A simple standing lamp against a painted wall.

Storytelling versus functional communications

Straightforward functional comms can work brilliantly for trusted colleagues. Big-picture engagement comms and strategic vision sharing often rely on narratives in an attempt to capture the hearts and minds of employees, which just ism’t always necessary or desired.

Different goals, channels, and audiences need different comms approaches. Not only in layout, format, and delivery, but in writing style.

Beyond the comms escalator [awareness up to action], I always consider if I’m writing to inform or persuade. Usually, it’s a combination, but when leaning towards informing readers, I suggest writing can be clear, concise, and functional; the opposite of the narrative approach. Readers are looking out for what’s in it for them, and probably seeking the next step – what they can click, what they must do, what they must stop doing.

Not every piece of news needs an intriguing headline, an opening anecdote, and a step-by-step build up to ‘take the reader on a journey’ through to a big conclusion and a call to action.

Such a narrative might work well for a director speaking from the front of a town hall, and storytelling may be necessary when introducing changes to the business ‘out of the blue’ to set the scene and assure colleagues that leaders have been ruminating.

But there’s a fashion for persuasive employee communications that rely on narratives and verbose texts and videos. I’m all for sharing real-life stories directly from colleagues involved with the topic — we need employee voices on our intranet and in our comms — but the silk-smooth storytelling that is frequently championed at award ceremonies is often developed with an external marketing agency; or crafted by the overzealous communicator who is writing for their boss, not their audience.

Functional communications

I don’t believe functional employee comms have to be anodyne or lack flavour. Some content designers write for a very wide audience, and must choose vocabulary incredibly carefully; I cannot argue against such care.

I suggest there are ways to write functional comms in a way that still express company / brand values and the writer’s humanity and care. This may be very different to instructional communications that are for reference purposes only. Pages that support knowledge management should be laser-focused.

‘IT updates’, those two-line missives telling you a system is broken, can be so stripped of meaning that, while accurate, they don’t actually communicate how it’s relevant to the reader. I think internal communications can be more than instructional without becoming internal marketing.

Functional comms follows all the usual guidance for comms (goals, channel, audience, medium, style, voice, tone, vocabulary, actions et cetera) but is focused on the one thing that people should know or do.

Adrian H succinctly stated that it’s about being focused on the task, hinting that storytelling could be used another time to explain the background reasoning (for the change).

Functional comms trusts that employees will find the value for themselves, without any ‘parent-child’ persuasion. Functional comms respects every employee’s adult decision-making capabilities, but of course concise articles should link to previous articles and reference material for those who need and want more.

Functional communications should:

  • introduce the main thing immediately, without preamble;
  • tell the reader what to do now or next;
  • if useful, express the benefit to the reader in a single sentence;
  • succinctly explain the context and background; link to details.

Does that seem similar to what you already do, but eschewing a preliminary narrative ‘to prepare the reader’ and without telling stories to add ‘richness’ to the background reasoning?

Steve Ryan reminds us that the inverted pyramid is suitable for many kinds of writing. Now I need a good link for the pyramids (inverted and not). And Steve highlighted the ‘three things’ structure: 

  1. In the Beginning
  2. The Something Happened
  3. So Now, and In the Future.

But I might strip the ‘beginning’ and go straight to the heart of the matter. 

I’ve written this article to share my personal thoughts and perhaps persuade you not just of the usefulness of functional comms but of my supposed expertise.

For balance, here’s my functional attempt, drafted for internal comms colleagues.

A simple standing lamp against a painted wall.

The functional version

Choosing to write more direct, concise articles can be more useful and easier to read for employees than persuasive story-based articles.

If appropriate, when drafting news for the intranet, avoid all preamble and introduce the topic immediately. Go on to tell the reader what they can do with the information, how they might get involved with the topic, or what they must do in line with the change. Be sure to explain who the change or news affects, so that the appropriate readers take action.

Follow our style guide as usual; choose the vocabulary to suit the audience, and adapt the tone to the topic.

By focusing on the singular goal without unnecessary decoration, your writing will be faster, easier to review and improve, and likely have more impact.

Not every topic is suitable for such functional writing, and we should all focus on the needs of the audience as ever. As a team, our communication strategy leads us to use the appropriate content tactics. Longer narratives will still be needed for planned changes and engagement campaigns, but concise functional articles are often more appropriate for the day-to-day digital channels we manage.

Our review process will adapt to help us shape more action-focused and easy-to-read articles, and we’ll continue to discuss our approach throughout the briefing and drafting stages.

Functional comms save the reader time by communicating the must-know details in a matter-of-fact manner. Clear communications ensure that the reader knows that this is relevant (or not) to them and they know what to do next, without ambiguity. Moving directly to action without getting lost in ‘internal marketing’ poetry respects our colleagues’ time and understanding.

I always say that people read as much as they want or need; essays certainly get read when relevant and interesting. But scan-reading is default behaviour in many circumstances, as people look for the key sentences, directions, and links.

Storytelling has its place, during change campaigns, to persuade, to explain, and when engagement is desired, but we can help people get on with things by writing in a more matter-of-fact manner when the facts are actually available.

A few links to help direct our writing:

What do you think? I’m sure you choose various styles and approaches as you deem suitable for the audience and topic.

I’m grateful to the people who discussed the draft of this article with me.

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