Category Archives: Communications

When even clunky PowerPoint works!

cancer_cellsAt last week’s always-stimulating Hay Festival I attended a talk by an eminent biochemist entitled ‘Demystifying Cancer’.   It was basically a PowerPoint presentation and what’s more, the speaker broke almost every rule in the ‘how to use PowerPoint’ book. Lots of slides, too much text, Comic Sans font, clunky clip art and basic animation.   Not, perhaps, the recipe for an informative and engaging communication session.   However, it was fantastic – a lesson in how to communicate a complex subject and to make the message stick.   I left the session with a whole new level of understanding of this massively complicated area. I could explain to my daughter how cells mutate, I understood how tumours form and I felt uplifted by the advances in science.   The impact, of course, was because the speaker was so engaging.   His well-rehearsed presentation was stunning in its simplicity and compelling in its delivery. But it wasn’t just about the presenter.   It was a triumph for PowerPoint too.   Yes it was a completely amateurish set of slides, clearly put together by someone experimenting with all the buttons on the PowerPoint task bar, but the content was designed to be simple and in that context, the simple home-made look of the slideware fitted the occasion perfectly.   Arrows moving uncomfortably across the screen seemed to work, flashing garish red text highlighted key points beautifully and the shockingly awful clipart images introduced humorous metaphors at just the right time.   Well done professor.

Earlier that morning I finished reading a book about ‘simplicity’ and how to overcome the “crisis of complexity” that is sweeping across our lives and workplaces.   This is something us communicators can relate to only so well, even though we’re often the ones creating the complexity by communicating too much. Here’s a good quote from the book*:  “From jury instructions to user manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of over-explaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.”   Bravo.  The book introduces three principles of simplicity – empathise, clarify and distil.   We comms people can relate to the second and third but I wonder how much credence we really place on empathising with our audience – understanding other’s needs and expectations.   Not enough I think.   My next book, also picked up at Hay, is all about Empathy so I’ll read it and report back my findings!

Funny enough, when I returned from Hay I started on a new project. What’s it all about? Simplification. 

* Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn

Ten reasons why we don’t understand stuff

badgerSo I sat there in this meeting about IT and I understood less than 20% of what was discussed.   For the most part, I tried to pick out the words I knew and did my best to make sense of it but towards the end I had to admit, I switched off.   Highly unprofessional and not very productive, but sometimes you just have to put your hands up and say “you’ve got me, I don’t know what you’re talking about”.   Although, of course, I didn’t put my hands up at all.   Most of us soldier on, not having or seeking understanding.   And this happens every day to millions of people in the workplace.

So why do some of us just not get stuff, and why don’t we speak up?   Here are ten reasons why …

1.  Lack of context.   One of the reasons messages fail to hit home in organisations is that they don’t have context.  Messages are too random, with no sense of belonging or association.   I can receive and read a message, but I can only understand it if I can tie it to something I already know … what psychologists call a ‘schema’.

2.  Too many assumptions.   Communications professionals should have a code of conduct and somewhere near the top should be the words ‘assume nothing’.     We cannot assume our audience has read every communication, or turned up to every meeting, or listened to every word, or understood every meaning, or asked every question, or left the room with a warm glow of satisfaction.    People understand when the message is simple, consistent, relevant, contextualised, well-delivered and meaningful.    Most corporate comms messages aren’t.

3.  Too much jargon.   I’m always amazed at how many people in organisations, often at senior level, don’t understand their own jargon.   Test out common acronyms on a sample audience at any one time and I guarantee some will get them wrong.   But it’s like the emperor’s new clothes.   We all think we’re the only ones.

4.  Complexity.    “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece” says Macduff to Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Scottish play.   When it comes to ensuring understanding, the principle of Occam’s Razor should apply – the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  But why oh why do we insist on making everything so complicated!   It’s one of the biggest barriers to understanding in the workplace – too much complexity.   Simple, simple, simple.  It has to be on our code of conduct!

5.  Groupthink.   In recent years, scientists have uncovered some fascinating insights into why we are so inclined to “go along with the crowd”.   This concept of ‘groupthink’ is a dangerous barrier to understanding, because of our reluctance to break from the crowd.  How often have you gone along with a group idea only to find later that none of the group actually wanted to do it.  “I only went along with it because I thought you wanted to do it”.  “Oh, but I thought it was you who wanted it”.   In experiments, where groups of people looking at a problem were influenced by primed ‘actors’ pushing the wrong solution, an astounding number of participants would vote with the wrong answer, even though they knew it to be false.    Neuroscientists have discovered that, when alone, people rely on the frontal, decision-making areas of their brain, but in groups, they use more of the emotional area associated with perception.   Peer pressure can indeed be a dangerous thing.   In practice, many of those people who say they understand, actually don’t.

6.  Myths & Rumours.   I’ve just worked on a project which suffered little from false rumours. Word went round that a new service was expensive and unreliable and this fuelled perception among potential customers.   The original rumour turned out to be way wide of the mark, and it took some heavy comms and engagement to ‘bust the myths’ and get back on track.   But people do base their understanding on what they’ve heard as well as what they’ve experienced – as many brands have found to their cost.   Suddenly, half your audience has got the wrong end of the stick. 

7.  Wrong culture.  Organisational cultures can be silent killers of many things – advancement, creativity, engagement, collaboration, change agility, service ethos etc.   But culture can seriously impact understanding too, not least in the way it hampers openness, conversation and challenge.    Is it OK to ask a ‘stupid’ question in your organisation?  Is it OK to say “I don’t understand”?   Is it career-limiting to say you don’t get it?   Unfortunately, for many, the answer is yes.

8.  No reason why.   Surely one of the biggest reasons people fail to understand is, quite simply, because they can’t be bothered.   And who’s to blame them?   We’ve got enough on our plate without having to learn something new.    So if we want our audience to truly understand something we need to give them a reason why.   Part of that comes in the context described above, but it also has to have a relevance, a hook or a ‘stickiness’ (to paraphrase Chip & Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick).    Not only do we have to get the audience to be able to understand it, we need them to want to understand it too.

9.  Lack of opportunity.    Take the phrase “I didn’t give him money”.   Say it aloud five times, putting an emphasis on a different word each time and you have five different meanings.   It’s hard to get the true meaning of a message first time round, especially when it’s written and not spoken.   So we get round that by asking questions and seeking clarification.   “When you said A, I thought you meant B”.  “No, when I said A I meant C.”   That’s a relief, I was about to go and do D.”   That, again, is human nature, but so often in the workplace we restrict the opportunity for questions and clarification.   And without the opportunity, we risk misunderstanding.

10.  Poor delivery.   At some point, of course, after the planning and the crafting, the message must be delivered.  Somehow.  This is the ‘transaction’ it all comes down to.  So getting the delivery right is key – the right words, in the right way, through the right channel.    The level of understanding will come down to the options you choose, so what’s going to work for your audience?  Will it be speedy email, a face-to-face briefing, a jargon-busting article, an engaging story, a creative visual, inspiring videos, an interactive conference … mime, dance, shadow puppetry (OK, I’m getting silly now, but you get the gist).    The right delivery for the right audience.   Get it right and get it understood.

Now tell me we’re not propagandists

propaganda1Corporate communicators working in or visiting London should definitely check out the latest exhibition at the British Library – Propaganda:  Power and Persuasion.   As I walked round the fascinating exhibition tracing the history, strategies and consequences of state propaganda, it started to feel uncomfortably like walking into an internal communicator’s handbook!   Look at some of these propaganda techniques highlighted in the exhibition:  Inflame passions; spread the word; know the audience; get the message in the right hands; exploit existing culture; use symbols; generate popular appeal; check your sources; employ an expert; think big; get everywhere; hammer it home; use humour.   Looks like a synopsis for one of my change comms workshops!

