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Smith Bits

Q: What's long, folds neatly and is utterly unforgettable?

Just about every business communication campaign includes some form of a newsletter – a document that succinctly, accurately and generally (and sometimes fully) communicates who, what, when, where and why something important is happening. Most company newsletters are crafted as the central hub of a campaign to engage and inform audiences.

Sadly, these corporate publications often fail to engage their readers and most never achieve their goal of effectively delivering key messages. The content is usually rock solid . . . but the failure occurs almost immediately on the reader’s end.

Instead of seeing your carefully crafted assembly of useful information, they often see a boring, cautious and dated design. Before they even read one word, your precious communique (that went through 9 rounds of edits and painstaking reviews) slips right into the recycle bin.  

How can you blame readers when you realize your newsletter is competing with so much for their undivided attention?  (Let’s see, I can read this corporate newsletter or check out the new episode of Game of Thrones, Instagram, or maybe The Voice . . . hmm, I wonder who wins?)

What’s a communicator to do?  Fight back with some innovation.  One such approach is to rethink and reorganize the display of information to make it unique from a traditional publication.  If you have decided a print piece is needed that summarizes your messages, consider using an accordion-fold sheet of paper for your newsletter to create a new and different way of presenting the information.

Essentially a “dangler” newsletter (so called because it dangles when you hold it up and let it unravel) is a sheet of paper with four or more panels on one side that fold into each other.  Each panel can then have its own content, related of course to the general subject at hand.  With this approach you are now able to create content in bite-size, easy-to-digest chunks. And you increase engagement because you handed your reader something that truly stands out in a crowd.

So, the next time you huddle with leaders and managers to discuss the strategy about communicating a new issue . . . think about doing something different that your associates might actually read.  Try a dangler!

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Why Traffic Signs Work

A Lesson in Uniformity for Communicators

A driver going 55 miles per hour needs about 280 feet of stopping distance — almost the length of a soccer field. So, if you’re trying to communicate to highway drivers, you have just a few seconds to get across important messages like this one:

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction unless such movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic.

No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve, or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction within five hundred feet.

Try posting that on a road sign.

Luckily, the people who design traffic signs came up with a solution that allows them to translate the full meaning of those two paragraphs into this:

This sign works — and works quickly — because it sticks to a few important rules.

On traffic signs, red always means “no” or “stop.” A vertical rectangle is always used to tell a driver about a regulation. These and other rules are spelled out in a detailed document called the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The MUTCD states: “Uniformity of traffic control devices is critical in highway safety.” It adds that uniformity also creates efficiencies, helping public agencies simplify maintenance and control costs.

Of course, traffic signs rely on more than shapes and colors; they use words and symbols, too. So the MUTCD includes specific guidelines for lettering, size, borders, arrows, and more.

It may seem odd for a communicator to be extolling the virtues of uniformity. Numerous laboratory experiments have found that creative messages (those that feature unusual and nonobvious solutions) get more attention, lead to positive attitudes, and are more effective at influencing behavior.

But, successful communication also relies on a certain amount of predictability. Imagine if your grocery store or your bank’s website shuffled its sections around each week. We’d spend more time searching than getting — and that’s a sure way to get your audience to stop paying attention.

Lastly, the MUTCD states that an effective “traffic control device” meets five basic requirements. It must:

• Fulfill a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear, simple meaning
• Command respect from road users
• Give adequate time for proper response

These “rules of the road” would serve any communicator well.

By the way, the MUTCD permits use of 13 colors on road signs. Two of those are coral and light blue, which are reserved for purposes that haven’t been determined yet. (Keep an eye open for those pink traffic signs.)

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Summary Plan Descriptions

Why I Love SPDs.

I love SPDs. This is a feeling not universally shared by those clients and colleagues who are tasked with developing and maintaining them (or even most of us who receive them).

When I first began working on SPDs, I didn’t fully appreciate them. I often described them in terms that weren’t always (let’s just say) the most flattering. However, more exposure to these documents has helped me value their finer points.

Benefits make a difference. Benefits are a critical part of employees’ total rewards from their employer. A thoughtfully developed benefits program provides a safety net for employees and their families. How employees participate in these programs can affect their overall financial picture, now and far into the future.

I create multiple communication/education programs associated with employee benefits, ranging from recruiting to new hire to annual enrollment materials and beyond. SPDs assume a unique position in this communication universe. In many ways, they are the backbone of any benefits program.

SPDs are legally mandated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA specifies information, timing and distribution requirements to make sure participants are informed about how their benefits work and legal protections provided to them. [ERISA background]

SPDs provide employees important legal and regulatory details, such as rights and protections provided under ERISA. These include where to go for help; who is responsible for running the plan and what their duties entail; what benefits are insured, e.g., defined benefit plans under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; what rights are in place if a claim is denied; and required notices, such as the Women’s Cancer Rights Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

SPDs are a comprehensive user’s manual and reliable reference tool. The SPD provides information about eligibility, enrollment, timing requirements, benefits provided, where to go for more information and much more. Rules can be complicated and have big financial implications.  [Requirements for a 401k SPD]

Participants are encouraged to read the documents carefully and keep them in a convenient place for future reference. Now SPDs are commonly posted electronically for easy access at any time.

Keeping an SPD up-to-date is the realm of a team of benefit professionals—HR staff, technical benefit consultants, specialized attorneys, and communicators. Legal contracts, insurance policies and documents that spell out how a benefit plan works must be translated into understandable language for the average person. [SPD Development Strategy]

Such an important document deserves our respect. We should all view the SPD as a valuable resource that helps employees find information, use their benefits effectively and appreciate their employer’s investment in their well-being.

For those  reasons, I love SPDs!

Pat Dodd is a senior consultant  at Smith Communication Partners. 

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Recognizing Employee Achievement with Badges

Badges Recognize Accomplishment, Expertise, Authority

Badges are a well-known feature of gaming and social media, but they’re nothing new. The Boy Scouts have been using them to encourage youngsters to learn new skills and rack up achievements for a century.

And, of course, law enforcement has long used badges as a symbol of authentic authority. Badges have proven their worth in recognizing progress and conveying expertise. So why don’t more employers use them as part of their performance management programs?

In many performance management programs, you set goals at the beginning of the year and then get assessed on your achievement at the end of the year. If you’re lucky, you might get a checkpoint along the way.

Based on your final assessment, you get a score and maybe a raise. That’s it. No one else knows how you did or what you excelled at.

Badges could be a symbol of recognition just shy of a raise or promotion (or a supplement). They could serve as acknowledgment of progress. Your company could award a badge for enhancing a relevant skill, learning a new one or living up to a company value or competency.

The value of these badges is not only in recognizing the employee’s achievement but in identifying that employee to others as an expert or authority in a certain field or skill. Becoming known as the go-to person for “project management”, for example, would further reinforce the employee’s strengths and give your company its own resident expert.

A well-defined set of badges could help focus employees’ efforts while letting them pursue unique personal development paths. Where do you put these badges? You could place them on employees’ online profiles (check out what the FDA has done) or add them to email autosignatures. Physical badges, like ribbons or certificates, would also work, but would only be effective in organizations where employees share space. For one client, we recently created a series of removable/restickable laptop stickers; colors indicate what level of leader bestowed it.

Online publishers and game developers think badges will attract users. The Boy Scouts know a badge will encourage a young man to help an old lady cross the street. By giving us lasting, sharable recognition, badges can unlock the desire we all have to take on challenges, accrue achievements and be known for what we’re good at.

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