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MIT Just Discovered How to Get Employees to Pay Attention

Like everyone else, employees are drawn to this type of information

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BY Alison Davis - 14 Mar 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

What's the most difficult challenge organizations face in communicating with employees? Getting your people to pay attention to even the most relevant and important messages.

As one HR leader told me recently, "We work so hard to provide information to our employees. But they're so busy that they miss a lot--even when the topic is something employees care about, like pay and benefits. And then employees complain that we didn't tell them about it!"

One solution to this challenge can be found in a new MIT study about a very different topic: how false news is spread on the social network Twitter. Stick with me while I explain how this research reveals an essential insight about people--an insight you can use to create communication that will get employees' attention.

The study, conducted by three MIT scholars, tracked more than 126,000 cascades of news stories spreading on Twitter, which were cumulatively tweeted over 4.5 million times by about 3 million people from 2006 to 2017.

Not surprisingly, the study demonstrated that false news spreads more rapidly on Twitter than real news does. The researchers then set out to find out why false news is so likely to go viral. Is it because of bots programmed to disseminate inaccurate stories?

Actually, no--the study proved that humans are the driving force behind the rapid spread of false news. And this is where it becomes relevant to internal communication.

Why do falsehoods spread more quickly than the truth? The answer, according to study authors Sinan Aral, Deb Roy and Soroush Vosoughi, can be found in human psychology. Quite simply, we humans like new things.

"False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information," says Aral, professor at the MIT School of Management.

The MIT team chose the word "novel" for good reason; they understand that the adjective means "original or striking especially in conception or style."

Humans are drawn to information that's fresh, unexpected and, yes, novel, and once we find this interesting new thing, we want to share it.

Unfortunately, much of internal communication is the opposite of novel. In fact, it's old news. Organizational announcements share staff changes everyone has known about for weeks. Intranet home pages contain articles written in corporate speak that seem just like all the other stale content. Newsletters rehash tired, uninteresting items.

No wonder employees ignore websites, delete emails and multitask during virtual town halls. After all, there's no reason for employees to pay attention when they can't learn anything new or unexpected--or gain any value from what's being shared.

What can you do differently? I'm hardly suggesting that you post false news or revert to photos of kittens in odd situations. Instead, here are 4 simple ways to create novel communication that employees will open, read and even share:

  1. Use an approachable, conversational, even casual tone. Employees have gotten used to--and grown weary of--that corporate voice. Be personal and human.
  2. Whenever possible, use visuals instead of words. Create infographics, illustrations, videos, even internal ads.
  3. Be lighthearted--and humorous. We just created bitmojis for a large corporation's leadership team. They're not laughing-out-loud funny--but they are unexpectedly whimsical.
  4. Keep challenging the status quo. To be novel, you have to constantly innovate. So to break through the clutter of internal communication, never stop mixing it up.


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