Most of us equate propaganda with war and/or oppressive regimes (did the Germans really kill kittens on the steps of churches in WW2?), but as the exhibition neatly shows, “propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way.”   Sound familiar?   The danger of propaganda, says one commentator, is propaganda2when the communicator has a monopoly – when there is no alternative source of information.   Are we talking here about North Korea or most internal comms departments?   Veteran journalist John Pilger says in one of the exhibitions superb videos:  “Propaganda has become insidious and all-powerful because of two words … public relations.”   Former government spin doctor Alistair Campbell points out that the word propaganda suffers from, if you like, “bad PR” but it’s really no more than effective message management.   The 2012 Olympics, health campaigns (have you had your five-a-day?) and terrorist alerts are all forms of propaganda, whilst social media such as Twitter and Facebook make us all potential propagandists.    Whilst we internal communicators use intranets, newsletters, briefings and videos, our state-funded colleagues turn to flags, monuments, ceremonies, stamps and national anthems to change behaviour.   Check out the incredible posters and slogans used by nations and regimes to build popular opinion and manipulate behaviour – from army recruitment to eating more potatoes.   If you’re in London any time soon, I urge you to take an hour to visit this fascinating exhibition and learn a little about this much-maligned side of our craft.

Propaganda:  Power and Persuasion runs until 17th September at the British Library.  More details at


The future’s not what it used to be

Homo_ErectusIt all started somewhere around 100,000 years ago.  For more than a million years, our early human ancestors had used tools like spears and hand axes.  They had begun to communicate through basic language or signs, build shelters, cook food and kill large animals.   But these early hominids didn’t really ‘progress’.    Despite having brains the same size as modern humans, their tools hadn’t evolved in thousands of years, there was no cultural advancement and no technological breakthrough.  And then it happened.

Human beings started to do something to and with each other than began to build ‘collective intelligence’.   Matt Ridley takes up the story in his wonderfully positive book The Rational Optimist:  “They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals – to share, swap, barter and trade.  The effect of this was to cause specialisation, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation, which led to more exchange … and progress was born.”   Having seen no tool innovation for hundreds of thousands of years, suddenly new technologies gathered pace, thanks to specialisation.   Our ancestors realised that they didn’t have to do everything themselves.   I could specialise in making cutting edge bone heads for spears, while you in the neighbouring community make needles.   I could catch antelope and you could catch fish.  Then we’ll swap.   Ridley again:  “Collaboration between unrelated strangers seems to be a uniquely human achievement. In no other species can two individuals who have never met exchange goods and services to the benefit of each other.”   When researchers tried to get monkeys to barter over the years, the experiments always ended in violence.

So humans developed through increased specialisation, leading to faster innovation.   It was, as philosopher Adam Smith described in the 18th century, the division of labour in all its glory.  But what made our ancestors take those steps in the first place?   To deal with a stranger you need to be polite, to co-operate and show trust.  How did that come about?   Did the answer lie in our unique ability to smile – a small but powerful gesture of trust?   Who knows.   Whatever it was, it worked.   And we have those African hominids to thank for a world in which we can trade all over the world (from kidney beans to kidneys) and share our movements, our thoughts, our photos, our knowledge, our donations, our recommendations and our ancestry with fellow human beings across the planet.   And this willingness – and ability – to share and collaborate is getting stronger with every generation, leading to who-knows-what innovation is lying round the corner.

At the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, when experts were asked to state which invention was most likely to have the biggest impact on the 20th century, nobody mentioned the motor car or the telephone.   Even our generation cannot comprehend what innovation lies ahead and what technologies will be commonplace in the next century.   Increasing specialisation will see to it that work – and the workplace – will continue to evolve and adapt and innovate, but one thing we can be sure of is that the future will be collaborative and organic.   And that’s where we communicators need to pay heed, in my opinion.   We can’t keep trying to manage top-down.    History shows that when organisations get too big, innovation and engagement suffers, in the same way that economic progress suffers when governments try to control too much.   We have to allow the next generation workforce to co-create the communication and innovation – to apply their own specialism.    It means pulling back, empowering, encouraging and empathising.    It means smiling more.   We should concentrate on the meat and let someone else do the fish.   As Matt Ridley says:  “The world is turning bottom-up.  The top-down years are at an end.”

People don’t complain about communication overload

overloadLet’s say I’m coming to your house and I ask you to give me directions.   You may say something like this:  “Take the third exit at the roundabout, follow the road for about a mile, take a right at the T-junction, next to the pub.  Go past the church on your right, up the hill, past the petrol station and we’re on the left, opposite the big white house – black door, tree in garden.”   That should do it.  Even better if you sketched out a quick drawing with the key landmarks.   Because that’s what it’s all about isn’t it – key landmarks?   If I’m heading in the right direction and I know what to look out for – the church, the pub, the petrol station – there’s a good chance I’ll find what I’m looking for.   You certainly wouldn’t describe every house and every tree.    That would be pointless.   If you did, it would be a clear case of information overload.   Ah, now there’s a term we hear a lot about these days – information overload.   We’ve all complained about it at some point, but is it really such a problem and do we really know what we’re complaining about?

The human brain can store roughly three terabytes of information.   It sounds impressive, until you realise that this is about one millionth of the information now produced in the world each day.  What it all means is that our brain has to be extremely selective in what it chooses to remember.   In his recent best-seller The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver uses the art and science of ‘prediction’ to search for meaning – what he calls the ‘signal’ – amongst the noise of Big Data.   I really like the analogy of the signal and the noise, and it’s a good one for us communicators.    How do we find the engaging narrative (the signal) among the jargon and detail (the noise)?   Biology should be on our side.

As Silver writes in his book, human beings do not have very many natural defences.  We’re not particularly fast or strong.  We don’t have claws, fangs of armour and we don’t spit venom.  We can’t camouflage ourselves and we can’t fly.   “Instead”, he says, “we survive by means of our wits.  Our minds are quick.  We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without hesitation.”   Our brain instinctively seeks simplicity, so it can process new information quickly and react accordingly  – it seeks the signal amid the noise.   Twitter isn’t popular because people are lazy, it’s just meeting the natural desire for brevity, like the cave drawings, jungle drums and smoke signals of days gone by.   The trouble is, it can sometimes find the wrong signal, or a pattern that isn’t actually there.   And in the workplace, that can be bad for business, so that’s where we try to step in – to help our people find the right signal.

When people complain about information overload I don’t think it’s so much about the ‘quantity of data’ but the ‘lack of signal’.   A hundred new emails in your inbox in the morning is only information overload if most of them contain pointless information (noise).   If every single one contained information relevant to what you’re working on, it’s not information overload (it may be a high workload, but that’s different).   That’s the difference between communication and information.   Information is ‘stuff’ or ‘data’ whereas communication is about making a connection.   You don’t hear people talk about communication overload.   It’s not the quantity that’s the problem, it’s the quality.   We can’t do much about the amount of information out there.   Just like the birth of language and the invention of the printing press, the web has unleashed an unstoppable tsunami of information, which is now growing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day.  But how much of that is useful?   It’s a noisy world out there, so fellow communicators, get out and find that damn signal.

We introverts can be good communicators too

introvertAbout 48 hours before I will start getting butterflies.  I wake up in the night and go over it again and again in my head.   I lose my appetite and my concentration.   On the day itself I will steel myself and rehearse constantly in my head.   I’ll try techniques to calm my breathing and half-heartedly attempt some positive thinking exercises.   I’ll prepare a Plan B in case I get dry-mouthed and lose my thread.   There have been times when I’ve completely stopped mid-sentence and forgotten everything, including who I am.   As the moment draws near I drink water, breathe deeply and try to look relaxed, even though inside I’m fighting demons.   My hands shake, my heart pounds and my stomach tightens.   And then I step up to the podium.

For me, this is a typical run up to giving an important presentation.  I hate doing them.  I hate public speaking.   “But you run a successful communications business” I often say to myself.  “And you used to be a radio sports commentator, broadcasting to thousands of people.  Speaking to large groups should be bread and butter to you.  How can you possibly hate presentations?”.  I just do.   I’ve never liked speaking in public.  I’m an introvert you see.  I tend to be the person in the meeting who sits in the corner, listens to everyone else having their say and taking it all in.  Then I’ll speak at the end.  Part of me feels that, as a consultant, I should be doing all the talking and taking control, speaking up in a confident and purposeful tone.   But often I just sit there and listen, working it all out in my head.  I sometimes see an opportunity to contribute but then I’ll hold back when someone louder or more forceful gets in before me.   Next week I’m going to be at the Hay Literary Festival.   At the end of the talks and presentations the audience can ask questions.  I’m usually dying to put my hand up and ask a question but I never have.  Not once.  The worst part about running your own business is having to ‘sell’.   I’m rubbish at that. If I go to a conference, which is rare, I’ll be the one in the corner pretending to be on the phone in the breaks.  I just can’t work a room and approach strangers.   I admire those people who can, but it’s not for me.  And I’ve never made a cold sales call.  Too nervous.

