Best Practice

Why Creativity Matters in Employee Communications

I am an idea person. I just can’t help myself. In my uncontrollable urge to stray from the ordinary, I have found that creativity can and should play an important part in internal communication.

Internal communication is serious stuff. It is focused more than ever on providing value and a solid contribution to business results. I believe that coming up with creative solutions is just how to accomplish this.

Why creativity gets results

Neuroscience is the understanding of the biological basis of learning, memory, behavior, perception, and consciousness. There is growing evidence from this field of study that creativity helps us capture people’s attention and makes ideas stick.

For instance, the human brain is designed to look for changes in patterns. In Seth Godin’s book, The Purple Cow, he writes about a trip to France where his family was ‘enchanted’ by the cows grazing in fields as they drove by – but after twenty minutes the cows became common-place and no longer attracted any attention. Godin muses that seeing a purple cow in a field would be remarkable because it would be very different.

The lesson here is that creating internal communication that breaks free of the ordinary will get noticed.

“Success comes from standing out. Not fitting in.”
— Don Draper, Mad Men

Much of our work as internal communicators is designed to get people to take action: to change behavior, to become involved in an activity, or to focus energy in a particular way. Research shows that to get people to act, they need to care.

And to get people to care, you need to tap into their emotions. Using self-interest, appealing to identity and making an association are all creative ways to use emotion when delivering internal communication. So don’t be afraid of appealing to powerful human emotions such as empathy, ambition, or belonging in your next internal campaign.

I once worked with a military organization on a project related to official languages. What self-respecting soldier would care about learning both French and English when there are terrorists to fight? Turns out they do care when you use a creative approach that appeals to their military identity.

This military identity includes values such as professionalism and respect, so I used a human-centered approach that focused on treating people with respect.

We developed a creative identity that showed diverse people working together (military and civilian) and we connected with their emotions using a video that had a series of vignettes that showed the real human cost when people couldn’t use the language of their choice. In one scene, we had a young mother with two busy children in tow visiting a military family resource center.

Her husband had just been posted to a military base where she did not understand the primary language spoken. She was stressed and overwhelmed by this change and was looking for help and support. The scene helped to drive home the importance of one element of the official language program that provided help for military families. 

Storytelling is also a great creative approach to getting your message across. And it turns out — it achieves even more! Our brains react very differently to stories. First, stories are 22 times more memorable than facts. But the power of stories goes beyond being memorable.

Research shows that stories are great teaching tools because they provide wisdom and important clues about what actions and behaviors work in a certain situation. Think of Aesop’s Fables or more modern fairy tales — these are stories that provide children with knowledge about how to act and the motivation to do so.

Science has shown that when people hear a story, they become involved in what is happening and this creates mental stimulation – so stories are effectively like flight simulators for the brain. (Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath, Random House). 

Science proves what many of us instinctively know – to capture our audiences deep and undivided attention, new and different approaches that move internal communication from the bland and boring to the meaningful and memorable are essential. 

Let’s get creative!

The question then becomes, how do we inject creativity without losing our credibility and coming across as less than genuine?

The answer is simple – always start with strategy. Exceptional and creative internal communications must start with your internal communication strategy. No matter how amazing your idea is, if it is not based on strategy then you will not achieve results. Once you have a great strategy with clear goals and a solid understanding of what makes your audience tick, you can start to have some fun. 

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
— Albert Einstein

Put effort into your content. Treat employee’s time like the precious resource it is and take some time to get your material right. Start with your writing style. Words matter and your style or voice can make a big difference.

As long as your style is consistent with your culture and aligned with your values, there should be room for some playfulness or fun. Even using a meaningful quote or a story can elevate your writing.

Next, add meaningful images, an infographic or get a graphic designer to improve the layout of your work. Visual elements can anchor your message, attract visual learners,  and can also add an element of fun.  

