Friday, March 06, 2009

Communication conservation

Here's a simple metric for communicators: waste.

Yesterday I helped clean out a storage closet at the office – a colleague wanted the space for a legitimate business need. Some of the stuff was mine or from projects I worked on. Some pre-dated my employment. And some was done by folks long gone from the company. 

And a ton of it was internal communications or marketing materials.

Brochures. Folders. Posters. T-shirts. Pencils and erasers. Mailers. Promotional kits. Tchotchkes. Table tents. Reminder cards. Ironically, the huge pile of trash contained several boxes of booklets and posters about a years-old recycling program. (The shirts, pencils and other useful items will not be dumped. We'll find a home for them.)

I don't know about you, but that kind of waste just makes me sick. It is just too easy to over-order printed material. The real cost is in the development and set-up – printing an extra thousand or so doesn't usually add much to the cost. Plus, we get caught up in our dreams of success. We worked hard on this launch, of course demand will be high and the project will have legs. Better get some extra shirts and brochures!

Let us all try not to succumb in the future. Let’s measure it.

I think a reasonable goal would be to land somewhere within 5 percent of demand. For every hundred people you expect to reach, you would have no more than five items left over, and no more than five people would go without. (Or would have to settle for an electronic copy, photocopy or in-house printed version of printed material.)

You may not be able to do it the first few times out, because we generally don’t count our used vs. unused material. We should. Over time, we’ll get a feel for the right amount instead of always ordering too much.

There are many benefits:

Communication benefits: One simple way to create demand is through scarcity. If only the first to arrive get the t-shirt or lanyard, people will queue up. If you’re out of brochures, it’s a great opportunity to set up a call or meeting later for some personal interaction.

Budget benefits: It’s just cheaper to order less. If you’re throwing away the extra thousand that only cost $30, it’s still $30 down the drain. Not to mention the cost of schlepping, storing and stepping over and around the overrun. And hey, how many painting shirts do you really need at home? (One tip: offset printers almost always throw in some significant number of overruns that are produced as they are fine-tuning the print job. So your order of 1000 is usually padded already.)

Measurement benefits: Doing this will make us better at gauging the real demand for our materials and measuring the participation in our events. That’s a good thing.

Career benefits: This is another one of those metrics that show your boss that you are thinking about the business and applying sound business principles in your shop. It can make you a better advisor as well.

For example, a few years ago, I was involved in a corporate-wide project that was supposed to culminate in a grand event. Now, I’m naturally cheap, and the cost of producing this event just seemed excessive to me, and I had misgivings about the funding. But I was fairly new to the company and I worked diligently with the event producers to prepare. I my opinion in the realm of low grumbling. Unfortunately, my misgivings were valid – the funding was slashed. My task was then to negotiate a kill fee with the event producers, running to many thousands of dollars. Today, I think I would work harder at providing some cost-benefit and risk analysis to my boss before embarking on a project like this.

Personal benefits: It just feels good not to waste stuff. If you don’t believe it, you haven’t tried it.

I’m sure there are people out there doing this already, and some great ideas I have not mentioned. Please share in the comments.

(Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level: 6.6 grade)

Thanks to erix!s photosteam on flickr for the photo.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not currently working in internal communication. Being outside has given me a bit of a different perspective on
the function. And guess what?

Internal communication teams should just stop what they’re doing and reinvent themselves.

Today, internal communication teams are a kind of combination of marketers and journalists operating within the company. They produce, to varying degrees, newspapers, television shows, movies, events and commercials designed to spread messages about the company. Of course, there is no wall between the advertising team and the newsroom, like at a traditional newspaper. It’s all one big advertorial.

Now, if you think of your company’s employees as a collection of consumers or households or eyeballs – like traditional media/advertisers do – then this model makes a lot of sense. Market the message internally using the stuff you would externally.

But employees don't think of internal communications the way they think of “House” or Nike commercials or the State of the Union Address. (They may think of internal comm. with equal cynicism, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) Employees don’t think of the things that surround them at work like they think of the things outside of work.

Stuff at work is either a tool to help on the job – or it’s a distraction. HR? No one thinks about it until they need to do something, like hire someone or deal with benefits. HR is a tool. IT? No one cares until the network goes down. Then, IT has value.

I'm not saying internal communication has no value. If your internal comm. team takes care of the blocking and tackling, then employees know when the holidays are and when open enrollment closes and the names of the CEO and his team. A world-class internal comm. team may run great awareness campaigns that really excite a good percentage of employees. It can help the workforce remain aware of your company’s goals, principles and history.