I’ve always considered this introversion to be a fault (and bad for business!), a part of my character I should try to fix.  But then I read Susan Cain’s wonderful best-selling book on introverts* and now I feel at peace with myself.   Introverts (or ‘high sensitive’ people as Cain describes them) tend to be more observant, more creative, more reflective, more philosophical and more intuitive.  They are less likely to take risks, be swayed by material gains and give in to the ‘buzz’.   They have greater empathy and are better listeners.   They are better at delaying gratification and spotting subtleties.  It’s about time these characteristics were valued, says Cain.  If we’d had more introverts at the head of governments and banks in the last ten years maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess economically.   It’s time to stop trying to turn introverts into extroverts, she says, pointing to the trend for open plan offices and classrooms, and the obsessive celebration of celebrity.   We revere great orators, confident speakers and socialites.  But for every ‘life and soul of the party’ taking all the plaudits, there’s a quiet group of introverts in the corner having a meaningful conversation.  Or the one who turned down the party invite to read a book.

We imply that good business communicators should be able to work a room and excel on a platform.  But what about listening, empathy, intuition, creativity?   Us quiet types are often better at these things than you loud people.  But actually, it takes all sorts.   Extroverts and introverts need each other.   Selling a message and engaging an audience is not all about craft and performance.   Yes we need the leaders but we need the listeners too.   There’s a quote in Susan Cain’s book that really resonates with me as a communicator.  It’s from a man called Jon Berghoff.  Jon is a super-successful, record-breaking salesman … but he’s an introvert.  He’s quiet, shy and wouldn’t say boo to a goose.  He listens far more than he talks.   So what’s the secret of his sales success?  “I discovered early on,” he says, “that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling.  They buy from me because they feel understood.”   And that, ladies and gents, is how you get engagement.

* Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain

The only measurement tool that really works

I once worked for a CEO who refused to spend money on measurement.   He once said to me “what would you rather put your trust in – a spreadsheet compiled by an expensive consultancy … or your gut?   No, this is the best measurement tool”, he said, patting his stomach, “and it’s free.”   At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of it.  I thought he was just tight.   But now, with the debate about comms measurement and ‘proving the ROI’ raging fiercer than ever, I find myself coming back to that brief conversation more and more.  I have to admit here, and I say this with some trepidation, that the whole measurement agenda leaves me a bit cold.  In fact, it bores me senseless (cue disapproving tutting sound from my fellow comms professionals!).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-measurement.  I get the whole evaluation thing.  I’m just saying I find it really dull.   In fact, I’ll go further, I actually find much of the debate pointless, distracting and unnecessary.   A lot of comms measurement seems to be about justifying investment (valid) or making comms people feel good about themselves (less so), not about improving the craft or indeed the quality of the outcome.   I just don’t find a lot of measurement particularly enlightening.  The thing is, communication is soft, measurement is hard.  Trying to produce data to prove the causal effect of a communication is like trying to write a business case for love, or measuring the sincerity of a smile, or the warmth of a hug.   Communication is emotional.   The things we want to measure are understanding, belief, commitment – these are emotional responses.   But we know that people find it hard to express their emotion in words or tick-boxes, because the part of the brain that handles emotion has no capability for language.    Asking people to describe how they feel about an event, a message, a channel or an experience is asking for trouble, or blandness.  

No, the best way to measure emotion is with emotion.    Let’s face it fellow communicators, when something you’ve done has worked well you’ve instinctively known it haven’t you?     Have you ever been to a communication event and been genuinely surprised by the feedback?   Be honest now, if it went well, you knew it from the buzz and the vibe didn’t you?  When it went badly, you could read it on the faces as they left the room.   How many times has your company spent thousands on a staff survey to tell them “what we already know”?    When I work with new organisations, they sometimes send me spreadsheets and PowerPoints detailing the recent staff survey.   But I can get more from saying “forget the survey, just talk to me”.   The insights are always more valuable, and probably more accurate.

And there’s the rub.   My old boss was right in the end, I think.   Gut feel – instinct – should not be under-estimated.   Not sure?  Then read Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller ‘Blink’ about the power of snap judgement.   It’s a brilliant insight into those moments when we just know something without knowing why.   Taking stories and experiments from the military, medicine, music, art and business, Gladwell’s book disproves the conventional wisdom that big decisions require informed decision making, that more information helps you make the right call.  It doesn’t.   For big decisions, it’s nearly always better to rely on your initial reaction, the gut feel.    If you want to communicate a strategy and produce an emotional response with your audience (buy in), make an impact first time and with as few words as possible.    Your audience’s first reaction will usually be the one that sticks.  And you’ll instantly know if it’s worked, because you’ll feel it too.   Of course, a comms survey that tells you 80% of your audience understood the message and felt compelled to act upon it sounds like money well spent, just as it would if the data suggested the figure was 5%.  My point is that you would probably already have known.  You would have known if the comms had worked, or not, by your own instinct and by the gut reaction of those around you.   A good comms person is connected to his/her audience (as surely a good leader is too?) and it’s the quality of that connection that will tell you what you need to know.    Some measurement is good, obviously, but it feels like it’s becoming a bit obsessive.   I just think we should follow the advice that I keep trying to give my daughter when she’s struggling with her homework…. “trust your judgement, darling, go with what feels right.”

15 songs on my iPod about internal comms

CrowsI had some time to kill the other day while sitting in the car, so I did something only a man would do.  I made a list.   I decided to go though my iPod and make a list of songs about communication.   So, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, beyond self-indulgence, here it is …

1. A Matter of Trust – Billy Joel (for the engagement purist)

2. Pass it on – The Coral (for the Team Briefer)

3. Right down the line – Gerry Rafferty (for the cascade believer)

4. I can see clearly now – Hothouse Flowers (for the audience!)

5. One to One – Joe Jackson (for those difficult conversations)

6. Messages – OMD (for obvious reasons)

7. Before and After – Rush (for the change planner)

8. My Vision – Seal (for the CEO)

9. To cut a long story short- Spandau Ballet (for the editor)

10. Wondrous Stories – Yes (for the storyteller)

11. Round Here – Counting Crows, pictured (for the culture changer)

12. The Other Side – David Gray (for the consultant)

13. Praise You – Fat Boy Slim (for the recognition scheme)

14. Psychobabble – Alan Parsons Project (for the jargon jock)

15. Follow you Follow me – Genesis (for the Twitter lover)

And finally, a warning for communicators everywhere from Talking to Clarry by The Bluetones:

“Communication is blurred

I can’t understand a word

So there’s nothing to be heard

It’s all gone quite absurd!”

I’m holding out for a hero

heroI was in a coffee shop the other day and before leaving I took our cups back to the counter to save the staff having to walk over and clear the table.  The bloke behind the counter called me a “legend”.    Well I dunno about that, but it did get me thinking.   We need more heroes.   Recognition schemes, best practice awards, employees of the month and all those corporate  initiatives are just not inspiring enough.  Come on, let’s make some real heroes.  I don’t mean coffee shop legends who don’t deserve it, I mean those people in our organisations who really are the stars.  The thinkers, the doers, the motivators, the cheery souls, the ideas people, the innovators, the devotees, the unsung heroes who drive company culture and make the organisation what it is.

