Feeding the Face-to-Face Channel

EPISODE 61 | Guest: Ray Walsh, communications consultant & author of Localizing Employee Communications

You work hard to manage digital signage, emails, intranets and other communication channels, but you might be neglecting the most important one of all: the face-to-face channel.

In this episode, we talk with internal communications expert Ray Walsh. He gives us practical advice on how to prepare managers and team leaders to share your campaigns so that they generate buzz and word of mouth. We walk through a real-world example and how to lay the groundwork for your internal communications to make your messaging much more effective.

  • Understand why digital channels aren’t enough
  • Hear why managers and team leaders are critical to success
  • Explore why context is essential for engagement
  • Discover how to make your communications sharable
  • Find out how to be an active recipient

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Get more communications advice from Ray’s website and blog. Check out Ray’s book Localizing Employee Communications at Amazon.


Derek DeWitt: We often talk about how communications tools have become more digital, online, technological. And yet at its heart, communications is always about people, which is what it has always been. It’s very tempting to get distracted by the bells and whistles of the technological revolution we’re undergoing and forget that all of those tools are really just a support system for the most important channel for communications in any organization, whether that’s internal or between an organization and its clients and customers. And that is face-to-face communications people talking to people.

So, we’re going to talk today about tactics for going beyond the screen. And we’re here today with Ray Walsh, communications consultant and author of the book Localizing Employee Communications. Hello, Ray, how are you?

Ray Walsh: I’m fine. Thanks. How are you today?

Derek DeWitt: Excellent. Excellent. Thanks Ray, for talking to me today and thank you everybody out there for listening.

I think maybe we can start off with sort of the old way of doing things. You know, I think a lot of organizations and people in charge, they kind of got stuck somewhere in the mid noughties, and they thought, okay, email intranet, that’s modern. That’s digital. What more do I need? And that’s what they use. Right? They just go throw it up; throw an email out; throw it up on the intranet. I did my job. We’re communicating.

Ray Walsh: Right. I’m very much of the old way. I got my first corporate communications job 20 years ago. And in many ways we’re still using the same tools. In many companies, they survey this and email is still the number one communication channel used, even though very many people hate it. Internets are still widely used. But at the same time, obviously, as you just said in the introduction, we’ve got a whole new level of digital interaction that’s gonna change the way we work. That’s the promise. But I think that’s true. I think it is going to evolve the way we work quite a lot.

I assume your listener’s maybe someone like me in that they manage a channel. Maybe they manage a screen or a network of screens. And as such, it’s possible to get really committed to your channel, to your screens, to your newsletter, to your internet.

You just, you have this loving relationship with the way you’re constantly nurturing and taking care of it. But if we step back from it, and step back from our beloved channels and think about what we’re really trying to accomplish here. And very often the purpose of communication is to change behavior or just to add to their level of knowledge.

But either way, we’re living in a very fragmented, fractured media environment. And if you put that announcement into an all-company email, or you put it in your newsletter, or you put it on your screen, you’re going to reach some people, sure. But you’re not gonna reach everybody because some people are going to walk right by your screen with their face buried in their phone. So there’s this, you know, you have to think about all these different ways to reach people and all these different channels.

So, you know, we talk about multiple channel communication. So, for people who are not in a marketing or communications background, when you launch a campaign, you’re trying to be in social media and paid media and banner ads. And, you know, you’re going to do email blasts, and you’re trying to be everywhere at once to try to reach as many people as possible to get that kind of saturation. And internally we do the same thing. We try to get to all of the channels that we possibly can, whether they’re print or digital. And they’re all very important and they are worth thinking about.

But even if you’ve done all of that, if you’ve got all these different channels and you’ve put your announcement in all of them, you still probably haven’t reached everybody because the most important channel is often neglected.

And that is what we call the face-to-face channel, that personal interaction. Face-to-face obviously meant in person. We don’t have much of that these days. But even the video conference calls are still face-to-face. So it could be face-to-face with an individual, or it could be face-to-face in team meetings. But basically, whatever the initiative is, we want people talking about it. We want that buzz.

