela quipped.

Headlines give the benefit of the story, the “what’s-in-it-for-me” concept for readers. So think newsstand when you’re crafting headlines.

Take this headline from GQ magazine:

“How to seduce her, romance her, treat her and (occasionally) understand her.”

That’s irresistible. Now one from a corporate publication:

“Senior management team meets off site.” See what I mean? Where’s the payoff to that story?

Here are two great headlines from Boeing’s internal magazine:

“I took charge of my career: One Boeing person’s talents lead to roles in cutting edge programs” and “Ten top job tips to stay employable.” The benefits: Job tips and taking charge of your career. People will read those stories.

Of course, hiring freezes and job tips are interesting. Stories you’re usually assigned on the abstract initiatives are dull, even after you’ve determined what it’s about and why employees should care. So how do you tell those boring stories?

“Our writing has to have personality and drama,” Ylisela said. Don’t think that’s possible? “Every organizations has drama, because every organization has people … people are very funny.”

Ylisela said communicators usually write about the three P’s: programs, policies and processes. “If we don’t add the fourth P—people—we’re sunk,” he explained. “Show readers that people are doing something [at work] in a different.”

Here’s a tip: Tell a story through the eyes of one employee. Show the entire company how one initiative affected that person. And be specific. People want examples.

Question No. 3: How can I package the story?

With human attention spans matching that of a flea packaging becomes very important. So consider, how do you get the reader’s attention—how do you grab them? “Headlines and blurbs in print tell me how the stories are organized; they sell the benefits of the information,” Ylisela said.

For print stories break the text into sections; that way it isn’t too daunting for the reader. Make it easy with headlines promising “Six tips” or “Ten ideas”; pictures are a necessity and sidebars help break up a long story.

Ylisela called these “entry points for the eye.” Give the reader easy ways to jump into a story. Huge blocks of uninterrupted text are bad.

Same rules apply online, even more so. Huge chunks of text online are even more off-putting to the reader, so it’s a good thing you have more options. For instance, try inserting video or audio into your story, a photo slideshow and links.

Here’s a tip: You’re writing a story about why employees like their jobs. How about getting employees on camera saying, in one sentence, why they like their jobs? Make that video part of the story.

Of course, there are also audio files.

Here’s another tip: Doing an interview? Turn part of that podcast into a podcast.

Not as exciting as your best friend, but it don’t cost a thing

Conquering these questions will hopefully move the internal publication up the chain of friendship: to third, maybe even second. But realize this: It will never be first.

“We know what kind of work we’re doing,” Ylisela said. “It’s not the kind of work where somebody says, ‘Wow, I can’t wait because XYZ magazine is coming out tomorrow, and I can’t wait to read the lead story.'”

True, but people do read. They browse Web page after Web page, read books and devour magazines. And the thing is that books and magazines, an internet connection, they all cost money. In these days, with food and gas prices souring, the company publication is free.

Not bad if their third, maybe even second favorite thing to read don’t cost a thing.

Five reasons corporate writing is so bad

Here are the five problems plaguing corporate communicators, according to Jim Ylisela, president of Ragan Consulting and former reporter, editor and journalism instructor.

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