Category Archives: Articles

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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ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Making Sense of Prose and Pixels

Audience

Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.

Brevity

Tight copy may be the “soul of wit,” yet it takes twice as long to write.

Context

A pre-existing set of conditions affect how audiences hear. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.

Drafts

The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.

Ethos

The Greeks knew some stuff. Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.

Graphics

Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter. Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Hyperlinks Definitely the most underappreciated, yet one of the most powerful, writing developments in our lifetime. Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents.

Interface

Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.

Juxtaposition

Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication is more and more about managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. They shouldn’t. Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.

Laughter

Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

Modality

Text is great for brevity and/or complexity. Video captures short attention spans. Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness. Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body. What mode is best? Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate all of these into our campaigns.

Negativity

It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. If you are actually saying something important, someone else is likely disagreeing. Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls.(Hint: don’t feed them.)

Obvious

Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.

PowerPoint

I know we have to use PowerPoint, but why so badly? When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.

Questions

For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves. For clarity, answer questions for your audience; questions they might ask if they could.

Repeat

If it needs to be said, say it again and again. Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it. Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.

Speed

Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster. It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms. Tap the brakes for better content.

Timing

Impatience can cause an argument or initiative to fail on the launch pad. Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important to campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is desired.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that and why you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.

Voice

Professionals often find it easier to slip into their client’s voice than to find their own. We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.

Words

I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast. It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (Smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.

X-rated

Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).

Yell

SOMETIMES IT’S GOOD TO GO BIG!!!

Zig when others zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

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