I’ve been reading Will Durant’s Heroes of History, in which the great American writer salutes those who, in his view, have made the greatest impact on man’s rise to greatness – from Confucius to Shakespeare, via ancient Greece and Rome.   I have never read Durant before, but blimey he’s a good writer.   Look at this passage from the introduction to his ‘top ten heroes’ …

“I see men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little farther ahead.  Men carving marble into forms ennobling men.  Men moulding peoples into better instruments of greatness.  Men making a language out of music, and music out of language.  Men dreaming of finer lives, and living them.  To contemplate such men, to insinuate ourselves through study into some modest discipleship to them.  To watch them at their work and warm ourselves at the fire that consumes them.   Too soon we extinguish the flame of our hope and our reverence.  Let us change the icons and light the candles again.” 

It’s thrilling stuff from a writer devoted to celebrating the human spirit and championing greatness.    And in some ways, its “greatness” that we should be talking about in our world – not good practice.    If I walked into an organisation for the first time – or I was thinking of joining one – I’d want to know who the heroes are and why, not what best practice looks like or how the recognition scheme works.   You’ll find out much more by asking “so, who are your heroes and why?”.   We comms people have the means to “light the candles” of greatness within our own office walls.   So let’s not be shy of using a bit of hyperbole.  Let’s find and shine the light – let’s “warm ourselves at the fire” –  of those ordinary heroes who do what they do every day at work … and who make us all feel just that little bit better about ourselves.

PS – My hero growing up was Phil Collins.  I even bought a drum kit because of him.  How cool am I? (don’t answer that)

Could you pass the 60-second challenge?

60seconds[1]This weekend at Manchester Museum, researchers from the University of Manchester gave one-minute microlectures to the public on the subject of biomedical research.   The ‘Manchester Minute Microlectures’ event challenged the researchers to explain aspects of their work in just 60 seconds, followed by tea, cake and questions.   It was a real eye-opening event (part of a day of family activities at the museum on the subject of the human body) and a great way to gain insight into an area of science most of us wouldn’t normally be exposed to.    The challenge for the speakers of course was to crystallize their message and ‘sell’ their research to an audience of people from eight to eighty years old with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever….. in just one minute.

The microlecture format is growing in popularity in education.  Of course, in comms we have the rather tired but effective ‘elevator pitch’ concept in which we encourage teams and functions to memorise and sell their vision/project in about 40 seconds …. the scenario being that you bump into the CEO in an elevator and he asks you what you’re working on.  You’ve got until the doors open to make your impact.    Microlectures offer greater variety.   They can be in video, podcast, presentation or ‘stand-up’ format, from one minute to (roughly) five or six.   As refreshers or ‘quick dip’ exposures they can be really effective.   For the ‘seller’ or presenter, it forces the selection of not the ‘important’ messages or the ‘really important’ messages, but the ‘most important’ messages.     And it encourages creativity.   If you’ve got one minute to make an impact, wouldn’t you look to do something different?   Microlectures can be fun too, by pitching competing or diverse topics together in a Dragon’s Den environment, or inviting the audience to vote on the talk that made the most impact.

In Manchester at the weekend, some lectures succeeded, other’s didn’t.    The speakers who did well were (surprise, surprise) the ones who told stories.   In their best-seller Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath recall an experiment in which they asked Stanford students to give a one-minute presentation on crime patterns in the United States.   They were all given the same source material but half the group was asked to deliver a one-minute persuasive speech to convince their peers that nonviolent crime is a serious problem in the country.   The other half were told to take the contrary position – that it wasn’t particularly serious.    After each speech, the presenters were rated on their delivery and persuasive ability.    Not surprisingly, the eloquent, polished and charismatic speakers rated highly.   At the end, the experiment appeared to be over and the facilitator moved on to something else.  Then, ten minutes later, he stopped abruptly and asked the students to pull out a piece of paper and write down, for each speaker they heard, every idea or message they remember.    Guess what?  The students could barely remember anything!   They only heard eight one-minute speeches and it was only ten minutes ago, but they could hardly remember a single message from each talk …. EXCEPT for those who told stories.   On average, 63 per cent remembered the stories, while only five per cent remembered the statistics.   They also found that the polished speakers did no better when it came to remembering the messages.   It was the story, not the delivery, that made the difference.

So why not consider the microlecture format when you’re thinking of ways to share knowledge, explain a project, debunk some jargon, impart some learning or build a community.   It’s good for the speaker, good for the audience and great for the organisation.   Just remember the stories.

Seven ways to get your line managers communicating

Businessman Wearing CapeI feel I may have been a bit harsh when I had a pop at managers in my last post.   I do stand by what I wrote – about managers being afraid to communicate and all that – but I feel I should at least balance up the criticism with something a little more constructive.   It just so happens that I’m designing a new training course for the Institute of Internal Communications about how we comms people can get the most from our line managers, so this may be an appropriate time to float some practical suggestions.   Here, then, are seven ways in which we can support our line managers to become informed, engaged, capable, inspired and inspiring communicators. 

See managers as human beings rather than a component of an operating model.     Line managers may have a job that gives them responsibility for managing people but they are individuals too.  They have the same pressures, frustrations, dreams, motivation and fears as the rest of us and research tells us that they are often the unhappiest people in the organisation – not close enough to the top to make decisions and reap the rewards, and not close enough to the bottom to deliver to customers and ‘make a difference’.   They are the squeezed middle – over-worked, under-valued and very often, lonely.   So we need to do our best to treat them with respect and understand where they’re coming from.   That means getting to know them and showing some empathy.

Trust them.   It can be tempting for us as communications professionals to over-support managers.   What I mean is that we often have very honourable intentions to make it easy for them – to package up the message, write it all down for them and then tell them where to stand and what to say (and how to say it).    We do this (i) because we want to be helpful, (ii) because it makes us look good and (iii) because we don’t trust them.   But the future of internal comms is not about controlling everything and we need to learn to trust a little more.   Make friends with the managers, help them believe in themselves, make them realise what power they have to inspire … and watch them surprise you.

Clear messages = clear delivery.   Of course, we need line managers to be well informed for obvious reasons, but they don’t need to know everything.   Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do for our managers is to run a tight ship when it comes to knowing what is important.    Senior leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge and they are too removed from the frontline to know what will stick, so we need to step in and manage the message with clarity and rigour.   Our job is to help create a compelling narrative that runs like a golden thread through the organisation – simple messages, well told.    If the messages line manages receive are clear, the messages they translate and connect with will be too.   So concentrate as much on the message flow between senior and middle managers as you do on the message flow direct to all staff.

Light the flames.    It’s right to step back and empower managers but we should power them too, with the skills, techniques and tools that will make them great.   I wouldn’t use the word ‘training’ – not to a manager’s face – because  they tend not to like the ‘t’ word, but I would concentrate my efforts on equipping them with the practical skills to make them better communicators.    Communication is an art, not a science, and like all artists we all have our own distinct style.    We should never try to turn our line managers into ‘best practice clones’ but we should encourage them to be themselves and offer them some hints, tips and guidance to weave into their own personal way of communicating.   This can be as subtle as a ‘tip of the week’ on the intranet or as deliberate as giving them a skills booklet (like this one on my website!) or offer them a workshop.    But concentrate on proper engagement skills, like listening, making the message stick, storytelling, creativity, building a sense of purpose and engaging through change ….. not just ‘how to deliver a presentation’.

Use peer pressure.   Gauging the right level of support, and knowing how and when to intervene, is hard to get right.    Provide too much support and the managers come to define themselves as a tool of the comms function, but if we don’t support them enough we risk creating a landscape littered with patches of good and bad practice, with little consistency.   This is where a bit of peer pressure can work wonders.   I always favour setting up a dedicated channel for line managers to enable them to check the ‘messages of the moment’, find out what’s going on and to have a nose at what others are doing.    Managers soon take notice when they see their peer group doing stuff that they’re not, so this is a good way of surfacing good practice and facilitating a forum for managers to share ideas and experiences.  Which leads us to …

Community action.    Building a community among line managers can help with knowledge sharing, consistent application and capability uplift.   The more you can get managers together – virtually or physically, the more they will generate ideas and a sense of purpose.    The peer pressure will kick-in and they’ll more willingly take on the responsibilities for comms and engagement.   If they start talking about it amongst themselves you know you’re onto something.  And it only takes a light (but important) touch from you.   Start by finding some role models and champions who already do it well.

