Complexity creeps in

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Words, words everywhere, but not a thought to think.

No one starts a communication project by saying: Let’s add in as much detail as possible and see how much we can confuse people! But things so often turn out that way. Why?

It happens for a lot of reasons, even with the best of intentions driving the strategy. An aspect of human nature called “complexity bias” is partly to blame. We tend to think that the most complex solution must be the best. So we cram as much technical information into our communications as we can, because we think it’s what works and what people want. We add superfluous detail and instructions. We make sure that every scintilla of compliance information is included. We do it even when that information is available online, where it doesn’t get in the way of the key messages.

Another culprit in the cancerous growth of words is the review process. Everyone who looks at a draft has their own favorite bit of content that they want added, and they’ll do their best to stuff it in there. Left to its own devices, the word count will grow and grow. 

So review has to happen within guidelines. Ask reviewers to assess for accuracy only. You have to be tactful, of course. Let them know if they have thoughts beyond the accuracy of the piece they reviewing, you’ll consider them, but the goal is to have concise messaging.

Another common issue is one of my pet peeves: screenshots of enrollment pages. Screenshots take up a lot of space and can add confusion instead of clarity. If it is not clear what to do on the enrollment site, fix the site! Don’t bog the communications down with pictures of pages that people will see when they get there. The website should be intuitive – no screen shots needed.

I always ask this question: Will adding a piece of content generate more questions than it answers? If the answer is yes, leave it out. And the answer is often yes.

People react to simplicity. But you have to look beyond the communications describing a program or process. Assess the whole experience you are asking employees to go through. The enrollment mechanics. The plan design. The number of options available. Are you asking people to go through too many hoops to, for example, earn a wellness reward? 

Great communicators don’t just look at a bad situation and try to work around it. They have to point out program and enrollment weaknesses and adapt and improve the things they can before rolling it out to employees.

I encourage people in the HR world to look at the advertising all around us. Look at how complex topics are simplified down to key messages that draw audiences in. Even serious topics like auto and home insurance can be made entertaining and educational at the same time.

You won’t have the multimillion dollar budgets that the ad firms have to get your message across, but you can be inspired. Strive for incredible and land as close as possible.

– Glenn Bonci

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