Why Internal Communication Is Behind the Times (An Interview with Alison Davis)
Whenever Alison Davis finds herself standing at an airport newsstand, she’s not just looking for something to read on a long flight. She’s studying how magazines like Real Simple, Better Homes & Gardens, and Prevention are trying to capture our attention.
Snackable content. Eye-catching visuals. Useful information.
“They’re engaging you in an interesting way to help you do something better,” said Davis, the Founder and CEO of strategic internal communication firm Davis & Company. “And if you go to the websites for Food Network, HGTV or Martha Stewart, it’s all about a helping hand. It’s really appealing and makes you think: ‘Wow, I’d like to spend some time with this.’ Communicators need to bring those same ingredients and spirit into what they’re doing internally.”
The agency focuses on updating internal communication at organizations so that employees feel more connected to the workplace – and more invested in helping their companies succeed. Her team works with clients to deliver the type of information that employees want, in the way they prefer to receive it, and then measure the impact with communication metrics that matter.
At the heart of that mission is giving employees exciting and useful information. It’s a topic that Davis will be discussing in the upcoming Dynamic Signal webinar, “Content Creation Best Practices for the Modern Communicator.”
The biggest problem, Davis said, is that employees often see the internal content as outdated, irrelevant, and dull.
“In many organizations, it really does feel like 2007 is calling and wants its communication back,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for employees. They feel like communication doesn’t really work for them. Then they just start to disengage. They tune out. Their attitude is: ‘Why should I read another corporate announcement that’s just dreck?’”
In a way, Davis has been thinking about storytelling her entire life. Growing up in northern New Jersey, she spent her summers at the library, checking out the maximum number of books allowed. She would devour them all in a few days and then be right back looking for more.
In college, she “wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein,” referring to the famed Washington Post reporting tandem who broke the Watergate story in the early 1970s. She worked as a stringer for the New York Daily News and later at the Courier News in New Jersey. Davis tried public relations, which paid better than newspapers. (“At least I could afford nice shoes.”) But she didn’t find the work very meaningful.
Davis found her niche helping companies improve their internal communication efforts and, in 1984, launched the agency with a partner.
“I guess the idea of communicating has always been part of my psyche,” Davis said. “What I like about good writing is the ability to take something, especially a complicated topic, and making it instantly understandable for everyone. I love that element of problem-solving. It’s almost like having an epiphany that you want to share with others.”
In her consulting role, she often sees the other kind of writing. (Remember that “dreck” comment?) Communicators are talented writers, Davis said. But sometimes, even the best ones can develop a writing form of “Stockholm Syndrome.” They’re worn down by the internal politics of their organizations and give in to business-speak pronouncements that may please the leadership but get ignored by employees.
Her advice for communicators is the next time you’re laboring over an 800-word organizational announcement, stop and ask yourself some questions. What’s the value here for employees? Is this something that will help move the business needle? Will this help employees understand the action you want them to take?
And then, there’s the most important question of all: Should you even write it?
“If you’re a communicator who is doing all of that same old corporate stuff, you’re teaching people to press delete without reading,” Davis said. “They’re going to filter it out of their sight. For anything to get through to employees, it’s got to be really interesting, very relevant, and hopefully make them better at their jobs.”
Above all, it has to be helpful information. Just like the content in those magazines at the airport kiosk.
Founder and CEO of Davis & Company
Webinar Topic: “Content Creation Best Practices for the Modern Communicator”
Home: Glen Rock, N.J.
Family: Husband is best-selling author Paul B. Brown; four children
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Douglass College, Rutgers University
Interests: Cooking, gardening, reading. “I like gardening and cooking because I can make things and at least feel like I’m in complete control.”
Favorite Book: “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott
Favorite Movie: “Amelie”
Best Advice She Received: “A friend of mine who was a client once told me, ‘Never overestimate people’s knowledge or underestimate their intelligence.’ I just love that.”
Fun Fact No. 1: “I’m one of the fastest readers I know. I can even read faster than my dad, which makes him crazy because he took a speed-reading course when he was in the Army.”
Fun Fact No. 2: She likes to doodle to overcome writer’s block. “For some reason, it really helps me think.”
Follow: @alisonbdavis on Twitter
We’ve Got Questions, Alison Has Answers
Why should brevity matter for communicators?
“Too often communicators think, ‘Who cares if this email is 500 words? Who cares if the 60-minute town hall goes 70 minutes?’ You need the discipline to say we only have this much space and this much time. How much of employees’ time and attention are you going to get? It’s not unlimited. If you watch Ellen DeGeneres on TV, that show is choreographed down to the last second. It may look relaxed, but that’s a tight ship. That’s the way we have to think about internal communication.”
What’s one common area where communicators can improve employee engagement?
“The easiest place to help employees is in benefits communication. Usually, benefits enrollment is done in a traditional, HR-speak way that is very boring. But it’s actually something that people really care about and need some help. You can do something like, ‘Six steps to make the best decisions for your family.’ It’s the same content. But how you structure that content can make it infinitely more interesting, and useful.”
Why is good content so important?
“It doesn’t matter what else you’re doing if you don’t make your content more interesting, lively, and participative. You might have folks who are using Dynamic Signal but who are putting the same old stuff into this cool tool. It’s like having a really great car, and you’re not driving it properly. You need more than a better delivery system. You have to improve the content. You need better headlines. How do you make things more visual? How do you take content and make it more meaningful to people?”
How has internal communication changed?
“When I got started information, by itself, had real value because employees couldn’t get it anywhere else. We didn’t have their internet. We didn’t have email. We weren’t besieged with the sheer volume of information like we are today. Now when employees get internal communication, it’s like, ‘Stop the madness!’ There’s just too much. Many organizations should think about closing the spigot and be much more selective about what they’re providing to employees. You’ve also got to be really good to get through the clutter. Today, the real intrinsic value is in how information is packaged and delivered to people.”
Join Davis and Adam Keats, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Dynamic Signal, on Thursday, Oct. 25 at 10 a.m. Pacific Time/1 p.m. Eastern Time, for a news-you-can-use webinar about creating content that sparkles and grabs the attention of time-pressed employees.