Conversations not cascades.    Everyone knows that the Team Brief cascade system of communication doesn’t work.    Using line managers to deliver a functional outcome like passing on a message is not a good use of their leadership skills and does nothing for employee engagement.  And as we know, they won’t do it at the right time anyway, if at all.     The only way managers can truly engage is through conversation – a good old fashioned, eye-to-eye chat.    It’s in those conversations – and the questions asked – that true engagement happens – how are you feeling, is there anything you don’t understand, how can I help, what do you most enjoy doing, what could we do better, are you clear about what’s expected of you, have you any good ideas, what do you want to do next?   Those sorts of questions.   That doesn’t take training, it just takes encouragement, a bit of support, some self-belief and probably a dose of culture change.  Which is a whole different story!

It’s fear, not workload, that stops managers communicating

Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69I once worked for a manager who inspired me to believe I could achieve anything.   Then there was the manager who yelled at his staff and threw smartphones at them.    I remember the CEO with the charisma of a movie star and the CFO with the personality of a yoghurt.   I’ve seen them driven like Gandhi and lost like Bambi.    I’ve known managers who light up rooms and others who light up cigarettes.   In my time, I’ve worked for, followed, admired and observed managers of all shapes and sizes.   Some were natural communicators, many were not.  Some drove me to perfection, others drive me to tears.   We all know what that’s like.

Comms people often call out line managers as their biggest challenge.  Why is this?  Why are so many managers so frustratingly poor at engaging with the people they are paid to lead?    Most managers tend to think they are good communicators.   They’ll insist they talk regularly with their staff and that they take comms seriously, but then they’ll throw up excuses about time and conflicting business priorities.  Others think their comms responsibilities extend only to reading out a team briefing, announcing decisions or conducting the occasional team meeting.

I’ll tell you why so many managers don’t communicate.  They’re scared.  It’s fear, not workload, that stops them communicating.

Fear of peer judgement.   Managers are competitive and they don’t like to look weak.   They have a mental picture in their head that managers should look strong, confident and ‘in charge’.   They often become leaders of people by virtue of technical ability or time-served, and they justify their lofty appointments by talking about strategic business issues, sprinkling their language with corporate jargon and generally ‘acting senior’.     That’s what managers do isn’t it – have meetings, make decisions and display tangible evidence of their authority?   What would the other managers say if they put people and engagement above strategy and execution on their list of priorities?

Fear of looking soft.    The macho culture of many organisations mean that managers tend to consider qualities like humility, creativity and active listening as ‘too soft’.    For them, emotional intelligence is just a fancy HR buzzword and not something hard-nosed business decision makers should be taking seriously.    It takes a lot of courage to be an authentic leader – to admit to weakness, to own up to mistakes, to show emotion and ask others to do likewise.   Good communicators listen more than they talk.  They facilitate more than dictate.  They ask people about their lives, how they feel and what brings out the best in them.   They ask questions like “what can I do better” and “how can I help”.   For many managers, that’s too much to ask.

Fear of not knowing answers.  Managers, especially senior leaders, often like to avoid confrontation with ‘real people’ because they are frightened of what they might be asked.   They fear not having credible answers.  They worry about looking vulnerable.   That’s why they dread Q&As and open forums.   They haven’t yet worked out that leadership isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to deal with the question and knowing what questions to ask in return.   It’s the same reason that leaders fear creativity.   They think it’s their job to come up with all the ideas.

Fear of getting it wrong.  We ask our managers to understand, translate, convey and ‘own’ corporate messages.  We expect them to role model values and inspire high performance.  But what if they don’t ‘get it’ themselves?  What if they don’t understand any or some of the message they are being asked to pass on with due gusto?   What if they don’t know what the acronyms mean?   You can only get so far with smoke and mirrors.    Many leaders avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by not communicating and not actively engaging with their people because they fear getting found out.

Ok, I know I’m having a bit of a downer of managers here.   I don’t mean to generalise, and I know there are some exceptional leaders and line managers in every organisation, but I do think that when managers fail to discharge their comms responsibilities it’s often a psychological rather than a practical barrier.

Buildings communicate too

buildings1I’ve always been a big fan of using buildings to communicate.   As we all know, words make up only a small fraction of what we communicate, the rest comes from body language, facial expressions, behaviours etc.   But buildings also communicate and we shouldn’t ignore the impact they can have on getting a message across.   I’ve seen this work really well … and really badly.   I remember ages ago visiting the UK HQ of Microsoft and I was struck by how well they used the building to communicate.  They had touch-screen information points in communal areas, huge hanging banners, posters created by staff on the walls, games rooms, innovation spaces, funky meeting rooms … all neatly and subtly adorned with the corporate message.    I got a feel for the company just waiting in reception.  On the other hand, I also remember a time when I visited the old Marks & Spencer HQ in London.   Now, we all have a perception of M&S as clean, high quality, light and modern.  But this old building was stuffy, dirty and noisy.   I sat in reception and all I could smell was cigarette smoke (it was next door to the smoking room) and there was a misspelt hand-written scrap of paper on the wall saying “All visitors must report to recepton”  (their spelling, not mine!).   The walls were grey and there was nothing to read or look at.   As a visitor, the building was giving me a completely different message to the one I had as a customer.

The reason I raise this is because I’ve been reading about what the office of the future will look like.   According to a recent feature on the BBC News website, we’ll soon have intelligent buildings with sensors built into the walls so that when you walk into the office, your workspace starts preparing itself for your arrival.  The environment is automatically adjusted for your taste – heat, light, ambience etc and your office will transform itself into an “expressive medium” just for you.   Digital walls will show the latest news and information, tailored for your needs and responsive to your touch.    You’ll even have edible walls.  Yes you read that right … edible walls, so even your lunch will be waiting for you when you go to work!   Seriously though, we communicators should really think carefully about buildings as a channel – from the naming of meeting rooms to the placement of interactive screens, from pictures on the walls to banners on the ceiling.

A really creative example of using a building to communicate is the work being done by the excellent John Clifford, senior internal communicator at Pitney Bowes in Hatfield.    Following the relocation of 450 staff to a new business park, John is using the history of the site to bring the office to life and build engagement.    Picking up on the fact that the business park is a redevelopment of the old De Havilland aircraft factory, John is using the ‘spirit of innovation and adventure’ theme to inspire and buildings2motivate colleagues.   Meetings rooms have been named after classic fighter aircraft, photos and information adorn the walls and there’s even some Hollywood glamour with links to Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.   John hopes to run presentations and set up an exhibition area in the building as part of the company’s culture forum – all part of evoking the history and atmosphere of the building to reinforce modern day business messages and values.   That’s creative communication in action.

If you use your building to communicate, why not tell us about it by posting a reply above?

A story of how one CEO delivered instant change

Eye of Man in GlassesThe leaked memo from Barclays boss Antony Jenkins telling 140,000 staff to sign up to a new set of values or leave the company has caused quite a debate among communicators.   Some are uncomfortable with the blunt tone, others are more concerned about imposing values onto people and some say “way to go AJ”.   Personally, I don’t have a problem with the frank tone of the message, which states (to the people who don’t feel they can sign up to the values):  “My message to those people is simple: Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won’t feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won’t feel comfortable with you as colleagues.”   From a language point of view, it’s clear, strong and refreshingly uncorporate.   And given the context of bad behaviour in the bank up to now, a strong message is the only option.   But will it make a difference?

Back in 1998 I worked for a CEO who faced a similar challenge of bringing about cultural change in a global financial services organisation.   He spent the first six months in the job travelling round and taking a good look at what he had inherited.   He didn’t like what he saw.   He knew that dramatic wholesale change would be required to fix what was an ailing organisation lumbering towards the 21st Century.    He also knew that the organisation was full of fiefdoms and parochial cliques, where ‘knowledge is power’ managers would run the rule as they saw it.   The CEO wanted to pursue an agenda of personal responsibility, customer focus, teamwork, knowledge sharing, trust, collaboration, learning, change agility and tech revolution.    Some chance.    So he decided to bring 365 of the company’s top managers together for an event in Barcelona.    They all turned up, expecting the usual away-day jolly, only to find coloured polo shirts in their hotel room and a request to wear them next day for the first session – blue for Europe, yellow for AsiaPac and red for Americas.   They didn’t fancy this, of course – “how naff” they chorused.    But next day they dutifully gathered in their shirts, looking and sounding mightily uncomfortable.    The stage was very corporate – plain lectern with a logo filled background.    Then on came the CEO, in a suit and tie, and proceeded to embark on a fairly dull PowerPoint review of business performance.