But often, internal comm is a distraction, not a tool. And it could be so much more. If I were running an internal communications team, I would remake it into an indispensable tool for employees.

  • I would partner with IT and make it my job to improve employees’ ability to find what they need. (And don’t tell me you already do that, through your internal home page. I mean really throw myself into it, figure out the tagging and organizational structure. Set goals, like 90 percent of searches deliver the right answer within the top five returns – like that.)
  • I would make my team the “reference librarians” for the company – the place an employee could go to learn anything or connect to anyone. Be the help desk for general knowledge.
  • I would introduce and emphasize real-time, dialog-based communications vehicles, like blogs and internal forums. I would encourage leaders to use those tools.

And then, when my team is providing services that the average employee reaches for every day, the rest of my job is a breeze.

  • I can place links, quotes and news exactly where employees will see them. Think of it like paid search your messages show up when employees use your tools.
  • I can leverage my reputation as a valuable tool to gain employees’ attention to corporate messages.
  • I don’t have to dig for news, because I’m engaged in the business. (In fact, I may be the first to know where the news is – search is a great indicator of activity.)
  • And I set a great example of business focus, responsiveness and partnering. Most employees don’t give a crap about the newsletter and town hall anyway. But they would love any effort that made it easier for them to do their jobs.

Google is doing something like this on your computer. First it made itself indispensable, then it gave advertisers access to you at the very places where you go. Internal communications teams just fail to take advantage of their incredible position inside the company. You’re inside the walls – now infiltrate the systems. Don't set your team up as a separate function, like sales or design or manufacturing. Be the thing that sales, design and manufacturing need.

It would be different. And boy, would it be measurable!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Don't dumb down

My friend Bill Pugh wrote me after my last post.

From: Bill
To: Matt

One persons perspective, writing down to lower grade levels does not improve communication. Following the advice of Strunk and White does.

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • To the point
  • Correct

It is not the grade level of the material it is the quality of the material that maters!

 -- Bill

From: Matt
To: Bill

I love Strunk and White and try to reread it every year. I always have used copies sitting around because I give them away like candy. And I think E.B. and the Professor would have no problem with readability statistics. 

I think of it like this: Clear, Concise and To the point are big Xs; readability statistics are the little Ys. Even S&W take that approach. "Principle 17: Omit needless words." "Style Approach 6: Do not overwrite." "Style Approach 14: Avoid fancy words." Readability is a metric to help measure how well you're doing in the quest for Clear, Concise and To the point. You have to do many, many other things as well. 

I'd like to do a post about this. Since you didn't post this on the blog, do you mind if I use your e-mail in a post?

 Thanks for the feedback!

- Matt

From: Bill Pugh
To: Matt

Happy to have you use my email. 

I do not agree that readability stats reflect quality of material. I also realize that I have a larger goal, that is to raise the education standards in the US. By constantly writing down we are not helping society, we are in-effect saying that no mater how little you educate yourself we can write to or below your level.  That is bad for society. We need to increase education levels, good writing should challenge the mind not stoop to the lowest common denominator.

Here is my favorite line in S&W:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

I wonder what its readability level is (my copy of word does not have the tool) - I did notice the MS highlighted a phrase as grammatically incorrect... interesting. 

-- Bill

From: Matt
To: Bill Pugh

I don't think we're far apart. It's just a tool that helps you break up run-on sentences, replace three words with one and rethink polysyllables. I can only speak from experience -- it makes me more concise. 

The quote from Strunk & White is grade level is 11.4; readability is just under 50. Your own writing is at 9.7 and 54.9. Do as you say, or do as you do? 

It is also absolutely true that some sections of a piece of writing may be at a high level, and some at a lower one. Please remember that I'm talking about internal communications here, not fiction or essays. How does a communicator make sure that the message can be -- at least -- understood by the many different people in a company that will read it? At RRD, I owed it to the folks on the shop floor to write in a way that was easy to understand. It is not dumbing down. It's disciplined writing. 

- Matt

From: Bill Pugh
To: Matt

Likely not. 

I did miss the key point to all communication "to be understood".  Interesting that with no editing etc I write at 9.7... I wonder if after editing my stuff goes up or down.

Have a great weekend.

-- Bill

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

My favorite metric (and if you snooze, you loose...)

For more than two months I've been saying to myself, "Matt, you have never really written about readability statistics! You should do that!" Readability has become my one indispensable communication metric. I was dying to share it with others.

But I procrastinated. And wouldn't you know it, someone else wrote my post.

