To improve internal communication content, start at the top

Take a new approach to headlines and subject lines so you catch employees’ attention

Alison Davis
4 min readAug 19, 2021

Let’s start with a persistent issue: Far too many internal communication headlines (and their close cousins, subject lines) are stuck in the past. They’re written in the style of a 1950s newspaper business page: straightforward to the point of being stiff. They seem important, but they’re certainly not friendly or appealing. For example:

· DE&I Awareness Week Highlights

· Development opportunities introduced for all employees

· R&D Organizational Announcement

It doesn’t have to be that way. After all, a headline is, by far, the most important part of any piece of employee communication content. Here’s proof:

· 80% of readers access only the headline

· Effective headlines increase readership by up to 73%

And in internal communication, headlines and subject lines play a key role in helping employees understand key topics, feel connected to the organization and become prepared to act.

Ready to unlock the potential of headlines and subject lines? Here are 9 easy steps:

1. Approach headlines with an employee-centric mindset.

You know what you want to say, but the more important question is: What do employees need to know? Begin by analyzing your topic to determine what interests employees most about that topic. Then write a headline that will solve a problem or answer an employee’s burning question.

2. Emphasize the outcome.

Brian Clark at Copyblogger writes, “Your headline is a promise to readers. Its job is to clearly communicate the benefit you’ll deliver to the reader” in return for his or her valuable time. For example, rather than writing, “Development opportunities introduced for all employees,” focus on what’s in it for the employee:

· Looking to build your skills? New courses make it easy to learn.

3. Make a direct connection.

Don’t refer to employees in the third person (“Development opportunities introduced for all employees”) because doing so creates distance. Instead, follow the lead of marketers and “speak” directly to employees using “you.” For example:

· Redesigned intranet portal helps you prioritize information

· 6 health discount programs you probably didn’t know you had

4. Step away from Corporate Speak.

No disrespect to our colleagues in External Communication, but we internal communicators have to lead the way when it comes to creating headlines that are simple, appealing and non-corporate. Do so not by referring to press releases or organizational websites; seek inspiration from other sources, such as:

· News media

Even traditional media like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and The New York Times are taking a let’s-appeal-to-readers approach to headlines. For example: “You won’t believe how this beetle walks on water.”

· Consumer publications and sites

For example, check out Better Homes and Gardens or Men’s Health. “The 10 best places to buy glasses online.”

5. Get to the point.

Be as specific as possible. Employees don’t have time for vague concepts. Summarize your key message so employees who don’t read any further will still get the point. Like this:

· How to understand the new performance management ratings

· (Our company) is adjusting its financial targets. Here’s why.

6. Make a (numbered) list.

Blogger Mike Hamers explains, “Numbers are a time-honored trigger to get your readers to pay attention to your content. When you use a number in a headline, whether in a blog post, an e-mail subject line, an advertisement, etc., you immediately hook the reader’s interest. Numbers reach directly into our unconscious and say, ‘this message is important.’” Here are two examples:

· 5 reasons not to miss this diversity event

· 11 online courses every manager should consider

7. Emphasize key words.

Sure, if you’re writing online content, you need to optimize for search engines. But, just as importantly, you want to choose the words that people are interested in. For instance, if you write “compensation” in a subject line, employees may not pay attention. But if you choose “pay” or “money,” employees will open the email. Two keyword-conscious headlines:

· How to understand how your bonus is calculated

· Looking to advance your career? 5 successful colleagues offer advice

8. Tell “how to.”

Although humans don’t like rules, we do like instructions, guidelines and directions. We’re happy to accept guidance if it helps us accomplish something that matters. That’s why “how to” is such a powerful phrase. And it’s why a key way to get employees’ attention is to provide a “recipe:” helpful advice that makes at least one aspect of their lives easier. For example:

· Reduce your prescription costs by 14%

· 5 questions to ask yourself before you choose a medical plan

9. Use short, snappy language.

You only have a few seconds to get your point across, so choose punchy, compelling words. Your best ally for this effort is the simple, action-oriented verb. Out of the three boring headlines at the beginning of this article, two of them had no verb at all. That’s why — although this is the last tip being shared — one of the first things you can do to improve headlines is to make sure you’re using the power of verbs to invite employees to take action. Like this:

· Sign up before Friday to score discounts on wellness memberships

· Review this tip sheet to have a productive performance conversation

The point is this: Work hard at headlines and employees won’t be bored. They’ll pay attention. And they’ll consume the content you create.



Alison Davis

In Dec 2021, we lost Alison to a five-year battle with cancer. Alison Davis led Davis & Company for over 35 years setting strategic direction for the firm.