Picture this: You’ve just graduated from college and have moved to NYC for your first real-deal job. You’re nervous about your first day but excited about what’s in store. Then, your new boss tells you, “Take everything you learned about writing, and flush it down the toilet.”
Ouch…so much for your newly framed diploma. But, when it comes to communicating about benefits, he was 100% correct. The big words and essay structure you learned in college to sound impressive and hit a specific page count isn’t going to get you very far in the world of work. In fact, you’re better off returning to your elementary school days, where you learned to keep it simple.
Remember when the internet went crazy over humans’ goldfish-sized attention span? Well, not surprisingly, that was proven false. And to be honest, we should have known better. According to Deloitte, 73% of Americans have binge-watched a TV show—that’s over five hours in one sitting!1 Seems to me that our attention spans are doing just fine!
So, why do I constantly hear that “our employees just don’t read anything we send them?”
One of the main reasons could be explained by the cognitive load theory. Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory it takes to process information. Our brains can typically process 5 to 9 chunks of information at a time, discarding or storing that information as it processes more information.2
Certain types of language affect the amount of cognitive load required to store information. For example, low-frequency words—those rarely used in daily speech—have been shown to be more difficult to understand and define when reading.3
Benefits and health care communications tend to be full of those low-frequency words and phrases. Think “adverse benefit determination,” “withdrawals,” and “coordination of benefits.”
When we don’t actively try to remove this language from our communications, we cause cognitive overload, resulting in employees becoming frustrated and detached from the information their brains are attempting to process.4
If you’ve ever participated in our 10 Keys webinar, you’ve likely heard about Key #5: Simplicity. If you haven’t, the simplicity key is all about putting aside your deep knowledge of benefits and focusing on the basics instead.
The average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level, which is equivalent to that of a 12- to 14-year-old.5 So, a 12-year-old’s reading capability is what we need to keep in mind when creating communications. That means no benefits jargon and no complicated descriptions.
Here are three key things you can do to simplify your benefits communications.
As part of this blog, I polled the Segal Benz team to get some great examples of benefits jargon that particularly annoy them. Here are some of our (least) favorites:
Okay, you get the idea. Sometimes a sentence or two to describe the benefits jargon can help employees get on the right track and lower the cognitive load that they must process in order to understand your communications.
When it comes to communicating about benefits, it’s best to go back and read through what you’ve written. Can your communications be understood by a 12-year-old? If not, it might be best to remove the jargon and keep it simple.
We’re proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk.
Sarah Frick, Senior Consultant Communications, works with a diverse client portfolio across corporate, public sector, and multiemployer organizations.