Think beyond messages and content and reimagine your channels and tactics. Introduce new channels such as podcasts or a mobile app, or reinvent the ones you have with some fresh thinking and a new approach.

The important thing to remember is to use strategy and the data and metrics you have as your guide. I’ve often found that these tell me whether a channel needs to be reinvented or abandoned altogether. 

I once worked on a project related to sustainable and responsible business where one of our tactics was to refresh the Corporate Social Responsibility intranet portal. We wanted to use the site to educate the rest of the organization about the importance of being a good corporate citizen but their intranet site was poorly organized and visually unappealing.

Our data told us this was the right channel and once we created richer, more creative and engaging content that was organized around the user and made it more visually appealing, the traffic to the site increased by 700%.

This not only told us that we used the right channel, but it was also a good indication that employees had a high level of interest in sustainable and responsible business and we began exploring other ways of educating them. 

If it is appropriate – have fun. I find that celebrations or special events are often a great time to use a lighter and more playful approach. Having some fun at work shouldn’t be a crime. Using some humor and a lighter approach is especially useful with communications from leaders – when used at the right moments and situations, it makes them human and relatable.

Remember, ideas are free! I believe that innovative solutions are just what you need to overcome limitations and constraints such as a very limited budget.

I worked with a client and we only had one channel we could use to communicate with an employee base of 27,000. We had important messages about a major technology change that everyone needed to be aware of. We used creativity to make sure our messages stood out from the crowd and it worked!

Moving from Vanilla to Mint Chocolate Chip

We’ve all seen it – there are many instances of organizations trying to be too clever and then it backfires. I am sure that is why many organizations stick to vanilla – because it is safe. So here are my tips for using creativity appropriately.

Be sensitive to diverse perspectives.  I recently received an invitation to an event from an organization and it included a trendy acronym. I am sure my 18-year-old daughter knew what it meant, but I had no idea.

I felt like the invitation wasn’t for me because I wasn’t plugged into the cool language and my initial reaction was that I wouldn’t belong at the event. When you are communicating with a diverse audience, make sure your innovative approach will resonate with everyone by testing it on a variety of people.

Don’t go overboard! Remember that one purple cow will attract attention but if you paint all of the cows purple, they will stop being memorable.

Your best guide is to be in tune with your corporate culture and to measure and monitor what communication is working and what is not.

The impact of a creative idea

I’d like to share a story about one of my ideas and how it made a meaningful and lasting impact. I was involved in planning a company’s 50th-anniversary celebration and my boss suggested we have a plaque placed in the lobby of the building.

I thought bigger. My idea was to create a sculpture or some type of art. I found out our city had a public art program and we got a small team of interested employees to be a part of the project.

We put out a call for submissions and ended up selecting an amazing artist with a fantastic idea.

The company processed radioisotopes for health and life sciences purposes and the artist’s concept included two ‘sighting structures’ constructed of various scientific instruments. These sighting instruments would be located on the front steps of the building and would look out at a large granite sphere.

The sphere would be imprinted with 50 hands bearing symbols from many fields including medicine, engineering, nature, and the community.  The symbols and actual handprints came from employees who were asked to submit their ideas.

The project generated a year’s worth of excitement and many employees submitted their handprints giving us wonderful insight into the amount of pride and the level of connection people had in their employer.  One of my favorite submissions was from an engineer who submitted his handprint with the hand of his child sheltered inside. His explanation of the symbol was as follows:

“This symbol represents the many values important to the company: the belief that people are important, trust, safety and security. Children are our future and our company believes in tomorrow.”

There is a growing recognition that internal communication is the foundation of corporate culture and critical to employee engagement.

As leaders everywhere increasingly turn to turn to us for solutions to the complex business issues they face, my hope (and my challenge to all) is that we solve these problems in innovative and imaginative ways, and continue to develop relevant yet novel solutions that capture the hearts and minds of employees – ultimately building fulfilling workplaces and organizations that flourish.

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