Steve Crescenzo ( published a long interview two days ago on with Michael Runzler. Runzler is Intuit’s senior manager of editorial services and executive communications. The post, titled “Can you measure your company’s writing,” explains a system that uses the same tools I use. Damn. (Here’s a link to the article. However, you have to be a member to read these after a few days.)

Anyway, here’s what I would have written:

Like many communicators, I do a little of everything. I do some design work. I shoot and edit video. I produce presentations and town halls.

But mostly, I write. And since writing is my primary output, measuring its quality is important. And I need to be monitored for quality! Writing can be boring and repetitive, which leads to all kinds of excesses. Ten-dollar words, elaborate sentences, jargon – you name it.

Luckily, I discovered readability statistics. It's a tool for measuring readability that resides right inside Microsoft Word. You can run it when you spell check. What could be easier?

The tool scores writing in two ways – from 0 to 100, and by grade level. I’ve learned that any score under 50 means the writing is too complex. I also shoot for a low grade level. I rewrite to keep mine under grade 10 if possible. (Certain proper names or technical terms drive up your grade levels if the phrases are very long.) If I can write to a sixth-grade level I’m delighted.

The tool uses the Flesch Reading Ease Test and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Levels, named for the inventors. The primary metrics are sentence and word length. Short sentences and short words equal high readability scores. The tool also measures passive sentences by percentage. There is a place for passive, but in my book, that place is under 10 percent.

You can also take advantage of a slew of settings that will flag your writing for jargon, capitalization, misused words, clichés -- a whole host of options. Use at your own risk as it can get rather naggy at times.

Here’s how to use MS Word Readability Statistics:
  • First, turn on the function. In MS Word, go to Tools>Options>Spelling & Grammar> and check the box marked “Show readability statistics.”
  • Check Spelling and Grammar. Readability will now display when you check spelling and grammar. Go to Tools>Spelling and Grammar or simply hit F7.

  • Tip 1 You can select any part of a document and check it separately. That way, you can identify a problem area. For example, you can check paragraph by paragraph (or even sentence by sentence) to find passive sentences or sentences that are overly complex.
  • Tip 2 To improve your scores, shorten sentences or break them in two. Use short words in place of long words.
I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon. I know how to write. But for the past five or six years, I’ve use this tool on just about everything I write for business. It’s humbling to say, but it’s made me a much better writer.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Is your message getting through, Benny Lava?

This video -- which I first viewed on the Fake Steve blog -- is a great object lesson for communicators. Is the message you're sending getting through? Or are viewers making their own interpretations?

Plus, it's hilarious.

Monday, June 02, 2008

External vs. internal measurement

It’s a good external measurement. Does that make it a good internal measurement? A recent post, white paper and comment has me wondering.

I recently wrote about the possibility of using a kind of net promoter metric internally. Reader Mariana – bless her commenting heart! – wrote to say she was going to give it a try. I also think it has promise, and I want to try it too.

However, last week I read a great paper from the Corporate Executive Board that takes some air out of net promoter as a measure of consumer service and support. (The Corporate Executive Board is a terrific source of ideas. Be sure to ask if your company has a membership and get access to its resources.)

So, regarding consumer service and net promoter (NPS). The study first addresses loyalty. It maintains that promoters don’t necessarily stay, and detractors don’t necessarily leave. What does count in consumer service and support loyalty is how easy you make it for the consumer. Measure consumer effort instead of satisfaction or likelihood to recommend. It’s a better predictor of customer financial behavior.

The paper also says, concerning support, that "NPS® is an inadequate metric in the service channel for two reasons:

  • "The survey question is inherently positive, as it only considers likelihood to recommend (not criticize).
  • "It also captures company-level sentiment regarding product, pricing, and brand reputation, which limits its actionability within the contact center."

Now, do these issues mean NPS is not suited for internal use? I’d say no. It’s still a useful metric – a way to look at your net impact. It may have the added value of being familiar to your business-focused bosses. That makes it easier to communicate upward.

At the same time, it’s always good to be aware of any weaknesses in your metrics, and address them. Let’s make sure we measure the likelihood to criticize. And let’s make our net promoter questions specific enough to be actionable, vs. “would you recommend internal communications?”

Thanks to dogra on for the photo.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

54 / 365 Originally uploaded by ardella
Your best self

"In my experience there's nothing inherently distant about good writing, and nothing essentially intimate about face-to-face meetings."

I posted that on a Ragan blog late last year on the topic of written vs. in-person communications. Communication blogger David Murray posted it on his blog, which sparked quite a discussion.

You can read it here.

I know this post is old news, but I was Googling myself and it popped up...

Also, I see that David is moving on from his current role.