Category Archives: Strategic Communication

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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ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Prose, Pixels and Persuasion

Audience

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

Brevity

Tight copy is the “soul of wit,” and it takes twice as long to write.

Context

Pre-existing knowledge and conditions dictate how an audience receives messages. 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.

The Greeks knew some stuff.

Ethos

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

Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter.

Hyperlinks

Hypertext is the most underappreciated and the most powerful writing developments in our lifetime.

Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents. Your digital composition can unlock the world with the right hyperlinks.

Interface

Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some are 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 increasingly means managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. It 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

Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate any or all of these modes into our documents:

  • 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.

Negativity

It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. When you say something important, someone else is likely disagree.

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.)

No Trolls!

Obviousness

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

PowerPoint

I know we have to use PowerPoint. But must we use it 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 the questions your audience might ask if they could.

Repeat

If it needs to be said, say it again and then say it 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 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 with campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is critical.

Unaddressed Issues

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

Voice

Professionals are often required to slip into their client’s voice rather 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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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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