Then, 20 minutes in, something happened.   The CEO interrupted his presentation, looked out at the audience and said:  “You know, when I first took on this job I thought we needed to change by evolution.  I was wrong.  I made a mistake.   What we need is a revolution.”    At that point, the lights went down, and the dry ice came up.  The Beatle’s Revolution began to play (very loudly) and the audience started to revolve (they didn’t know at the time, but their seats had been constructed on top of a giant revolving floor).    As the song played, some of the audience reacted with smiles, others began to clap but most just looked puzzled.    Then, as the floor turned 180 degrees, a new stage opened up in front of them, with new branding, moody lighting and no lectern.   On came the CEO … miked-up and dressed in a polo shirt.   His first words were:  “From now on, we’re not the same company.”

Now why did this happen?   Primarily it was to put a very clear stake in the ground that things were about to change.  There had to be a moment in time when the change started – and that time (as I still remember today) was 9.20am on June 6th 1998.  The time of the revolution.    There had to be this one moment to signal that things would be different from now on.    It could only happen with all the top managers in the room.   Now of course, the excitement died down and the CEO and his colleagues proceeded to set out, over the following three days, how the organisation was going to change and what he expected of his leaders.    But he quite rightly knew that would not be enough.  He knew some were “up for it” but it was obvious that many would go back to their constituencies and carry on as before.     So on the final day, at the farewell lunch, he dropped the bombshell.

At the point where he was expected to say “thanks very much, it’s been great, now have a safe journey home”, he actually said this:   “You know, over these last three days I’ve taken the opportunity to meet every single one of you.  I have looked into the whites of your eyes, and I know that some of you are ready to lead this change.  But I also know that some of you will go back to your part of the organisation and carry on exactly the same as you did before.   Well, to those people, let me just say this.  There are lots of good companies out there who would welcome your knowledge and experience.  So why don’t you go and work for those companies?    If you aren’t prepared to change, there’s no place for you here.”   We called this the “whites of your eyes” speech and it had a tangible impact on the room.   Over the following months, some great role modelling leaders emerged with innovative and inspiring ideas for engaging people.    Many other leaders left the organisation.  The change had begun and it captured the imagination.

So back to Barclays.   Antony Jenkins has just given his “whites of your eyes” speech, so let’s
see what happens next.   For me, the mistake Barclays have made is in their new core values.  They’re useless – respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.   What does that mean?   As someone pointed out on a forum, Enron had three of these values!    Values shouldn’t be nouns – they should be verbs.  That way they can be actioned and measured.   Show me an organisation who doesn’t believe in integrity, respect, service yada yada.    Success will now lie in how they embed and role model the values, but I can’t help feeling it’s a missed opportunity.    The first punch was with a knuckle duster, the second was with a custard pie.

The biggest communication barrier might just be the one you’re sitting on

ChairA recent post on HBR warning about the unhealthy consequences of ‘sitting’ (in other words, the amount of time we spend on our backsides!) in the workplace and the healing and creative advantages of walking has got me thinking about how much good communication is lost by chair-based apathy.   The post, from businesswoman Nilofer Merchant points out that we spend an alarming 9.3 hours a day on a chair as opposed to 7.7 hours in bed.   That’s a lot of sitting.   Certainly, when I think back to my early working days (in an insurance office) I would spend much of my day walking up and down stairs and across the office floor to actually speak to people (oh, how retro).    Now I work from home and I sit down for most of my day.  No wonder I have back trouble (although since the new year I have taken to walking at least three miles every day, which I’m loving).   Nilofer’s HBR post neatly sets out (as if we didn’t know) the impact on our health of ‘too much sitting’ (a “lethal activity” according to one doctor), so why aren’t organisations doing more to stop their workers from spending so much time on their derrière?   And is there a role for us communicators here?

We could start by encouraging stand-up and walking meetings.   As Ms Merchant discovered when she started holding ‘hiking meetings’, the quality of interaction and outcome actually improves when you meet on the move.    Your concentration improves, mobiles are removed and creativity goes through the roof (well, it would if there was a roof!).   There’s plenty of evidence about the creative benefits of walking too, as I have mentioned before.    The great outdoors removes the physical barriers of the workplace and exposes us to natural stimuli, which feeds our brain with ideas, inspirations and perspectives.   Team walking, or just generally meeting standing up, is more sociable too.   It gives us the opportunity to interact with the whole team, collectively or individually, rather than just the ones who are sitting up our end of the table.    Walking allows for natural periods of silence, during which we can reflect and think – all very healthy in a creative context.    In a typical sit-down business meeting, we don’t tolerate silence.   We expect someone to be talking the whole time.   Not everyone wants to be dragged out on a five mile hike up a hill (I do) but it could just be a stroll around the block or a walk in park.

I once worked in Berkeley Square in London and we would sometimes use the square for impromptu team meetings.   It was the most creative time of my working life.    We communicators should team up with the people who look after health and wellbeing in our organisations and do more to encourage comms on the move – walk ‘n’ talk.   We should be pushing, and role modelling, new and creative ways to interact.   For most organisations, encouraging people to undertake the serious business of work in anything other than a corporate environment is too big a leap of faith for them to take, which in many ways underlines the way companies suffocate creativity.    Most managers would be worried about peer judgement if they were seen to be taking their team out for a picnic meeting or a creative hike.  That, of course, is not a reason to not do it.    Maybe we can start by running a few campaigns to encourage innovative interactions?   Putting all our comms online may have its benefits, but the health and wellbeing of the receiver is not one of them.

Who’s to blame for corporate jargon?

golden-bullJust before Christmas, the Plain English Campaign announced the 2012 winners of its annual ‘Golden Bull Awards’ for bringing plain English into disrepute.    And this year’s winners happen to be my own local NHS Trust!   The Cheshire, Warrington and Wirral NHS Commissioning Support Service wins top prize for this classic piece of jargon-fuelled nothingness:

A unique factor of the NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, large service re-design and implementation…Building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation.  The service is inclusive of full engagement with Clinical Commissioning Groups who direct at decision-making points how they wish the proposal to be deployed (re-commission, de-commission or changes to current services/providers), and lastly an implementation team who see the service redesign through to evaluation and benefits realisation.

You can see the other mesmerising award winners here, but be warned, don’t read them all in one go if you are prone to migraines.   The sad thing is, of course, that these great examples of corporate fudge and wizardry are not uncommon.  They can be found in pretty much every organisation.   So who really is to blame?   Is it managers with over-inflated egos?  Is it training?  Is it cultural?  Is it a reflection of poor academic standards before people enter the workplace?   Is it a peer pressure that makes leaders in particular feel the need to appear intelligent and business-savvy?   Is it a lack of confidence?  Is it a reluctance to use emotion and authenticity at work?  Is it a deliberate act of confusion?  Is it comms people … are we to blame for the way this has got so out of hand?   jargon1

I’ve never met a comms person who hasn’t complained about the negative impact of jargon, and almost everyone on the ‘frontline’ tells us they want their comms to be plain and simple … so why haven’t we been successful in stamping it out?   Is the battle now too big for us?   Do we not have the influence?   Or is it the lack of will … do we not consider writing to be important anymore?   I saw a blog entry from a comms practitioner today who said (in the context of looking ahead to 2013) that ‘writing is dead’ and it’s pictures and infographics that matter now.   Are these people serious?  If we give up on writing, prose and realness in our comms, we’ll fall into an even deeper abyss.  The infographics will just become ‘jargon in pictures’.  We may like the look of our pretty graphics but our audience will just shake their heads and wonder where it all went wrong.   I’m all for good use of imagery and graphics, but not at the expense of the written word.  No way.  I think good corporate writing is more important than ever!

