Category Archives: Employee Communication

Constructing Memory

A few tips for making important everyday information more memorable.

Just like your organization tries to attract and retain talent, good communication should attract attention and help the audience retain important information. 

In a previous post, I offered some tips for attracting attention. 

Here, I focus on helping your audience retain the information you send them and then retrieve that information for later use. 

Dual-Process Theory

To design communications that improve the retention and retrieval of information, a little understanding of how memory works can help.

In short, memory relies on two types of thinking: System 1 and System 2. This is known as the dual-process theory.

System 1 is where more routine, unconscious thinking happens. It’s fast, automatic, everyday.

System 2 is more conscious and problem-based. It’s slow, intentional, complex.

When I was learning to play guitar, forming a chord was like a Twister game for my fingers. It required conscious thought, focus and effort. That’s System 2. Once I mastered a chord, playing it became effortless (cognitively speaking). That’s System 1. Once a chord was handled by System 1 thinking, I could weave it naturally into a song or do other intellectually demanding things simultaneously, like read lyrics. 

To make information you deliver today useful in the future, think of that information as though it were a skill, like learning to play guitar or ride a bike. The right information has to be mastered so it can be woven later into the audience’s thoughts and actions.

What Do We Want Where?

If you think across the employee experience, you might be able to pick out which steps or behaviors should be System 1 (what people need to remember) and which should be System 2 (what or how people ought to think).

Here are a few examples. 

 System 1 (automatic, from memory)System 2 (analytical, critical, deliberate)
I need to make changes to my 401(k) account.Knowing what app to use.Selecting investment options. 
I need to complete a performance review.Knowing what website or form to access.Providing constructive feedback. 
I’m stressed out.My company offers mental health services.Reaching out to the appropriate service.

How to Make it Memorable

Knowing certain types of information by rote can help employees be more self-reliant, cutting down on confusion, phone calls and wasted time. This can be measurably valuable to both the employee and the employer. 

Here are some tips for making everyday information more memorable. 

  1. Involve the senses. Clients often ask us to help make their information “more visual.” That’s good. How something looks is important to the way it is perceived, understood and retrieved. But the brain uses all of the body’s senses to gather information, so how something sounds, what it means and how it feels are also important to forming strong, useful memories. (And, don’t forget about our sense of smell.)
  2. Make your audience practice. Our short-term memory can usually hold 5 to 9 things for 15 to 30 seconds. You can help your audience remember something for a longer period of time by making them practice it. For example, if you’re trying to acquaint users with a new website, don’t rely on a single email with a link to do the trick. Parse out information and details over time and give your audience numerous valid and relevant reasons to access that site.
  3. Use consistent verbal and visual cues. According to psychology research, retrieval of information is generally better given similar contextual clues. The context can include the person’s surroundings, mood and emotions. You can provide the right clues by repeatedly presenting the same information in a consistent way. This is why we generally stress the importance of establishing visual and verbal guidelines for communications. They promote recognition and, hence, recall. 
  4. Frame the information. In communication, framing is packaging a message in a way that encourages certain interpretations over others. This can help your audience process information quickly by winnowing the number of possible interpretations they consider before reaching a conclusion. Consider how the following statements, though similar, provide different frames and how these distinct perspectives might influence one’s behaviors.

“We have inherited the earth from our ancestors.”

“We have been loaned the earth by our children.”

Let’s Connect

Are you struggling to create communication that attracts attention and helps your employees retain important information? Maybe we can help. We’d love to hear from you. 

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Your Employee Benefits Aren’t Benefits, They’re Features

Don’t drone on about what benefits you have, emphasize how these programs make employees’ lives better.

It’s easy to assume that phrases like “health care plan” and “long-term disability” will draw great people to your company like a power outlet at a Starbucks. But, to the average person, employee benefit program names are jargon. Insurance is boring, few people understand it and health care gets a bad wrap anyway.

Don’t lose your audience by droning on about what benefits you have. Instead, connect with your employees by emphasizing how these programs make their lives better. 

How does she think about your benefits?

Benefits vs. Features

Your employee benefits are not really benefits of working for your organization. They’re features of working for your organization.

Technically, yes, a “benefit” can be defined as “a service (such as health insurance) or right (as to take vacation time) provided by an employer in addition to wages or salary.” 

But, if we take more of a marketing perspective, a “benefit” is really something that improves your life while a feature is more like a fact. 

For example, the triple-camera is a feature of the iPhone. Being able to capture beautiful images in low light is one benefit of that feature. 

Now, let’s say a recruiter is chatting with a potential candidate about working for your company …

Candidate: “What kind of benefits do you offer?”

Recruiter: “We offer three health care plan options, prescription drug coverage, a health savings account, dental, vision, disability insurance, life insurance, paid time off and a 401(k) plan with a generous company match.” 

While the recruiter thinks she just gave a list of “benefits,” she actually just relayed a list of features.

To get to the actual benefits, you have to answer some questions:

  • Why does your organization offer each benefit plan in the first place? (The answer shouldn’t solely be “to compete with other employers for talent.”)
  • How do these offerings connect with your employees’ hopes and dreams? In what ways do they make the individual’s life better?

