By Hayley van der Woude, MD, Irvine Partners
In 1950, the mathematician and World War II code breaker Alan Turing came up with the Turing Test, originally called The Imitation Game. The test, popularly seen as a yardstick for the advancement of artificial intelligence, posits that if a human evaluator believes that text produced by a machine was produced by a human, then the machine wins.
The interesting thing is that humans sometimes fail the Turing Test, with other people assuming that their written communication is the product of a machine. While exact statistics are hard to come by, it’s worth noting that the phenomenon occurs frequently enough to have a name: the Confederate effect. And when researchers have tried to identify the common factors in the kind of human-based communication that people think is written by machines, they’ve found that it’s typically guarded, humourless, and uninformed.
So, what’s that got to do with employee communications? I mean, chances are that if your staff receive a company-wide email from the desk of the CEO or MD, they’re not going to immediately assume that it’s been written by a machine (unless you’ve been getting heavily into ChatGPT). Well, if you take the opposite of the communication qualities that make people mistake humans for machines, then you have the foundations for a good employee communication plan.
So for starters, your employee communication should be open and transparent rather than guarded. That makes sense. You, and your company, have relationships with your employees. And for any relationship to really be functional, open communication is critical.
Think about your friendships. If you found out that one of your friends was hiding something from you, even if it didn’t affect you directly, it would affect your relationship. Chances are you’d feel like you couldn’t tell them everything happening in your life and you’d become more guarded. Your friendship, in other words, would suffer.
The same is true with employees. It will affect their relationship with the organisation if they find out that company leadership hasn’t been open and transparent with them. Over time, they’ll probably become less engaged and productive and may even start looking for employment elsewhere. If you want your team members to own their roles, you need to empower them through honesty.
This was underscored by a recent Irvine Partners town hall meeting reflecting on 2022 and outlining plans for 2023. In the post-session feedback form, a number of team members said they appreciated the fact that it was “authentic” and “transparent”. Obviously, you can’t share sensitive information that affects other employees, but you can be upfront about the company’s position — and your team deserves to hear that.
The joke’s on you
Ensuring that your communication includes humour (when appropriate) takes a little more nuance. You can’t force it. If you do, you’ll start to look like the person who writes the terrible jokes that come in Christmas crackers. The style of humour you adopt has to be authentically yours if you want to show that you’re connecting with your team members as humans rather than just employees.
There’s also nothing worse than a manager who tries to connect based on an insight into someone’s character when that insight is entirely shallow. We’ve probably all seen a cringe-worthy example of trying to have a laugh with someone on the basis of knowing them when you haven’t taken the time to really listen to what they’re saying.
Make sure to keep your material fresh too. Stale engagement is the result of not having a genuine connection, for example when you only really have one significant bond or memory with a team member so you keep going back to that. It gets old really quickly. Put in the effort to ensure your references have the depth or your team will (rightfully) see straight through you.
Know your onions
Finally, your employee communication should be informed. That means you need to show that you not only understand the broader shifts and changes in your company’s sector but also within the wider world. More than that, though, you need to show that you understand how those external issues will impact your organisation and your employees. Doing so shows that you’re in a position to guide the organisation through those challenges and will make your employees feel a great deal more confident about their futures.
This part takes empathy. While your company can be a trendsetter and your executive’s thought leaders, that means nothing to your team members if you’re not thinking about how this affects them. For example, the world is coming around to hybrid working models — but how do you adapt that in the way that works best for your team and their productivity? It’s one thing knowing (or even setting) the trends in your industry, but this will be meaningless in the long term if you’re not being empathetic in what you do with this knowledge.
What’s your score?
So, knowing all that, would your employee communications pass the Turing Test? Go through the last 10 employee emails or newsletters you sent out and see. Better yet, get someone objective to have a look. And if it’s clear that something needs to change, don’t panic. You don’t have to figure it out on your own. The first step is to identify someone in-house to serve as a champion of employee communication. This person should not be the CEO or MD, but should serve as a bridge between the C-Suite and the rest of the team. We’ve helped a number of clients with their employee and stakeholder communication, working closely with those champions to develop a strategy and create content that hits home.
Once you have your champion in place, ensure that they follow the three anti-machine guidelines and you’ll already be halfway there. Unless, of course, a machine wrote this. Fortunately, you now have a yardstick against which to test that.
About Irvine Partners
Irvine Partners is a communication firm with wholly-owned offices in London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Lagos, and Accra. It is staffed by a diverse team of media professionals, with decades of hands-on industry experience across all platforms. The firm specialises in communication strategy backed by intelligent, narrative-driven content. For more information visit: www.irvinepartners.co.za