How to get employees engaged with boring internal comms topics

Try as we might to engage employees with human stories that inspire engagement, the truth is we’re often handed boring topics that are important for employees to understand. In these cases, it’s an internal communicator's job to make the dull interesting. So how do you do it? We asked internal communicators to share their top tips.

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From drab to dreamy: how to make boring internal comms topics interesting

The unfortunate fact is that business can be boring. Dragging employees away from their day-to-day to engage in business comms is a challenge enough in itself, so what do you do when you’re handed a story that’s so dry it should sooner be used as kindling?

It could be a new IT policy, a change to the leadership team, the roll-out of a new HR system or an update on business performance; the content matters to employees, and it’s important they understand how it will affect them, but knowing your audience as you do, you know getting the clicks you need is going to be a struggle.

In the words of British philosopher G.K. Chesterton, “There are no boring topics, only disinterested minds.” While that’s not strictly true – the introduction of a new payroll system really isn’t that inspiring – if it matters to your employees, it’s up to you to figure out how you can make them pay attention.

This topic came up in our recent ‘Ask an IC expert’ panel session at Unite 22. Recognizing how many of our attendees upvoted the question, we realized it was a topic we needed to tackle. So, here are some tried and true methods for engaging employees with topics you need them to know about, even when they’re as dry as an empty pitta bread.


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#1. Start with WHY

The first big question you need to ask yourself when that email asking you to let the workforce know that there’s a big, boring change coming is ‘why does it matter?’ Really think about this. Why do employees need to care about this change? What does it mean for them?

Let’s say there is a change to the executive leadership team. The business has brought in a new Chief Finance Officer. Generally speaking, this is unlikely to impact Anthony on the frontline, or Samantha in product development – but look deeper. Could you use this as an opportunity to create a humanizing story about who your senior leaders are beyond their titles? Who is the new Finance Officer? Did he have a previous career as a semi-pro boxer? Does he have a passion for rehoming dogs? What skills outside of finance is she or he bringing to the table that employees might be more excited about?

"If you focus on what people really need, what is it that makes that thing stand out and what is the benefit for the employee, then you will find that in every single internal initiative, there will be some way of making that meaningful to your people."

Chris Andrew - Strategy Director at Caburn Hope

If the change matters in more obvious ways to employees – as in, they are going to be immediately impacted and need to do something differently – lead with that. “A new finance officer is here to change the way we do things, and this is how it’s going to impact YOU.”

People need to know why they should read something. If the update is just that we have a new finance officer and it’s not going to impact you, but we wanted to give him a warm welcome and let you know about it – don’t waste everyone’s time writing a boring 500-word post about it, just send a short sharp notification with a link to his profile.

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#2. Next, ask who

Who really needs to know about this? Your leadership team is convinced everyone needs to know. It’s an important business change, and they want the workforce to be aligned with the transformation and informed about how this will impact their roles. If that’s the case, then we need to be direct about telling employees why this matter to them. It’s your job to do the leg work and ascertain how this impacts different employee segments and how you can best reach them with that message.

If the update is only relevant to certain employee segments – rule 101: do not send to all. When you start bombarding every employee with boring messages that really don’t matter to them you forfeit your position as ‘trusted advisor’. When employees get a message from the business (i.e. you) and waste time reading something that made zero impact, they’re less likely to pay attention in the future. It actually harms engagement in the long run. Embrace your role as custodian of information and ensure that when you send an all-company alert it really matters to everyone and you’ve taken the time to explain why.

#3. Finally, it’s how

This is where it gets interesting. Using the answers you’ve generated above; you can now use this to inform your strategy for getting the news out. How you do it will depend on how many people need to know. If it’s only relevant to some people, it’s time to ask which channels and formats they prefer. Look at your data – how do email open rates compare with Teams, Slack and intranet engagement? Are these frontline employees who prefer video content or desk-based employees that prefer articles with links to other relevant contextual information?

If it’s a big, dry all-company update, it’s time to get creative. And this is where our internal comms experts come in. We asked for their tried and tested methods for making the banal brilliant.

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Top tip #1: Embrace multi-media formats

Rosemary Jean-Louis, Vice President and Communications Engagement Manager for one of the largest IT departments  at Truist, advocates the use of new media formats for demystifying complex topics. Noting the rising popularity of podcasts, she launched a leadership podcast series designed to tackle difficult topics in a conversational way. What’s really novel about Truist’s approach is that podcast topics are often generated by employee questions and suggestions provided in after townhall surveys and skip-level meeting conversations.

“It’s been very successful for us because employees see themselves as contributing to that content,” says Rosemary.

While her department’s intranet pages on the company’s Unily employee experience platform weren’t launched yet, she anticipates that the tool’s feedback form will be instrumental in gathering employee comments.

When the company recently embraced a change in leadership, she looked to another multi-media format to explain the organizational change: an animated video.

"Because this organizational change was a bit complex, and people were having a difficult time wrapping around how it would affect them, we did an animated video where we just broke it down. I had my boss read a very basic script saying this is the new leader, this is what he's going to do, this is how it's going to affect you."

