At a particularly desperate moment in my career, I was helping a publisher start an employee communication consultancy. One of our "marketing" techniques was an "Employee Communication Hotline" that beleaguered communication managers could call for free advice, beginning conversations that we hoped might turn into lucrative consulting.
I could make more gleeful fun of this idea if it hadn't been mine.
And so I manned the hotline.
What a nightmare: What's the average percentage of readership of an employee publication? I'm looking for a study that proves employees prefer to receive all corporate news from their direct supervisor. What's the ROI on an intranet?
It wasn't so much the questions were imbecilic and obviously self-interested, it was that they were also unanswerable—and the questioners damned well knew it. Which served me right, of course, for creating something as boneheaded and disingenuous as an Employee Communication Hotline in the first place.
But the Employee Communication Hotline is no longer in service. Boy, is it no longer in service! As I learned the other day, when a longtime correspondent (I say "longtime" both to express my fondness for him and to imply that he should have known me better) interrupted a midweek hangover to ask me:
Hi, David: I think you know that I'm managing employee communications at [XYZ Corp.]—my last corporate adventure before heading off into the sunset (excuse me, "encore career") of freelance writing and volunteering. Starting June 9, 2014.
Meanwhile, I'm working hard to truly raise the bar on internal comms here at XYZ. I've inherited responsibility for the company style guide (mainly because no one else wants it). However, it's a great opportunity to improve the company "voice." Like any company, this one will want proof that my suggestions are actually improvements over the status quo.
Two big ones:
Reading level—I'd like to see us aim for the 10th grade. Occasionally when the business units and Compliance get through with a piece of writing, even they wouldn't want to read it. At [a previous employer], I could brandish the agreed-upon Flesch Reading Ease score of 55 and get people to back down (it was a number, for gosh sakes). I could pick a Reading Ease score here, but I'm thinking a grade level (both are generated by Microsoft Word) might be more meaningful. XYZ is filled with very bright people, but college-level writing is simply tougher sledding than it needs to be.
Third-person voice—"Susan also says" has no place in a news story, in my view. So far, I haven't resisted using first names in our internal comms, but I'm about to. The reason: It doesn't sound like journalism. If we want our writing to have the implied credibility that journalism brings, then we need to masquerade as journalists. Sure, first names are friendlier. When part of a corporate newsletter, they also say (to me): "You're reading propaganda!"
There is one instance in which first names might actually work better. That is, if we wrote our stories with a fair degree of irreverence. I did get away with using "passel" in a story this week, but for the most part our stuff sounds like it comes from an insurance company. I've made inroads, but I'm a realist. We'll never be Zappo's. Which is why I think amping up the journalism is an easier fight to win.
So … do you have ideas on where I can find evidence, best practices, research studies, etc., about reading level and voice—and how they affect both readership and credibility?
Also, I finally pried some readership statistics loose from the system, and they're pretty dismal. Do you know of a current standard for acceptable readership—i.e., what percentage of an employee base should have read something to consider that it "performed well"? Roger D'Aprix used to say 40 percent was "outstanding." Is that as true for web browsers as it was for print? …
Thanks for whatever ideas you can share.
What would you have told him? Check back here tomorrow, to see what I said.