Maybe, like the Plain English Campaign, we should recognise the skill involved in being able to write 200 words without any discernible point whatsoever.   A few months ago I listened to a very senior executive speak for a whole hour and not say anything.   At the end of the PowerPoint-filled 60 minute presentation, we all turned to each other and said “what did she say?”.   Now that’s talent!   I don’t think corporate communicators can shoulder all the blame for what’s happening but I do think we have to take some responsibility for it.   Are we really doing enough to stamp this out, or do we just relegate it to the ‘too difficult’ pile and pretend to be outraged by it?

Ten new year resolutions for communicators

2013Human beings are hardwired for optimism, and never is our tendency to look on the bright side more in evidence than when we’re approaching the start of a new year.    For most of us, our success rate in living up to new year resolutions is pretty shocking, but every year we adamantly insist that the next 12 months will be different.  It’s in our nature.   So here, with a heaped tablespoon of positivity, I present ten new year resolutions for internal communicators everywhere …

1. Unleash your creativity.   Make 2013 the year you open the dam and let your creative juices flow.   Soon, creativity will be high up on the list of required skills for communicators, so make a start now.  Learn how to have great ideas, understand where creativity happens, know how to encourage others to be creative, open your eyes to fresh perspectives, change the way you look at the world.    You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.

2. Find your Reason Why.    Purpose is the new money.   It’s what people search for, at work and at play.   Most organisations struggle to explain why they do what they do, which is why they resort to bland and uninspiring vision statements.   So start with your own team.  Talk about why you’re here.   What’s the point of you?    What’s the point of your whole organisation?   Remember, most companies give their people something to work on, inspirational companies give their people something to work towards.

3. Be more playful.   Workplaces are so serious, but they don’t need to be.   Make 2013 the year you introduce some play and fun into what you do.   Try breaking the mould and doing something a little different, something with a sense of spirit and playfulness.    If you want to get your message noticed, you’ll need to break a few patterns of behaviour.

4. Chill Baby Chill.   I don’t mean to come over all Austin Powers here but we really do need to relax and step back from trying to control everything.   The future of internal comms will be much less top-down and managed.  It’ll be personalised, networked, self-directed and collaborative, so we need to change the way we approach our role in the mix.    We’ll need to learn to trust more.   And we’ll need to stop doing some things.

5. Learn something new.   Set yourself a goal to learn something new about our craft.   In my experience, we communicators tend to plough a fairly narrow field of established best practice and we can be slow to embrace new ways of working and thinking.    As the world around us changes, we need to adapt to survive and prosper, so take this time to build your knowledge.  Learn about creativity, change psychology, social media, authentic leadership etc.   Or add some business acumen to your armoury.   Go visit that part of your organisation you know least about.

6. Look again at print.   Printed communication material is coming back into fashion, and not before time.   Of course it needs to be part of a channel mix, including online, but go on, dust off those old label templates and give your printer a call.    You’ll make his day.

7. Review the way you ‘use’ your middle managers.    Line managers may be your biggest frustration but have you considered that maybe they’re just a bit misunderstood?   They may be an important part of your ‘process’ but they are also human beings (most of them) and they can’t be controlled like a piece of machinery.   Cascades never work, so stop trying.   Back off, support them from a  distance and encourage them to express themselves. 

8. De-clutter your message cupboard.    New year is the time for a detox, for clearing out the old and unwanted ‘stuff’ that clutters up our lives.    It’s the same with our comms, so take some time in January to take a look at what you’re communicating.   Be prepared to dump some of the unclear and unnecessary.   Take a deep breath, review your top line messages for 2013 and get rid of any message that is either ‘not important’, ‘important’ or ‘really important’… leaving only the ones that are ‘most important’.

9.  Fall back in love with language.    Let’s make 2013 the year we made a concerted effort to break free of corporate jargon.   It has to stop.   Let’s get some authenticity into corporate communication.   Let’s use language that lifts hearts and boosts spirits.  Let’s show some emotion for God’s sake.   Read Dickens or Shakespeare to remind yourself how powerful the written word can be.    It won’t be easy to break this terrible affliction, but let’s not be afraid to try.

10. Don’t be unoriginal.   If you’re putting your 2013 plan together in January, take a moment to stop and think before you re-hash last year’s template.   Do you really want to do more of the same?  Maybe so, but just take time to think about the impact of each activity.   Was it worth it?   Will it be worth it again, or do we need to try something new?   Much of our industry is templated, structured and managed.   It can make us lazy.   Be original in 2013. Be creative.  Be bold.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Creative New Year.


Why hard copy is more than a nice touch

snow gloveA few weekends ago we visited the Hay Winter Festival in lovely Hay on Wye, a couple of days of literary talks, creative workshops for children and a bit of Christmas shopping.   One of the speakers was a doctor recently back from a year in Antarctica.  He had completed a shift as the resident medic at the British research base on the continent and had written a book* about his experiences.   His presentation about the harsh environment, the extreme conditions and his love for the penguins was fascinating, but what made it so much more engaging were the props.   About half way through his talk, he handed out his snow gloves and boots for us to see, touch and pass round.     The feeling of sliding your hand into one of these huge, thick snow gloves designed to withstand temperatures of -50 degrees made it so much more ‘real’.    We could transport our imagination and get a sense for what it must’ve been like to be there in Antarctica.    It was the same with the penguin egg we could see and touch.   Watching someone talk or present is one thing, but ‘taking part’ is so much more engaging.   The simple act of circulating tangible props for the audience to interact with makes it a much richer experience, especially if it’s a talk that requires a use of one’s imagination (which most stories do).

One of the concerns I have about the trends in internal communications is the almost lemming-like rush to move everything into the virtual world.   Let’s stop all the paper publications and do it all online.  Let’s shove everything onto an intranet or portal.  Why bother getting everyone in the same room when we can meet and collaborate online?   There’s no doubt that technology has been a powerful and very welcome force for good for internal communicators, but I do think we need to maintain a balance here.    The cost-saving argument may be reasonably compelling, and the accessibility benefit is hard to beat, but these should never be the only considerations.

We humans are hard-wired to learn, interact and communicate through touch.   Our skin is our body’s largest organ and when its sensory receptors are stimulated it releases a hormone that reduces stress and makes us feel good.   We can all relate to the healing and calming powers of a pat on the back, a reassuring hug or a peck on the cheek.    It’s the same with objects.  A 2008 study at Yale found that people tend to think more warmly of others if they are holding something warm, like a hot mug of tea.   In some organisations nowadays, ‘hard copy’ is considered a toxic phrase, inducing a sharp intake of breath at the prospect of actually printing something (notice how most organisations still print hard copy publications for their external audience but consider it an unnecessary cost for the internal audience).  But that misses the point.  It might be cheaper to put all comms online, but humans crave physical contact – not just with each other but with tangible objects.    Why do some of us prefer books to Kindle?   Why do some prefer Waterstones to Amazon?   Why do some of us get a thrill from holding a 1.5 million year old hand axe in the British Museum’s ‘show and tell’ section?   Some of us are more kinesthetic than others – some of us are predisposed to prefer learning through touch – but we all need and value the sensation of physical contact.   The next time you’re arranging a briefing or presentation on an important topic, think about reaching all your audience’s senses.   Offer props, like models, flash cards or creative reading materials.    Pass round objects that relate to the topic to stimulate the imagination.   Invite people to interact with the subject matter in a physical way, say by using sticky notes for gathering feedback or introducing a prototype.   Touch invites questions and builds engagement.   You might learn something too.   I now know that the fur on the back of a snow glove is for wiping dripping snot from your nose before it freezes.   I wish the good doctor had told us that before we all rubbed it against our faces!

* Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis

The future of internal comms – a humble opinion

I was asked on a training course last week what I thought the future of internal communications looks like.    It’s a topic I’ve given a bit of thought to recently, having attended a few seminars and followed some online debates about ‘where our industry is going’.   My opinion on the subject is no more valid than anyone else’s but let me put forward my take on what the next ten years will bring.  Some of these views align with conventional thinking, while others may be more controversial.  Some will no doubt prove to be completely wrong. 

