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Write to Engage Employees

Monday, December 11, 2017
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Only about a third of U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs, according to a Gallup poll. If you’re a leader or manager, you can make a difference by writing in a way that engages employees. Whether they’re direct reports, associates, or others throughout the organization, your emails to these individuals can generate buy-in for your ideas, persuade them to take certain actions, and drive them to excellence.

Here are three ways to engage employees with your writing.

1. Lose the Attitude—Use a Productive Tone

No matter how angry you get with one or more employees, don’t use an email or a text message to cut them down to shreds or to take a subtle shot at them. Your five minutes of satisfaction won’t offset the bad feelings, lack of cooperation, and other negative consequences of your impulsive words. If you’ve got a serious issue with them, talk face-to-face or at least on the phone, where you can have meaningful back-and-forth dialogue.

Let’s say your direct report emails you an unworkable proposal for a training program. Compare the two responses below.

Subtle Put-Down
I may be missing something, but I don’t get your recommendation for a 90-minute course on capital budgeting analysis. There’s no way that’s enough time to address complex issues like risk identification and discounted cash flow. We need six hours—at least—or it’ll be a waste of time. Set up a meeting with me so we can figure out how to do this right.

Notice the condescending phrases: I may be missing something, There’s no way, a waste of time, and the topper, figure out how to do this right. You’ve made the employee feel like dirt. Here’s a better way:

Supportive
I suggest that you rethink the proposed 90-minute duration for the capital budgeting analysis training. Given the complexities of risk identification and discounted cash flow, we’ll need at least six hours to achieve the desired outcomes. Please contact me so we can review the objectives and strategies.

2. Address Readers' WIIFMs

Most leaders (and other professionals) fail miserably at persuasion because they only view the issue from their own narrow perspective. To win over others, you need to answer the question, “What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?” when “me” is the reader.

For example, if you want employees to embrace changes in the organization, this email won’t cut it because it doesn’t address their needs:

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No Regard for Employees
An organization must sometimes make changes crucial to long-term success. Effective February 1, this division will be restructuring, a move that the company sees as essential to streamline operations. As a result, many of you will need to quickly learn new roles. We are confident that you’ll all make the necessary adjustments and become comfortable with the new processes. Contact us with questions.

Let’s try again, this time addressing two employee WIIFMs—personal productivity and job satisfaction:

Speaks to Staff’s WIIFMs
To enhance the long-term success of our company—and to improve your productivity and job satisfaction—we will be restructuring this division to streamline operations, effective February 1. That means many of you will need to quickly learn new roles. We’ll be with you every step of the way, so feel free to contact us with your concerns.

3. Don’t Just Say It—Show It

Telling employees that something is so isn’t enough. After all, if you were driving on the highway and saw a billboard ad that read, “Best Thai Food in Chicago,” would you believe it? Probably not.

To write a persuasive message, you need to demonstrate your point. Compare these two emails from management trying to convince employees that their feedback is valued.

The Company Line—Unconvincing
After researching several new budgeting software programs, we’re launching the NXB system, so please start using it by March 1. Your feedback is welcomed.

Here’s how many employees would react privately: “Give me a break! I’ve got no time to learn new software!” And they’d probably consider that last sentence about welcoming feedback as corporate lip service. Here’s a better way:

Demonstrates That Feedback Is Welcomed
After researching several budgeting software programs, we believe the NXB system will reduce your data entry time by about 25 percent. Please begin using it by March 1, and let us know of any implementation problems (email the IT department with “NXB” in the subject line). This way, we can make periodic adjustments and help ensure that future software changes suit your requirements.

The second version addresses an important employee WIIFM—saving time—and explains that the company spent time researching the best software program for their needs. Plus, it offers readers a clear method (“email the IT department”) for submitting feedback.

Want to learn more about writing to engage employees? Do you have other strategies for engaging readers? Check out my new book, 10 Steps to Successful Business Writing, 2nd Edition.

About the Author
Jack Appleman, APR, CBC, is a prominent writing instructor, coach, and author who is committed to helping individuals achieve better results with their writing. He is driven by the belief that everyone can significantly improve their text by following a series of straightforward steps. Jack’s workshops, webinars, and coaching sessions have helped thousands of working professionals become more confident and proficient writers.

As principal of the Monroe, New York–based Successful Business Writing, Jack brings more than 25 years’ experience as a corporate trainer, professor, and public relations professional. He is a frequent speaker and has published several articles on the importance of good writing. He’s also contributed to several articles in the Wall Street Journal. In 2015, Jack received the Charles T. Morgan Award for lifetime excellence in corporate training from the Association for Talent Development’s Northern New Jersey chapter.

A professor since 2001, Jack teaches technical writing at Southern New Hampshire University. He received the accreditation in public relations certification from the Public Relations Society of America and the Certified Business Communicator designation from the Business Marketing Association. Jack also has a BA in communication from Ohio State University and an MS in journalism from Ohio University. He is studying for a PhD in organizational communication at the State University of New York at Albany. He can be reached on Twitter @writecoachJack and by email: jack@successfulbusinesswriting.com.
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