We want that water cooler conversation about the content, because (completely unscientific number here, but) I’m going to say that’s 90%. If you can get people talking about your initiative, it’s going to have some success. Whereas if you’re just in the digital channels, you’re going to reach (again, just picking a number) you’re gonna reach that 10%. Whereas the vast majority are completely unaware of what you’re trying to do.

Derek DeWitt: Because we have so much stuff coming at us all the time. And I know that most companies would like it if people would just focus on work when they’re at work, whether it’s in the office or at home. But the fact is that we’re checking our, you know, fantasy football scores, and we’re looking at the latest cat video, and checking the news, and communicating with our aunt and all these other things.

So, we have all this stuff all the time and sending out the message once, whether it’s on a digital sign or it’s an email, or whatever, it’s a physical memo that gets placed on everybody’s desk. I don’t know that that’s enough. You’ve got to reinforce the message to get it in their heads so that they are talking about it.

Ray Walsh: Right. And it’s been like this even before this digital age, you know, back when it was print memos. It was still really difficult to get people to read those things. Or not even just to read them, to remember them and to act on them. You have to motivate people to care about this content. Even if they consume it, you may not sell them on it.

So that is why we talk about multiple channels, being in as many places to really be remembered and that, so people remember to take action. But what I wanted to talk to you about today was really how do you feed that conversation? How do you get people talking about your content or your initiative, more likely? So, let’s just pick one example of an initiative.

Let’s say you are rolling out a new system for expense reimbursement. And this is actually a very real example these days, because so many companies are going through, you know, what they’re calling a digital transformation. Where data’s in the cloud and revolutionizing the way people do work. And these systems are usually, you know, they’re making people’s lives easier, but it’s a change.

And people have to change the way they’re going about doing something. Now expense reimbursement, kind of an important topic, but kind of not. Like, it’s not something you need every day. But, it is money though, in that, if I do a business trip and I spend, I don’t know, $2000 to $3000 on that trip, I want to get reimbursed as quickly as possible because that’s out of my pocket. And so, it’s kind of something that’s important, but it’s not critical to what I need to do today.

So that’s why those emails and putting it up on the sign and all that, it just may not have the impact that you think. Let’s say, I got that email and I read about the initiative, but I don’t travel that often – a couple of times a year – I’m not going to worry about it this week. But if my manager comes over and says, you need to create a travel profile and you need to do it by the end of the month for this new system that’s rolling out. Oh, Oh, okay. I didn’t catch that part because I wasn’t really paying that close attention to it.

But my manager was on top of it. My manager knew about it, and then it becomes something a little more urgent. So that’s the conversation we’re trying to inspire. That’s what we want to happen. And then when I walk by the digital sign, and then when I see that email, or maybe it’s on an enterprise social channel, then I remember, Oh, right. I’ve got that travel profile need to create before the end of the month.

Derek DeWitt: And then maybe even appreciative of the little nudges. Like, Oh, thank God they put that up because it had slipped my mind. And thank God that reminded me, Oh I have to do this.

Ray Walsh: Yeah. And then the thing, so our communication channels become more like reminders or reinforcement. I advise my clients to really think about that face-to-face, that talking, that human interaction. How do we feed that? How do we get people buzzing about our initiatives?

Derek DeWitt: And face-to-face like you said, face-to-face doesn’t necessarily mean breathing the same air. It just means people spontaneously interacting in real time with other people, whether that’s through instant messenger or Teams or a Zoom call, or what have you, or even a phone call.

Ray Walsh: Exactly. The channel is not that important. What’s important is that my manager is going to put it in a context that’s very real and very practical for me. The initiative is then going to be more relevant because my manager has, or my colleague, has provided me some background around it, some context. And I understand what it means for our team, what it means for our work. And, so for example, my manager never traveled. She wasn’t into it. She made me do all the business trips. And then occasionally we would have, I think in the years that I spent there, I think we had maybe two trips where somebody else on our team needed to travel. So in that case, I needed to figure out how do I get this travel approved and paid for, and going to their bank account for this one-off, you know, for something that’s just not used regularly.

You know, that’s the kind of context, the kind of team level context that this initiative, that’s how it hits us, meaning it’s mostly me and some other people on the team sometimes. But that kind of contextualization is really important for me to understand the initiative as a whole. And these conversations are, again, what I really advise clients to really think about, and to plan well in advance of all that digital content they’re creating.

