There’s a scene towards the end of the film Seven (or Se7en if you want to be arty about it) when Morgan Freeman looks into ‘the box’ (you know the scene) and says nervously into his radio “stay back, John Doe has the upper hand now”. I think we’ve reached the point where we internal communicators have looked into the box and realised that our John Doe – the audience – has the upper hand now. Our audience is busy, discerning, savvy, mostly disengaged, probably cynical and possibly stressed. In most cases, they’re probably not particularly interested in what we’ve got to say. Even if they are, they want it fast, clear, honest and relevant. And preferably in 140 characters. In recent years, 24 hour news, the internet, social media and other technology has eroded our capacity for attention. We may only get one shot. So what makes a compelling message? There’s no shortage of books on the subject, but to save you having to read them all, I’ve read them for you. Most are rehashes of existing good practice, but here are the best bits of the best ones, with some of my own advice thrown in …
1. Aim for the heart not the head. In her book, Talk Less, Say More, Connie Dieken champions the ‘less is more’ principle of maximising success by minimising words. Her best tip for grabbing attention is to give people what they value up front. According to Connie, there are only three comms skills that matter – Connect, Convey and Convince. And if you can’t connect, you’re stuffed. So that means aiming for the heart not the head. The ‘feeling’ part of our brain always reacts first, so make sure there is emotion behind the words. Make people care. If they care, they act.
2. A good way to do that is through storytelling. Stories tap into our emotions. They bring us to tears, lift our hearts, entertain us, thrill us and inspire us to action. Organizational storytelling is big business and there’s loads of books on the subject (the best being Steve Denning’s Squirrel Inc) as well as companies offering storytelling consultancy and training. But to be honest, you already know how to do it. You do it every day over the dinner table and to your children at night. It’s not rocket science. If you over-craft them they won’t be stories.
3. Chip & Dan Heath’s best-seller Made to Stick contains a veritable feast of great advice about making messages stick. The stand-out section is the one about the curse of knowledge which explains why being well informed about a topic can mean that we lose our ability to explain it in simple terms to someone less well informed. Experts forget what it’s like to not know something, which makes them think everything is important. Our job is to help them filter out the stuff that’s ‘not important’, ‘important’ and ‘really important’… leaving only the bit that is ‘most important’.
4. SPAM filters are not just for incoming. Put the curse of knowledge into a large mixing bowl, add a healthy portion of corporate jargon, a heaped spoonful of unnecessary adjectives and a sprinkling of macho leadership. Stir with six different spoons and leave to stand for two hours before serving to an audience that isn’t hungry. When people don’t eat, it means they don’t like what’s on the plate. Cut out the unnecessary ingredients, like jargon and waffle, and keep it simple. Serve a green salad rather than a three course banquet.
5. Count the calories. Keeping with the food analogy, see your comms as a calories controlled diet. A good way to keep attention is to open up gaps of knowledge. Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty and it doesn’t like gaps, like unfinished stories. So deliberately open gaps that your audience wants to see filled. Create interest, limit the amount of detail at any one time, tell people what they can expect next (open the loop), leave some ambiguity to leave them wanting more. Then fill the gaps with low calorie servings.
6. Don’t ever underestimate the impact of good writing. There’s a new breed of executive internal communicator out there who believes the ability to write is no longer a core skill – that it’s operational not strategic. They’ll be the same people who say they’re not creative to avoid having to come up with an idea. Personally I don’t agree, but either way good writing is essential to the art, so if you’re not the artist, you better find someone who is. With the attention deficit disorder present in most organisations and the increasing need to connect first time, good impactful writing is actually more important than ever, not less.
7. There has to be a why. There’s only one message in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, and that’s to, ahem, start with why. For a message to stick it needs more than publicity. It needs a sense of purpose, a cause or a belief that people can relate to. That won’t be the what, the how and the when …. it’ll be the why.
8. Use weapons of mass distraction. Another Chip & Dan Heath tip is to use ‘the unexpected’ to grab attention. A good way to do that is to break a pattern. Changing, adding or removing something from an existing pattern alerts our brain that something is different. It makes us sit up and take notice. One of the downsides of our over-managed internal comms environments is that we are often severely restricted in how we communicate – logo police, brand guidelines, templates, managed channels, poor capability etc. But too much of that and we lose the ability to be noticed. How do you distract people from the humdrum of daily life? Surprise them. Make them jump.
9. Metaphors aren’t just for poets. Like stories, metaphors can transform a complex message into clear and recognisable meaning. Metaphors help us to understand others and build empathy. They satisfy the search for meaning that we all seek in our personal and professional lives. Turning your message into a graphic or written metaphor can produce that “Ah, I get it now” moment. Read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind for more on why this is important.
10. Don’t think too much about it. There’s a psychological theory called the paradox of choice which says that if you give people too many choices they can suffer some form of paralysis and end up not making a choice at all. In comms, we often over-craft messages by trying to include so many different options and opinions that the final message gets diluted and bland. Usually it’s the first draft or the unscripted anecdote that hits home best. Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ passage was not part of his prepared speech. After he had completed his formal script, he looked around and sensed his audience needed more, so he ad-libbed and the rest is history.