Comms people will need to learn to chill out.    We’ve got to stop trying to manage everything.   You see, the future will be less top-down and more organic.   The digital generation will not tolerate the overly managed comms environment we have today, where comms people fill a disproportionate amount of time trying to co-ordinate the delivery of every last message.  This type of ‘spreadsheet planning’ has only ever worked in the heads of comms people anyway.   Real life doesn’t work like that.  The future will be more open. 

Comms will be more collaborative, connected and networked.    The days of heavily spun corporate messaging and top-down cascades are numbered.   The old ways of communicating are falling on deaf ears.  Cascades have never worked and they will fail even more spectacularly in the future.   Instead, organisations will need to develop a core narrative and tone of voice which defines their purpose and let messages develop organically from this core sense of being.    Those messages – or stories – will be shared by leaders, managers and front-line staff in equal proportion using the collaboration and social networking tools that will replace many (but not all) of our traditional channels.

Comms will be more self-directed and personalised.   This collaborative environment and the advance of technology will lead to personalised rather than corporate communications.   Individuals will be able to choose their message, channel and collaboration preferences, and they will create or co-create many of the messages they need to be engaged.   We will never be able (and we never should try) to control this new self-directed environment and disempower the messenger.  We will all be internal communicators in the future.

A little bit of chaos will be a good thing.   The idea of allowing individuals to personalise their comms environment and co-create the company narrative will terrify the purists, but that’s part of the mindset-shift we’ll have to make.    We have to start letting go, and if that causes a little bit of chaos, then what’s so wrong with that?   Innovation, creativity, engagement and motivation can thrive in chaos.  Often the best communications are disruptive.   We’ll need to get used to a bit of disruption.

Messages will need to reinforce purpose as well as strategy.    Purpose will be more important that vision or strategy.   People will increasingly want to know what they are part of.   They will want more than money, a good team and a decent workplace to feel engaged.   They’ll want to know why they do what they do.  They will seek fulfilment through what Dan Pink calls mastery, autonomy and purpose.   Generation Y will become Generation Why?

Communications will need to be more authentic.   Most corporate messages are too dull to stick and their delivery is too bland to inspire.   In the future, workers will demand something much more engaging, more authentic and more relevant.    They will want to know what the organisation is doing and why, but they will want to have a voice and be heard.   They will see through jargon and insincere behaviours.   Values will become more important.  Language will have to be simpler.  Authenticity will be everything.    This means leaders and managers will need to learn the art of emotional intelligence – the ability to get on with people, listen, empathise, explain, inspire, support, coach and challenge. 

Managers will need to be empowered, not controlled.   We’ll have to come to terms with the fact that middle managers cannot be controlled and used purely as passive instruments of a communication process.   They are far too busy, stressed and uninterested to do what we tell them to do.   We’ll have to learn to back off and let them get on with leading their people in their own way.   Yes, we can help them, support them, coach them and encourage them but ultimately we’ll need to empower them.    They will need to own the story and make it come alive for their people in ways that they know best.

Leaders and communicators will have to master creativity.   Business leaders the world over recognise that creativity will be the single biggest skill for organisations to master to cope with what’s coming down the track.   The penny will need to drop for us communicators too.   We’ll have to be more innovative in how we craft, deliver and embed the corporate narrative.   The ‘same old same old’ will no longer be enough.   We’ll need to get noticed, raise eyebrows and get people involved.

The boundaries between work and non-work will disappear.    In the future, workers will know (and will want to know) much more about their colleagues than the person they see 9-5.   Organisations will want to tap into the skills and expertise their workers have in the ‘real world’.  Leaders will talk about their weekend selves as well as their corporate selves, and people will value them for it.   We will communicate 24/7 and we will expect to access our work anytime, anyplace, from any device.

The IC model will change.   There will be fewer in-house experts, largely because communications responsibility will be more widely embedded in the organisation (an outcome we’ve always wished for surely?) and also because the agile business environment of the future will demand more flexible specialist resources on an ‘as required’ basis.   Organisations will bring in third-party expertise to deliver specific outcomes from networked agency partners and trusted freelance specialists.     Our remit will expand into territory traditional held by HR departments and we will be increasingly influential in the development of engagement drivers such as innovation, creativity, collaboration, recruitment, workplace, wellbeing and leadership.

We will change.   Those internal comms practitioners who remain and thrive in the future will be those who foresee and respond to what’s coming down the line.   They will be the ones who had the courage to stop doing some of the things they’ve always done and acted as a catalyst for change.   They will be the ones who embraced and mastered creativity.  They will be prepared for what technology will offer but they will never lose sight of the fact that communication is essentially human and that humans are essentially social creatures.   Their traditional core skills will be complemented by a greater understanding of human behaviour.  They will be respected, right-brained thinkers, valued for their contribution and rewarded well.   [That last bit was more wishful thinking than anything else but I wanted to end a high!]

How to engage your middle managers

I’m a middle child, the second of three boys.   According to recent research, I should therefore be more successful, ambitious, open to innovation, empathic, well-adjusted, independent, generous, kind, devoted, balanced, confident and hard-working than my two brothers.   Well, I don’t know about that but I’ll take it!   Seriously though, a number of studies in the US and Europe have exposed the myth of us middle-borns being resentful and neglected underachievers.   Our middle status enhances our ability to keep the peace and negotiate.   The attention given to our supposedly responsible first and rebellious last-born siblings apparently gives us an inner drive to succeed, to get noticed, to rise above the pack.     OK, let’s assume all that is true.  Now let’s translate the same logic into the workplace and consider the role of middle managers.    My comms colleagues will immediately recognise this community as being a perennial ‘problem area’.   We worry about middle managers more than anyone else, because we know how important they are.   We ask more of middle managers than any other stakeholder group.   We need them to deliver and translate messages, manage change, improve wellbeing, motivate their people and role model values.   But unlike the senior leaders, who can be ‘picked off’ and coached individually, this middle community (what my old boss used to call the ‘marzipan layer’) is usually too remote and numerous (and busy) for us to nurture and support one-to-one.    What’s more, just like the middle child in the family, the middle manager has to juggle responsibilities and keep the peace, treading a fine line between ‘corporate mouthpiece’ and ‘voice of the people’.   They must support the ‘company line’ and embody its culture, whilst remaining loyal to the people they lead.   Middle managers are usually the unhappiest people in the organisation – stressed, over-worked, under-valued, constantly in fear of the chop and pulled from both ends.   It’s a tough ask, and then we communicators come along and make it even tougher.   I remember growing up wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, especially as there was (and still is!) only 17 months between us.   The metaphor translates to middle managers who are asked to consume hand-me-down messages created by others and which they are expected to endorse, interpret and pass on.  My industry devotes whole conferences to deciding how best to do that.   Maybe one way is to tap into those middle child characteristics.

In a recent study carried out by Dublin City University*, a number of middle managers in the Irish Health Service were asked to talk about a major organisational change event they had experienced.   About half chose the current top-down initiative (there’s always one isn’t there?) and the others recalled a change they themselves had initiated.    What the researchers found was that the corporate initiative came in for criticism around areas like strategic direction, increase in workload and poor communication.   On the other hand, those who talked about their own initiative were enthusiastic, pragmatic and highlighted the value of communication.    One participant neatly summed up the difference by saying his own approach was “we have an idea, can we talk to you about how it might work?”, whereas the top-down approach was more like “we have an idea and this is how it is going to work.”   Clearly this demonstrates the importance of ownership in times of change, we all prefer to be in control of our own destiny and we’re all nervous about ‘done to’ change.   But the Irish researchers made the important point that middle managers can be catalysts of change when given the opportunity to develop their own initiatives rather than pass on someone else’s.    In this particular study, they found that in most cases, the manager-led change initiatives produced many of the same outcomes that the top-down change was meant to enforce!   So maybe the lesson here is that rather than characterise middle managers as difficult, frustrating and hard to control, perhaps we should allow them to demonstrate those middle child skills of empathy, creativity and empowerment.    Be proud, you fellow mid-borns!

* Conway, E., & Monks, K. (2011). Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating paradoxical change, Human Resource Management Journal