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0606 HR Magazine: Now Hear This

By Lin Grensing-Pophal  6/1/2006

HR Magazine, June 2006

Vol. 51, No. 6

Before you take the stage during open enrollment to tell employees about their health benefits, shape your message carefully.

Booklets and packets are useful tools for telling employees about health coverage options at open enrollment, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the spoken word.

Kimberlie England is one of several experts who cite the effectiveness of oral presentations in setting out benefits for employees. Live meetings give employees a chance to ask questions about the material, and other meeting attendees can learn from questions that are asked, says England, a managing consultant and national practice leader in communications in the Toledo, Ohio, office of the Findley Davies HR consulting firm.

While all benefits deserve clear, accurate communication, health benefits in particular require first-rate presentations to employees. As health options become costlier and more complex, there’s more at stake for employers as well as employees in making sure that workers understand their options and make smart choices.

Deciding on health plans when two or more types of coverage are offered can be difficult and stressful for employees. If the communication isn’t first-rate, it can backfire on HR professionals when they have to explain over and over the facts and options they thought were clear from the outset.

Shaping the benefit messages to be conveyed to employees in group settings and question-and-answer sessions is a distinctly separate exercise from preparing the written materials to be sent to employees in open enrollment packets. (For experts views on how to give employees the written word, see Writing for Open Enrollment.)

To prepare for the give-and-take of an oral presentation, experts say, you not only should determine what employees need to know and want to know but also should prepare for their concerns and questions. You should adopt tactics to keep your audience involved, and you should consider the follow-up. Some experts say you should equip managers and supervisors with information to answer employees questions and help reinforce your message after the presentation is over.

Before You Take the Floor

As you prepare to stand before an audience of employees to explain health benefits for the coming year, determine the issues of most concern to them so you can address their needs, says HR consultant Catherine Dovey, SPHR, with Dovey HR Strategies in Seattle.

What employees most want to know is what’s in it for them, says Chuck Bean, president and principal at Baxter Bean, a training and strategic planning firm in Calgary, Alberta. Bean, whose firm helps businesspeople improve their presentation skills, says HR communicators need to avoid what he calls the Charlie Brown effect listeners, like the Peanuts cartoon characters, hearing only blah, blah, blah. Instead, HR needs to deliver messages that show employees exactly what they get from changes in benefits.

Rena Lane, senior manager, benefits and payroll, for Aflac, an insurance company based in Columbus, Ga., says, It’s important that employees understand why were making a change and what they can get in the way of enhanced services because of the change.

Starting with some broad background and perspective for what you’re about to say can be especially useful if your main message includes forthcoming changes in health coverage, says M.J. Burg, vice president of product innovation for CIGNA HealthCare in Chicago. Burg says, It helps to talk about the impact a little bit and about why the decision was made.

Burg recommends beginning with a broad overview of what’s about to be changed, a description of what’s new, some comparisons, how employees will be affected, whether other benefits may be impacted and, ultimately, what you want employees to do.

It’s very helpful for people to get grounded in the elements they need to know and understand in order to make the right decisions, Burg says, and what they actually need to do to make it happen.

Dovey suggests bringing in outside information about what’s happening in the world at large how much health care costs have gone up in the past five years, trends in the company’s industry and in the region, what the adjustments will be, and what employees coverage would look like if no adjustments are made. Such outside information is available from a variety of sources, including health plan providers and consultants, data compiled by federal agencies, and research by industry-specific trade associations.

Polishing the Script

To help you shape your presentation so that you stay focused, your audience stays with you, and you’re able to track questions and concerns that emerge from the group, HR practitioners and consultants specializing in presentations offer a number of tips:

  • Watch the clock. Generally, open enrollment meetings should be scheduled for 30 to 40 minutes of presentation and 20 to 30 minutes of questions and answers, England says.

Research shows that audience attention starts to slip after about 18 minutes, says Carmine Gallo, a communications coach and author of 10 Simple Secrets of the Worlds Greatest Business Communicators (Sourcebooks, 2005). So presenters should consider breaking up their presentations into sections of 15 to 20 minutes each. Change up your presentation by dividing people into groups for a discussion or doing something interactive, Gallo says. I’ve seen too many presentations where the audience is absolutely engaged for the first 15 minutes, but after an hour they’re ready to toss the speaker out the window.

  • Work in a team. Burg recommends tag-teaming during the presentation, assigning one person to present and another to take notes and record questions, keep track of areas for follow-up, and take responsibility for providing answers later.
  • Hold off on the handouts. We don’t recommend distribution of materials during a presentation because it takes the eye off the conversation and people will try to read ahead, Bean says. When they’re reading ahead, he says, they’re missing the message.

Yet Bean says there’s an exception. Distributing materials strategically during the session can help encourage participation, he says.

For example, you might provide a handout on some element of the program, give the group time to read the material, and then offer discussion questions to stimulate employees to interact and ask their own questions. (For more on the use of materials in a presentation, see The Writing on the Screen.)