Derek DeWitt: So that when you do put it up on the digital signs or emails and so on and so forth, you’ve already got a plan. You’re not just throwing it up going, okay, maybe that will work. Hm, well, maybe not enough people are doing it. Okay, uh, do the next thing on the list. Instead, you’ve got a whole plan.

Ray Walsh: So people think… Exactly. So people think, okay, we’re launching… So, the project team might think, okay, we’re launching this travel expense reimbursement tool on Thursday. We’ll send all the messages out on Wednesday. Uh, you can do that, but you’re going to spend a lot of time chasing people to adopt the new tool. But if you lay the groundwork verbally in advance, you can get a lot more traction.

So, what I’m talking about here is, if you’re driving that initiative, that expense reimbursement tool rollout, the very first thing I would advise in any communication plan is some kind of background or briefing for managers and team leaders. Give them the briefing, give them the talking points. This could be an all-management email. Maybe that’s the way your company does it. There may be a kind of manager portal where they’re supposed to go and get updates, but you want to provide them a background of this project.

You want to do that for two reasons. One, you’ll get my manager coming over and saying, Ray, you need to create a travel profile in this new tool by the end of the month. So, that’s one good thing that comes out of it.

But the other thing is that managers, as a rule, do not like surprises. So if you have that Thursday rollout, and on Wednesday you send out the email, and now that manager’s people are coming to them and saying, I don’t understand this, and he didn’t know anything about it. They get angry. Managers get angry by being shown up like that. So, by giving that management briefing, you’re creating less potential for conflict down the road. You basically want to explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Now.

Now here’s an area where most businesspeople really fall down. They give me a ton of what. It’s the new system and here’s the vendor. And it’s like, what’s the why? why are you doing this? And very often, there’s a really cool why. Oh, it’s going to be so much easier. If you’ve never filed for reimbursement of expenses, in a lot of companies, it’s a pain. It’s a huge, bureaucratic, so many steps. And so, these new tools are much so… Maybe the upsell is that it’s like, look, it’s going to be so much easier. It’s going to make your life easier. It’s going to make reimbursement faster. It’s good news, but you do have to take a couple of steps.

So, you want to tell them what you’re doing, but definitely tell them why. How it benefits the company, how it benefits them, and that really needs to be in that briefing.

In that briefing. I would also recommend providing talking points – just a few bulleted lines about what you want managers to be saying about this tool. And actually, if I were writing those talking points, I would say lead with the benefit. Ray, you need to fill out this travel profile because it’s going to make payments so much easier and so much faster. Oh, okay. Well now I’m sold. So be sure to give them some ways to sell this to people, not just tell them what they need to do, not just tasks that they need to take care of.

Derek DeWitt: And not just because I said so.

Ray Walsh: Exactly, exactly. I mean, you can do that. Obviously a lot of people do. But if you can tell them the why, you’ll get their buy-in, much more likely. So, you want to be clear on the benefits to the users, as well as anything, any risks to them if they ignore it. And that is, the risks here would be your payment could be delayed for your money or reimbursement.

Derek DeWitt: Months!

Ray Walsh: Well, it happens, and you don’t want that to happen generally. So, yeah. Fear’s a great motivator, but… So you want to be clear on their benefits. Be clear on any risks to them, if that’s relevant. And if you can maybe even think about that as your main communication and promoting those talking points in that briefing, I think any communication you do in digital channels subsequent to that is going to go so much more smoothly and be much more effective.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah, that’s true. And I think it’s very valuable to, like you said, to focus on that benefit thing. Because I think a lot of times managers, they confuse why with how. Like, they’ll say, so this is the new system, and this is how it works. There, I’ve done my job. And you’re like, yeah, but I still don’t care.

Ray Walsh: Right. Right, right.

Derek DeWitt: Thanks for the technical briefing. But, I don’t care.

Ray Walsh: Yeah. And that’s, you and I have talked about this before. It’s a kind of audience awareness and that’s another thing that business people don’t often do. They are so caught up in their initiative and how much money it’s going to save the company. So, they’re already sold on the importance of it, but then they forget to explain the importance to anybody else.

