Take a shortcut to your employees’ good intentions

When numbers you can count don’t match results you see…why?  Busy brains.

Why didn’t more people show up? A communication colleague invited about a thousand employees, and hundreds appeared interested, but only 30 came to the special event. Another asked, what is the click-through rate on your e-newsletter content? How can I do better than an average 20 percent?

My standard answer had been something along these lines. If only 30 people read my content—in whatever channel—I was happy…if they talked about it with their co-workers. Retelling a story or sharing a fact in conversation will reinforce my formal communication effort. If readers talk to 20 percent of their friends, the message spreads fast and with personal significance. You see, people who do take time to absorb internal content are also the kind of people who likely value being informed. And, they like others to recognize it in them. So they talk about what they know.

When the numbers we can count don’t show the results we seek, we want to know what we can do differently next time.  You may know 20 percent clicked through on email content, but then how many people learned about the news in workplace conversations?

Know this. It’s not you; it’s them. So says Bob Nease, author of “The Power of Fifty Bits.” The book’s premise is that “our brains are wired for inattention and inertia, not for attention and choice.” We may think that everyone has an appetite for employee communication, like we do, of course. In fact, while a brain absorbs about ten million bits of input at a time through all the senses, it can only consciously process about fifty bits per second.

People might want pay attention to your communication and act on it. To overcome the intent-behavior gap, some communicators cajole. Persuasive writing is a skill they hone. “Instead,” Nease suggests, “start focusing on strategies that activate the good intentions that already exist in most people.”

Nease explains that fifty bits design is built on three shortcuts to the brain. We can take advantage of them with thoughtful communication planning and positioning. People want to:

  • Fit in. Humans are tuned in to violations of social norms and contracts, because we value fairness.
  • Avoid loss. People tend to work harder to avoid losses than to pursue gains, and for that, they look for a relative reference point.
  • Reward now. When any reward is close to the present, it offers the brain the greatest psychological payoff. Loss or discomfort pushed far into the future is easy for the brain to discount.

Nease’s book is worth putting your 50 bits toward so you understand his user-centered design examples. Another source of ideas for communication that resonates with employees is my “Give Voice To What Unites Us” at this shortcut: bitly.com/give-voice