Rosemary Jean-Louis - Vice President, Communications and Engagement Manager at Truist
Leadership form

Top tip #2: It’s all about the story

Charlotte Mulliner, Director, Corporate Affairs at Prudential, also advocates for the power of executive voice for driving engagement with seemingly banal content. However, Charlotte's approach focuses on creative storytelling. One example she shares to exemplify her point comes from a recent project centered around aligning employees against a new code of conduct update:

"When you have the compliance team come knocking on the door for that code of conduct update, it's like, ‘how am I going to get this across?!’ But there is always an employee story buried within there that is worth surfacing."

Charlotte Mulliner - Director, Corporate Affairs at Prudential

Instead of delivering the code of conduct update in the traditional way, with a featured story on the intranet homepage and a host of notifications across channels, Charlotte’s team took the opportunity to create a humanizing series where leaders were asked to openly and honestly discuss the mistakes they’ve made in their careers and how they’ve learned from them.

“It was a quick-fire five questions at a leader, but it really was something that hadn't been done before, that hadn't been talked about, and it made something that could have been slightly drier be seen in a completely different light,” she explains.

Top tip #3: One size does not fit all

Internal Communications and Engagement Lead at Holland & Barrett, Marc Whittingham, offers advice for communicating the same message to different audiences. In his work at Holland and Barrett, he is charged with communicating complex messages to both corporate and frontline employees.

"We have some channels which are the same for all our audiences, like the Unily platform that we use as our intranet. But then we also have different channels, like a townhall, which just wouldn't be suitable for all of our retail colleagues at a strict point in time to come off the shop floor from serving customers to watch this 30-minute event."

Marc Whittingham - Internal Communications and Engagement Lead at Holland & Barrett

To combat this problem, Mark and his team take the time to create snippets of the townhalls that are most relevant to retail employees. His team splice up the content to create shorter videos that can be watched on-demand at a time that suits deskless employees. As a result, retail employees are able to stay up to date on the information that matters to them, without wasting time listening to corporate-focused information likely to feed a sense of disclusion.

leadership homepage

Top tip #4: Use your culture to inform your channel strategy

Chris Andrew, Strategy Director at award-winning employee communications agency Caburn Hope, believes that the channels you select can impact the way a message lands in unexpected ways.

“You know the tactics and the channels are really important. The channels that you use should reflect the culture that you're looking to create. So, social media is about openness and transparency. Or a social intranet that's mobile responsive is about being digitally forward and savvy. And that gives you an idea as to what kind of organization you are without even considering the content itself.”

Chris advocates a channel and messaging strategy that carefully considers the culture and values of your organization and leverages the appropriate channels to drive those messages home.

"If you can connect to the purpose and the values of your organization, suddenly, you're making those things relevant, not just words on a wall. It's something that is connected. You don't have to communicate as a hundred-page Word document because that is boring, but pulling out the key messages about ‘what does that mean for me as an individual?’ and ‘how do I connect with that emotionally?’ and ‘how should I change my behavior to make this a better place?’ Actually, that is important and exciting, and I'd like to think that's inspiring."

Chris Andrew - Strategy Director at Caburn Hope
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Top tip #5: drip feed, don't overwhelm

Matthew Boyd, Product Evangelist at Unily, promotes the use of a campaign mindset to deliver complex information in bite size chunks over time.

"When you're dealing with a big organizational change, it's important to take employees on that journey in a structured and measurable way, instead of bombarding employees with large amounts of information all at once."

Matthew Boyd - Product Evangelist at Unily

Taking a campaign approach allows you to build anticipation for change, and feed information to employees at a digestible pace. "What's really key to running a successful campaign," he says, "Is being clear about the objectives of the campaign from the outset."

Take, for example, the changes to the code of conduct mentioned by Charlotte above. A campaign approach would consider the actions employees need to take to tell you that they have understood the change. Starting with a featured news article that introduces the change ahead of time, moving into the video series, a 'mandatory read' could then be introduced at the time of launching the policy, followed by a quiz that tests employee's understanding of the new code and finalized by a pulse feedback survey that aims to collect employee's reactions both to the updated policy and the strategy for communicating the change.

"Taking this kind of campaign approach allows you to phase your communications, but most importantly it allows you to measure engagement at each stage."

Matthew Boyd - Product Evangelist at Unily

Unily makes delivering these kinds of multi-step, multi-channel campaigns easy by offering marketing-grade campaign-building technology that lets you plan and automate employee journeys in the same way that marketers do for consumers. Set your campaign objectives, schedule content, automate workflows that nudge employees to move through the steps, and then review your campaign metrics with a simple traffic light metric system at the end. 

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If you're inspired by the tips above, it's time to think about whether you have the right platform to support your strategy. More than ever, our employees expect to receive their communications in a way that mirrors the interactions they have with their favourite consumer brands or social platforms. If you feel like your current platform is limiting your creativity and harming employee engagement, it's time to find out what the leading employee experience platform has to offer. Social experiences, listening tools like forms and polls, multi-channel campaign building technology - it's all possible with the right platform. Discover how the world's biggest brands are transforming employee engagement with a free demo of Unily. 

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