If you explain to me that it’s going to benefit the company and only going to benefit me a little bit, I’m still kind of sold on it. I was like, Oh, I can see that. Obviously we want the company to remain profitable. But it is thinking about what the audience’s stake in this is, is an important part of all communication. And if you can really lay that groundwork first, you’re just doing yourself a favor.

You know, you can offer an information call for managers to dial in, or team leaders to dial in and have a Q&A with you about what this means. That might be useful. But this is all preparatory work.

But once you get to the point where you’re really communicating in traditional channels – newsletters, internets – what I would recommend here is now you want to create bite-sized versions of content that compliments your overall initiative. Content that is shareable, so they can use it in enterprise social. They can put it into their presentations, make it small and easy.

So, if your travel reimbursement tool has, let’s say, five key benefits to users, maybe you have one shareable of each one of those benefits. The easier you make it to share, the more likely it will be shared. You would also want any visual assets that you have – relevant photos, graphics, infographics, anything like that – share those visual assets separately so that managers or team leads or whoever can take those assets and build them into their own presentations. This way they’re complimenting your communications initiative.

Derek DeWitt: Right. So instead of saying, Hey, here’s the whole package I’m trying to communicate with you, and I’m going to repeat it every 48 hours for two weeks. Instead, take that whole package, communicate at once in some form, and then chop it up into small pieces and use each of those as a sort of a reminder and a boost.

Ray Walsh: I think it depends on the initiative, depends on the culture of the place. And I would probably share those assets in advance so that they’re available. Say in that manager’s briefing. And explain to them what I want them to do. And that is, you know, here are some visual assets, please create content on this, on Yammer, or Workplace or our enterprise social channel, because you are an effective spokesman. Please do that.

But make those assets available to them. So then when you’re putting out your good-looking, highly-refined content, their stuff is also in the ether. Give these local managers, local business units, give them time to adapt the content and use it because people are busy and “send it on Wednesday, expected by Thursday” is just not realistic these days.

Derek DeWitt: But what do you do? I mean, there will, of course be cases where, okay, the managers have all been warned well in advance. They’ve been given a suggested timeline for communicating this stuff to their people and how they should do it and how they should drip the information out and parcel it out. But Fred here is just, whatever, he’s going through a bunch of stuff. He’s under the gun. He’s got a phenomenal amount of work to do, and he just doesn’t get around to it until that day before anyway. So you’re higher up that chain, or you’re the communications professional. How do you handle that person?

Ray Walsh: Well, it’s natural. You know, when I provide a management briefing, I’m hoping that all managers read it and act on it, but I know that they won’t. I know that not all. Some will just be distracted. Some just don’t see the relevance. But what I’m trying to do here is to get some kind of groundswell, so that if, say, some person is on a team and their manager has just dropped the ball, has just forgotten to, you know, not interested in this particular topic, that person might in talking to colleagues around the water cooler hear about, you know, did you hear about the expense reimbursement tool? It looks pretty. It looks a lot easier than the old system. No, I didn’t hear about it. What are you talking about? The buzz factor is doing two things. It’s reminding people of your initiative, but it’s also helping you get wider coverage.

You know, if we can flip this equation and think about, so the managers’/team leads’ responsibility is to help us push down information to their team members. And it’s not just push information. I want to emphasize this again. We really want those managers to contextualize and tell you why this is relevant for our team and how this impacts our work.

That contextualization is something not even the world’s best communication team can do. They cannot provide the context for each and every function in the organization. They just, they don’t have the time. They don’t have the knowledge. The managers here are really providing a service by really, let’s say call it, personalizing it to a great extent to the team level, localizing it, and making it understandable, and that word actionable. You know, making people inspired to act on it.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And the word, of course, that’s the buzzword and has been for quite some time in organizational communications is engagement. And that’s what that means is that the people are actively, they feel engaged. They feel connected to the organization, to the process, to what’s being said to them and encouraged to take action.