  • Think ahead about Q&As. The question-and-answer session can strike fear into the most seasoned speaker. Bean recommends gathering questions up front. If the group isn’t too large, go around the room at the start of the meeting and ask each person to come up with a question to get them all out in the open. Many questions may be answered during the presentation. Those that aren’t answered should be addressed, even if it means saying, I don’t have the answer to that now, but I will do some research and get back to you. (If you go this route, specify a date by which you will respond.)

It’s always a good idea to capture all the questions that were asked at presentations, England says. The questions can then be assembled into a follow-up communication that can be sent to all employees so everyone has access to the same information. The questions can also be useful in preparing other presentations in the current season and even for shaping next years presentations.

Rehearsals and Follow-Up

Once you’ve formulated the presentation, Dovey says, try it out on employee test groups. Because we in HR deal with [benefit terms and provisions] all the time, we forget that some of the terminology is confusing or that what we think is a really great deal may not be perceived that way by others.

Getting the bugs worked out with a small cadre of informal leaders or trusted individuals can give you some clear feedback about how to make the messages crisper and more on point.

Informal leaders can include managers, union representatives and longtime employees. Also, employees who complain often about health care costs and benefit plan structure can be useful if sometimes painful sources of input. Such employees can be identified by managers or can be those known to make suggestions and raise questions often or to post comments frequently on the company intranet.

Dovey, who often speaks to employee groups on compensation matters, says, What I’ve found to be successful is gathering information through focus groups or surveys. Focus group participants would be a few employees targeted for the presentations. They would listen to the draft presentation and respond with feedback, identify additional questions, and point out areas that were confusing or not sufficiently informative.

Moreover, employees involved in such groups can later serve a role in helping to deliver the messages to their peers. They already have credibility with their peers, Dovey says, so its not just management coming down on high with the right answers.

Targeted Sessions

If you have a different message for different audiences, you may want to consider holding separate sessions for specific groups, England says. For example, if you’re making a change to a retiree health care benefit but not all employees are eligible for that benefit, you would want to hold targeted meetings for only those who will be affected, she says.

Noting that benefit presentations are usually made to a more generic, all-employee audience, John Finney, a benefits communication consultant with Watson Wyatt in Detroit, cautions that it can be logistically cumbersome to schedule multiple presentations to subsets of employees.

One way to address the needs of particular employee groups, Finney says, is to provide supplemental materials containing examples of how employees in given situations in a certain age range, for example, or with a particular marital status make decisions about their coverage.

Another approach is the one adopted by the Timken Co., a Canton, Ohio, manufacturer of bearings and steel products. Matt Evans, the company’s organizational advancement principal, says, We’ve empowered our managers to take the communication we’ve developed and tailor it to their audiences. In turn, managers may hold separate meetings for salaried and hourly associates, and they are offered suggestions on how the material might be customized for their particular audiences.

Enlisting Crucial Allies

Enabling supervisors and managers to carry your health benefits message deeper into the organization as Timken does can be an effective follow-up to your presentation.

Managers and supervisors are undeniably important for conveying and supporting the benefits message, yet these potential allies sometimes are overlooked by HR, Burg says. Even though HR people know the specifics of the benefit plan, employees really have their most trusted relationship in the workforce with their direct managers and supervisors, she says.

How those supervisors react to benefit plan changes, she continues, has a huge impact on how the average employee is going to accept and receive the information.

Bean sees the manager as the mentor or the captain among employees, an influential figure for supporting and reinforcing HR’s message.

For their role as sounding boards, he continues, managers should be armed with the appropriate responses to questions and provided with background, training and support from HR.

When site managers and supervisory staff members are involved, HR has to plan to train them, Burg says. It’s always preferable if you can bring them together for some face-to-face training, she says, but a teleconferenced coaching session is another option. Managers and supervisors, she says, need to have an opportunity to ask their own questions, to allow you to gauge their level of understanding and, frankly, to practice giving the presentation.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002) and is director of corporate communications at Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, Wis.

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The Writing on the Screen  

Giving effective oral presentations that involve detailed data and instructions as benefit presentations often do can be easier if you fire up some presentation software and let the slides do the talking.

But remember: The audience is there to listen to the presenter not to read PowerPoint slides, warns Kimberlie England, managing consultant and a national practice leader of Findley Davies communication solutions consulting practice in Toledo, Ohio.

Effective presenters use PowerPoint as a tool and a means of helping the audience understand the material better, not as a substitute for content, England says. Some common PowerPoint mistakes she sees:

  • Using full sentences instead of easier-to-read bullet points.
  • Making the text too small. Some experts recommend a six-by-six guideline six words in each bullet point and six bullet points per slide, England says.
  • Choosing items that compete with the message. England cautions against overusing animation or graphics. Animation can often be distracting to an audience, she says. Graphics should be used if they complement the presenters ideas, but there’s no need to add clip art just too jazz things up.

The best presentations use a variety of presenters, England says, and technology can play an important role. One approach, for example, is to start with an introduction by a senior staff member such as the HR vice president, the CEO or the CFO, followed by a consultant or subject specialist who describes the benefit plan design or plan changes, and ending with questions.

The CEO segment could be pre-recorded and shown at each meeting, England says, or a DVD could be created to handle all the technical changes to ensure they’re presented consistently. You can also use webcasting and [local supervisors and managers] to ensure that all employees have access to the presentation.