In these last frantic working days of the year, there is one final opportunity for leaders to connect with their people: the end-of-year note.
Employees still typically expect a message from the top before the holiday break, but finding the right channel, capturing the right ideas, and side-stepping clichés can be a challenge.
So what works, and doesn’t, in pre-Christmas exec comms? Here are five golden rules:
Say what they’re thinking
- Walmart CEO Doug McMillon understands that leaders need to earn the attention of their audience, by articulating what’s likely to be on their minds.
- In December, that tends to be simple: they’re tired after a tough year.
- So, in his 2022 message, McMillon works hard to name check a range of groups and what they’ve done: US states Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia; workers in China and in Africa; and those who’ve suffered from weather events and through panic-buying.
- The informal aesthetic – hand-held, complete with the noise of children playing – helps his credibility as a messenger. Saying “I appreciate you. I’m proud of you,” to hard-pressed workers from a shiny boardroom, in a tailored suit, would have been a harder sell.
A takeaway for leaders: Show your teams you understand their world before you tell them about yours.
Be congruent: don’t send mixed signals
- Akio Toyoda is a leader who knows his strengths. The Toyota President’s 2021 end-of-year video, wearing a broad smile, wide-armed and full of energy, presented a big character.
- His words matched - lots of superlatives and grand statements. “How awesome is that?” “You continue to amaze me!” “Recharged and ready for 2022!”
- We often talk to leaders about the principle of congruent communication. It’s the idea that all the signals you send – both verbal and non-verbal – should be selling the same vision. Incongruence breeds distrust (though audiences don’t always register why).
- Toyota’s approach is high-risk. A four-minute video exclusively featuring the leader on a grey background would be too much for many leaders – they’d rightly reach for the safety of b-roll. In this case, his panache (and congruence) carries it off.
A takeaway for leaders: The medium should match the message – and the messenger.
Say something specific
- Anxious executives send anodyne messages.
- Leaders are rightly concerned about inadvertently causing offense in their seasonal messages – talking about Christmas, kids, or anything that could make certain employees feel excluded.
- But sanding the interesting edges off of communication tends to leave platitudes, unlikely to have any impact on the rare employee who makes it to the end of the message.
- Leaders can and should talk about specific experiences. Specificity has the reverse effect of exclusion –it draws an audience in.
- Estelle Brachlianoff of French services company Veolia shared the impact of her favourite book in her year-end video, while US VP Kamala Harris evoked a detailed childhood memory in this one for the Lunar New Year.
A takeaway for leaders: People remember the personal over the generic. Ensure there’s something in your message that no one else could say.
Nail your headline
- Politicians have been known to start drafting speeches with the single line they want journalists to remember. It’s not a bad approach to creating an end-of-year message.
- Then-Merck CEO Stefan Oschmann’s mid-pandemic video will seem a little heavy on the melodrama for many tastes, but the moody treatment appears geared to land a single line.
- When he turns to the camera and says, “Thank you for truly shining in these times,” it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t mean it.
A takeaway for leaders: Find the single line that matters most – and build a vehicle specifically for it.
Don’t make a video out of an email
- Leaders often default to video as the medium for their note, presuming employees expect it or that there’s weakness in avoiding the camera. But some messages are made for the page, not the screen.
- This 2022 message from prominent US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a hard watch. She’s a gifted communicator, but an unconnected list of 22 accomplishments doesn’t work as a video. It’s an email. Poor quality audio doesn’t help.
- There are many options inbetween email and video: interviews, voice-notes, photo-posts on LinkedIn, montage videos.
- If you don’t believe us, ask the ex-CEO of YouTube. Despite running the world’s premier video platform, Susan Wojcicki used to send a letter to her workforce at this time of year.
A takeaway for leaders: Don’t waste people’s time. They’re trying to get things done before the holidays.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how effective your spoken words are, take a look at our Executive Impact Score – a pioneering approach we’ve developed with Oxford University to give leaders a new picture about how they’re perceived when they speak.
Get in touch with the team at [email protected].