Getting it right

Spreading the Wordle: Internal communications lessons from a viral word puzzle

In Short

As Omicron recedes and workplaces experiment with new in-person and hybrid setups, getting internal communications right has never been more vital.

The problem: Not enough communication between departments at your organization.

The solution: Colorful boxes.

Okay, maybe not literally. But hear us out.

There’s no question Wordle is brilliant. There’s a reason The New York Times was willing to pay seven figures for it. But the game’s meteoric rise was also, from a communications perspective, astonishing. So maybe it can help us learn to improve internal communications.

And yes, it’s likely that your internal communications could use improvement. In a 2021 survey of over 11,600 employees at 221 Jewish nonprofits, Leading Edge found that while most people experience good communications within their departments, only 59% of employees agreed that “There is good cooperation between teams/departments in my organization.” That’s a problem not only for immediate project work, but also for the longer-term goal of creating an amazing workplace culture. As Omicron recedes and workplaces experiment with new in-person and hybrid setups, getting internal communications right has never been more vital.

So here are five internal communications ideas inspired by Wordle.

1. Think value, not marketing.

Sometimes it’s tempting to go into Advertising Mode: “DON’T MISS this week’s team newsletter —updates you won’t believe!!!!” Advertising Mode is annoying. It feels desperate and insincere. It can even signal that the reason for the hype is that the thing we’re hyping is boring. 

There were no billboards or subway ads for Wordle. There were no pop-ups about it interrupting Candy Crush. Your favorite podcast hosts didn’t promote it in a paid ad — although they might have talked about it spontaneously.

And that’s the point. Here’s how marketing guru Seth Godin put it in 2015, many years before Wordle existed, but perfectly describing its rise: “Fast growth comes from overwhelming the smallest possible audience with a product or service that so delights that they insist that their friends and colleagues use it.” 

So it’s important to decide how to move information within our organizations, but it’s even more vital to make sure the information itself is genuinely valuable to people.

One way to do that is to ask colleagues, systematically and repeatedly, what they know about other departments, what they need to know and where the gaps are. For Leading Edge, and for many organizations we work with, surveys are an underrated tool. (There’s still time to register for our 2022 Employee Experience Survey, and pulse surveys are available year-round.)

2. Less is more. 

Scarcity sells. When we can only play one daily game of Wordle, we’re eager to play again tomorrow, but given constant access, we’d get bored. The restricted pace also relaxes us and allows us time to think.

Scarcity can be a friend in internal communications, too. Does that meeting need to be weekly instead of quarterly? Does your department head really need to send a three-page update instead of three sentences?

Scarcity is not only easier to handle for the receiver, but also leads to focus for the person providing information. Being forced to pare things back helps us identify what’s really necessary and authentic.

3. Get social. People crave connection — and Wordle delivers it. First, players all guess the same word each day. (At least, until recently!) Then they can use those box arrays to share their journey on that day’s puzzle without spoiling the answer for others. These social elements didn’t just make Wordle viral; they’re also key to making the game fun.

Getting social can help internal communications, too. People are much more likely to retain information if it comes with a meaningful and enjoyable connection with others. 

So, to reverse a now-ubiquitous saying: Maybe this email should be a meeting! 

Of course, meetings have their own dangers (there’s a reason for thinking many meetings could be emails!) but if they’re scarce and social, they can be great. Small group breakouts are one tool for interactive meetings. 

And social connection goes beyond meetings. Within the Leading Edge team, we have Slack channels for sharing memes, family photos, Wordle scores and more. This kind of connection doesn’t feel work-related, but by improving relationships, it does improve the work.

4. Use competition. Let’s be honest: When we share that grid of Wordle boxes, often part of our motivation is bragging that we got it in fewer guesses than our friends.

People like to compete. Leaders and employees at Jewish nonprofits tend to be egalitarian idealists, and may be reticent to embrace competitive energy, but while high-stakes competitions (such as for money and power) often bring out the worst in people, low-stakes competitions (like trivia night or Wordle) bring us together.

Within Leading Edge, when an internal communications working group was introducing some new document storage norms, we began with a competitive game of “Find That File.” The game experientially demonstrated the need for better file storage norms, while engaging people’s competitive sides.

5. Come to your senses. You know what? We take it back about “not literally” with the colored boxes. What if we did mean it literally?

Wordle is, obviously, verbal, but it’s also visual. The grids of colorful boxes not only draw the eye but also manage to communicate information non-verbally, through a physical sense.

Learning through our senses is powerful. What are you more likely to remember tomorrow: this photo or a paragraph of text? 

Organizations constantly use visual illustrations — pie charts, slide decks, etc. But we’re deliberately expanding this point to other senses too, because not everyone can see. With creativity and care, every sense can convey information. What if a nonprofit commissioned a song each year as part of an annual internal report that encoded important performance indicators in tempo, tonality or pitch? What if we realized that cake for an employee’s birthday is already a symbolic encoding of gratitude and connection into literal sweetness? 

So that’s five internal communications lessons from Wordle: Value, scarcity, connection, competition and sensation. Will they solve all your problems? No. There are no sure-fire wins in internal communications, just as there is no starting word that makes you ace Wordle every day. But with whimsy and curiosity, organizations can break through ruts, defy expectations and get information and relationships moving better than ever before.

Seth Chalmer is director of communications and Marisa Diehl is senior communications associate at Leading Edge.