It’s a very active as opposed to just, Oh yeah, that’s interesting. It’s Oh, I’ve gotta, I should go do that right now. Or, I’ve got 10 minutes free, I’ll go do this. And even then, if not, it’s on their minds because they’re engaged, so it’s part of their active thinking process. So like you said, and then they’re hanging out in the break room and they go, Hey, you know, Bob, you know this thing? And they go, Oh yeah, thanks for reminding.

Ray Walsh: Right. That would be the difference between do this. Here’s a task you need to do by the end of the month, versus here’s an initiative that’s going to save the company a lot of money and going to make your life easier. Now I know the why, I’m a little more sold and I’m a little more engaged in the whole process.

It is worth talking briefly about the other side of that equation. And that’s maybe the team level employee who doesn’t get that management briefing, but maybe they’re seeing the initiative rollout. They’re seeing content around them. But if you’re, if you receive content from, say, a corporate office, or someone, some other function, and you’re expected to push it out to people or to contextualize it or to localize it in any way, there’s some things you can do to really help enable that face-to-face conversation to enable that buzz about the initiative.

So it’s important, first of all, to not be passive. Because, you may be getting a briefing that says, here’s the news, get it out, get it out by Thursday. And then maybe, if you’re used to that style, you might just be okay, that is my job. I will do it exactly as instructed. I’m encouraging you not to be passive and just ask some questions. You need to find out about this initiative. What’s the purpose? Why are we doing this? What are the goals and how are we measuring success? How will we know if we did it right? And if I can understand that background, it’s going to make me much more effective as a messenger. I may not share that information about the goals and what we’re going to measure for success, but it’s still going to make me make better decisions about how I roll it out and to who I roll it out. I have the audience awareness. If I understand the goals I can adjust.

So then just to wrap that up, I would, whoever’s giving you this task to go and share, go and disseminate, ask them for source files and the visual assets. They may not think to do that. They may be so wrapped up in their oh my God, I’ve gotta feed Yammer. Oh my God, I gotta do this presentation deck. And it’s just like, Oh, by the way, do you have these slides? Or do you have any graphs I can use? They may not think to share it, but if you ask them and remind them, you’ll be much more likely to get it.

And along those lines, if you need more time to adapt, if you need more support, say, for example, this is a video file and I don’t know how to handle it, and I really need Italian subtitles on this video and I don’t know how to do that. Ask. It may not be that they are denying you this. It may be that they just haven’t thought that it was necessary. You know, you are the advocate for your audience, and you know them best, so you need to speak up for them in these instances.

Derek DeWitt: It’s interesting, this concept of localization is like, it can be quite granular. It doesn’t just mean, you know, to a certain country or even a certain city. It can be right down to the individual person. Susie, you gotta talk to her like this, but Bob, you gotta talk to him like this because that’s the way they are and I know those people. So that’s, that’s actually a form of localization.

Ray Walsh: Absolutely correct. I wrote a book called Localizing Employee Communications. I started researching it six years ago, and I originally was interested in those aspects of language and culture. How do we adapt our communications for, you know, to cross borders? But, over time, I’ve realized, well actually, localization could be absolutely down to the individual as you just said.

You know, there’s a great deal of difference from business unit to business unit. And, the automotive practice in a consulting company may be very different than the healthcare practice in that same company. So adapting content, adapting initiatives for those practices is an act of localization. And these management briefings are, in fact, an act of localization.

Derek DeWitt: Earlier, you had said, don’t be afraid to ask. What do you mean by that specifically? Ask who?

Ray Walsh: In that instance, I meant go ahead and ask the project owner. What do they want, what do they want from you? And if they’re not giving you enough information or enough background or enough assets, you just simply need to ask for it.

And I think a lot of times, you know, because the traditional approach to communications is that we in the corporate office know everything. Go and do. Here is your packet go and disseminate. But in fact, the materials may just be inadequate. They’re just not appropriate for this market. They’re not good enough. They’re not in the local language or they may have some other problem. Or, you know, in this country, we don’t use that expense reimbursement thing. We have a completely different system. This doesn’t applied to us. It may just be incorrect or inadequate. So it’s important to speak up and not be passive. And that’s what I meant by ask for the support, ask for additional time. It’s in everyone’s interest.