Once you’ve answered these questions, the recruiter’s response to that recruit might be more like this …

Recruiter: “We have many affordable ways to help you and your family get and stay healthy, a number of programs that protect your income if you get sick or hurt, paid time off so you can relax and recharge, and a generous plan to help you build wealth for retirement.”

This response is still a bit generic but isn’t it a little more appealing? 

When you think about your organization’s overall benefits package, there may be more distinctive benefits you can elucidate. Maybe you have an innovative package of voluntary benefits or a plan that helps with student debt. The trick is to get past the plan names, understand your audience, and restate your results in a way that connects on an emotional level.

Let’s Connect

Do you have a unique way of highlighting the real benefits of working for your organization? Are you looking for a little help? We’d love to hear from you. 


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So, What's Work Like Now?

Impactful communication hinges on knowing what your employees really need.

I once asked a graphic designer how to draw people. 

She suggested I work on my personality.

This little joke highlights the false beliefs of two characters. What I wanted help with was quite different than what the designer thought I needed help with. 

This same kind of disconnect can happen when you’re writing content and communications for your employees. You make assumptions about what you think the audience needs, and you create the content based on those assumptions. But, if your organization had to shift suddenly this year in response to the pandemic and lockdowns, your previous assumptions about your employees might need a reboot.

To create good content and communications, you should try to see the world as the audience sees it. It can help to know their goals, their feelings and what they’re experiencing at that moment. Psychologists refer to this as having a theory of mind.

To create good content and communications, you should try to see the world as the audience sees it. It can help to know their goals, their feelings and what they’re experiencing at that moment.

Journey mapping is one technique for getting inside your audience’s head and understanding their needs based on what work is like for them now.

Understand Your Audience’s Journey

We aren’t born knowing others have desires, beliefs and knowledge different from our own. We learn this as children and it deteriorates with age. When it comes to writing content and communications, we have the additional challenge of forming a theory of mind for many different people who might be arriving at a similar point in a journey from different paths and with different objectives.

A journey map is a visualization of the process that an employee goes through to accomplish a goal. It’s used for understanding and addressing the employee’s needs and pain points.

A journey map might start as a simple checklist. But, depending on the process, a list might not be enough. You might need to augment your list with additional detail, including any people, tools or other information the employee might need or come in contact with along their way to achieving their goal.  

The resulting map should be thought of as a living document, a snapshot you review occasionally to hunt down pain points and make improvements. Having a journey mapped can also help you assess the impact of proposed process changes. 

Here’s a journey map we created at Smith to help us manage one of our larger partnerships. (We can’t share the name of this client on our website, so we’ve scrubbed out some of the detail.) This map started out as a simple to-do list 10 years ago. But, as the number of projects, processes and people involved grew, we needed a 30,000-foot view so we could delegate tasks, develop training and find efficiencies. A map like this might help you improve a variety of processes, such as performance management, annual enrollment, onboarding and more.

Let’s Connect

Do you use journey maps? Share your story with us. If you’d like some help creating employee content and communications, we’d love to hear from you.

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When the Tide Recedes

COVID-19 exposes employees’ finances

Caught swimming naked

Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the vast majority of Americans are feeling intense financial strain. According to a new survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education, 88% of Americans say the COVID-19 crisis is causing stress on their personal finances. Willis Towers Watson’s 2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey found 38% of employees live paycheck to paycheck. Assuming this unfortunate reality is limited to low-income households would be wrong. While those families are certainly acutely struggling with food, housing and unemployment, the strain is felt across all income brackets. Of those making more than $100,000 annually, nearly 1 in 5 are living paycheck to paycheck. 

Banks are receiving mortgage relief requests from those with monthly payments of $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and upwards. The CARES Act allows individuals to take early withdrawals of up to $100,000 from retirement plans without paying the 10% penalty. Clearly, a wide swath of us are urgently looking for ways to make ends meet. We’re reinforcing Warren Buffett’s sage observation: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” It turns out, a lot of us are swimming naked.

At some point, we’re going to be able to go back to work, to school and to some semblance of our old lives. The economy will come back and record high unemployment will recede. However, some things should not return to normal. Let’s seize on this moment to have a collective financial wake-up call and fundamental conversation about the state of our finances. Because let’s face it — another coronavirus, financial crisis or natural disaster will come. 

How can employers help?

Start thinking about how your organization can embrace and promote financial literacy. What have you done so far and what’s on your calendar for the rest of the year? Clearly your messaging may need to be adjusted to reflect the new COVID-19 reality. Does your workforce have any particular pain points? College debt, credit card debt, emergency savings? Did your organization furlough employees or take other measures that caused additional financial strain?

Next, get your arms around the information that’s available:

Then, curate the content for your employees in a way that makes the most sense for your organization. Emails and print pieces can be great for spreading the word and building momentum, but you’ll want to house your information online for easy access. Consider either a place on your intranet, or an easy-to-implement, dedicated microsite.

Meet your employees where they are and keep your categories focused and simple:

  1. Live on a budget
  2. Pay off debt
  3. Have an emergency fund
  4. Save for retirement

It doesn’t need to be complicated, but make sure it’s not preachy. It needs to be real and relevant. Your employees will thank you for providing common sense information and resources to help them take their next— best—financial step. And, hopefully, we’ll all have our swimsuits firmly in place for the next time the tide rushes in.  

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