How to Communicate Complex Info to a Distracted World

By Paul Bergeron September 10, 2021
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How to Communicate Complex Info to a Distracted World

​LAS VEGAS — If only an HR team could give an all-staff presentation about a 20 percent hike in employee insurance premiums—its first increase in two years—and not receive a single complaint from the audience afterward. Or, at least, no complaints about how the information was presented.

Karl James Ahlrichs, SHRM-SCP, senior consultant at Indianapolis-based Gregory & Appel Insurance, offered tips and guidance at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021 on how HR managers can grab the attention of their audience (whether that's the company's workforce or the C-suite) and get their messages across effectively.

The example at the beginning of this article actually happened. Ahlrichs said the HR team determined the average age of the workers (28), did some consumer-interest research on that demographic, and determined that the Marvel comic books and movies had great appeal. So the HR team dressed the part with fun costumes when delivering the information and decorated their printed materials in loud colors and graphics like a comic book. It worked.

You Have Six Seconds to Make Your Point

Ahlrichs addressed challenges in communicating that have resulted from people's ever-shrinking attention spans. Now, he said, speakers have six seconds to reach their audiences, down from six minutes pre-pandemic and 30 seconds when the country shut down from the public health crisis back on March 13, 2020.

He also spoke of how to take a voluminous mound of information and condense it to satisfy a distracted and impatient audience.

"The Affordable Care Act happened [it was roughly 20,000 pages long], and I offered to the C-suite a chance to hear an explanation of it in 30 seconds or less, and I pulled it off," he said. "So, for HR teams today, you should be able to explain your vaccine and mask policy in 15 seconds."

As another example, he said that if a company is offering an employee benefit that is hardly being used, HR needs to "find a better way to communicate what it's about."

A sound approach is to rely on the classic inverted pyramid format of communication that journalists do, according to Ahlrichs. That format gives the most important information first. "Details are great, but only offer those when the audience is interested in learning more," he said. "Give the 'punchline' first."

If you're communicating via e-mail, include that punchline in the subject line, he advised. "Why use a subject line like 'Information about your benefits' when it can read '[fill in blank] changed in our benefits plan'?"

Another tip: Always frame information with a primary focus on what's in it for the recipients of the information, Ahlrichs said. "They want to know how that product is going to help them. If you save that vital piece of information until the last page, you'll have already lost them."

When answering questions, he added, using "Yes, and" is a much better phrase than "Yes, but" because the latter has a negative connotation and dissuades the audience from continuing to listen.

Varying Channels Is a Winning Strategy

Ahlrichs defined communications not as "having a two-way conversation" but rather "having your message received in the way you intended."

As well-known critic George Bernard Shaw said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it took place."

Ahlrichs advised HR professionals to vary their communication channels and to make use of all of them, as appropriate. He noted that there has been a rise in the use of QR codes and video now that most people use smartphones, and "we're all used to Zoom now, so there's no excuse not to offer it."

He even suggested sending postcards through the U.S. mail so that spouses and partners can see your communications, too.

As for brochures, Ahlrichs encouraged HR professionals to lean on the company's marketing department to "brighten up" and "make pretty" fliers or pamphlets that are being created. Remember, he said, approximately 75 percent of employees spend less than 30 minutes reviewing their benefits package brochure.

That So-Important Question

Having personal communications with your supervisors or C-suite is critical. Ahlrichs suggested that the most important question to ask is, "Is there something I should know about?"

He said doing so helps to build trust because it shows "you are connected to them and want to listen and therefore can be trusted. And if they don't have anything to share, they at least know there's an open door for communication later."

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.

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