Derek DeWitt: Sure, sure, sure, yeah. Of course, the communications you put out there, you want them to be accurate. You want them to be engaging. You want them to be shareable. And I think that shareable aspect is a very interesting thing. And that is something new to a certain extent, certainly when it comes to the digital platforms.

As you said before, the water cooler talk, that’s why we call it that. People don’t go to the water cooler to talk, they go there to get water. But while they’re there, they talk, they share. So we’ve always kind of done that. And so, when web 2.0 came out, allowing us to share everything, and it’s known as the social web, that was just a natural extension of the way that we interact with people anyway.

Ray Walsh: In the old days of the water cooler, we might’ve put a poster up there if people gathered there. And that’s kind of the same idea. You’re creating a kind of poster to put up around the water coolers of your virtual world.

Derek DeWitt: And that’s the thing. And now the water cooler is, it’s everywhere. Any place can be a potential water cooler.

I mean, what do you think about these systems like Teams and all the rest, these kind of gathering places for people, even though they’re physically separated, but they’re all together in this virtual space. Sometimes, throughout the day, some people just open up Teams in the morning and leave it open all day, and people come and go and come and go and come and go. And so it becomes this kind of formal and yet also informal communications channel.

Ray Walsh: I haven’t had a great deal of work with them. I’ve worked with them on a project basis. So I’ve been exposed to them for a short time. However, I have to say, I’m a fan as far as I understand it, because I’ve always hated email. The problem with email is that it’s one-to-one correspondence.

So, I write HR and I say, Hey, when are we getting that expense reimbursement tool that I heard about? Is that rolling out in Europe yet? Or is that only in the U.S.? And then HR gets that email and writes me back a response. You actually won’t get it until December. Now, that whole exchange probably cost the company, I don’t know, an hour, actually the writing of the email, and it only impacted two people. Whereas in something like Teams or some other collaboration platform, that HR person can provide that answer and maybe a dozen people see it, and that person isn’t answering 12 emails. It’s just there for everyone. So I really like much more open, especially information stuff, that Q&A stuff. I’d rather see that out there and much more public. So, I’m a fan of them generally.

And also, as a principal, I find that if people are really using it, then it’s great. If they’re not, then it’s more of an uphill struggle. So, you know, I think that these things are gonna make it much more difficult to attract employees to my old fashioned intranet. Please come read my feature article. You log into this thing and read this feature article and make time to do it. It’s always been a struggle to get people to read that article, but now I think it’s going to be even more so. So I think the challenge will be how do we communicators get the initiatives that we need to get out there? How are we going to get it in the spaces where people are actually congregating? How do we find that water cooler?

Derek DeWitt: But I think in many ways, this is, it is almost like how it would be if a bunch of people were sitting in a room and just having a chin wag about this stuff. It is kind of like that, except that we don’t have to be even physically in the same space anymore. So in many ways, I think I know a lot of people bemoan the death of, you know, the proper way to do things. And everything’s got to be bite-sized and queued, or there has to be a picture and all this. And yet, in many ways, I think that this is a more natural way of commuting.

Ray Walsh: Yeah. Yeah. I think I’m with you on that. And also what’s interesting is that I’ve been with global companies off and on for 20 years, but I’ve never had more interaction with employees in completely different continents.

I realize, I’ve been talking in very general terms about these things. And each initiative differs. Each organization differs. The range of communication tools you have at your disposal differs. So, if any of your listeners have any specific questions they’d like to ask, I would just encourage them to reach out to me on LinkedIn. I’m also on Twitter, not very actively though. But whatever works for them. If they have any questions, I am happy to talk about it with them.

Derek DeWitt: You’re just a lurker on Twitter.

Ray Walsh: That’s right.

Derek DeWitt: Ray Walsh is a communications consultant and author of the super interesting book, Localizing Employee Communications. It is not just about country to country. It’s, getting all the way down to, honestly, how we have to communicate with each other in the modern age anyway. So, you know, why not have some tips and tricks from an expert on the topic. And that’s available on Amazon and also directly from the publisher. Is it XML press?

Ray Walsh: That’s correct.

Derek DeWitt: All right. Thanks for talking to me today, Ray.

Ray Walsh: It’s been a pleasure Derek, any time.

Derek DeWitt: Thank you. And thank you everybody out there for listening.