Category Archives: Communications

Am I weird to not use Facebook?

I don’t have a Facebook account and I’ve never used Twitter.   Does that make me unemployable and socially inept?  A bit weird even?   And as a communications professional, am I wrong to not embrace the social networking tools that will increasingly dominate the internal corporate communications environment?   Should I be worried?   Apparently, employers are increasingly using Facebook to check on the ‘back story’ of job applicants … to see what they are ‘really like’.  In the US, some employers have made staff hand over their passwords or ‘friend’ their bosses so they can be snooped on.   Some commentators are even suggesting that people without Facebook accounts are loners and potentially dangerous, based on the apparent fact that a number of recent serial killers, including the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, didn’t use Facebook.   Oh, how lovely.    In my defence, I am a big user of LinkedIn for professional networking purposes, and as you can see, I do blog … so I’m not a complete Luddite (actually the English Luddite movement of the 19th century is misunderstood.  The Luddites weren’t anti-machinery for the sake of it, they were protesting against the exploitation of workers and the lowering of standards caused by the introduction of textile machinery).    It’s just that Facebook has never been an attraction to me*.    I really value friendship and so maybe there’s a part of me that worries that having lots of virtual ‘friends’ will devalue the currency of my ‘proper’ friends.   I dunno, I’m no psychiatrist.   So is there something wrong with me?   A recent study in Australia examined the personalities of people with and without Facebook accounts.   People with an account were found to be more extraverted and narcissistic, whereas those without an account were found to be more conscientious and shyer.   They found that those without an account experienced more social loneliness, but those with an account experienced more family loneliness.   I can see the logic there actually.   So what are we to deduce from this?   If you use Facebook, chances are you’re more outgoing and sociable – probably quite confident and maybe even a little egotistical.   For some employers, that’s a good set of characteristics.   On the other hand, if you don’t use Facebook, you may be more hard working and more focused on the job – equally attractive qualities.    So should us non-users be stigmatised or celebrated?   Personally I don’t care, but as social networking increases its profile in the workplace, I do think we need to remind ourselves that organisations, like communities, are made up of many different personality types.   The integration and mix of channels will be just as important in the future as it’s been in the past.

* Mind you, if I did use Facebook I’ll be telling my ‘friends’ that I went to see the brilliant movie Argo yesterday and I’d be urging them to go see it.   I’d try to resist telling them what I had for dinner, how cool I must be for having so many friends and sharing my views on the election of police commissioners zzzzzzzzzzzzz.   

Change and the whining dog

Picture a hot, balmy afternoon in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  Picture a run-down house alone on the edge of a cornfield with a wooden porch and clapperboard windows.   Imagine an old, lazy dog laying out on the porch trying to escape the sun.   Imagine the dog shuffling uncomfortably and whining constantly.   Along comes another dog.   It sidles up against the whining dog and says “hey, what’s the problem?  Why are you whining so?”.   The whining dog replies “because there’s a rusty nail from the floorboard sticking into my side and it hurts”.    “Then why don’t you move?” says the second dog.   “Because it doesn’t hurt enough,” comes the reply.

I tell this story on my change workshops as a metaphor for organizational change.   You see, organisations are full of whining dogs.   There is often a fair degree of pain, discomfort and frustration with the way things are now – enough for us to build a compelling change message – but is the pain bad enough to encourage people to engage with the prospect of embracing change?   Offices and workplaces are full of people who complain about ‘the way things are’ but who then resist change – people who know there must be a better way, but who baulk at the prospect of making it happen.   The same point is made by the famous Gleicher Formula, which states that D X V X F > R, where ‘D’ is the dissatisfaction with the way things are now, ‘V’ is the vision of the future, ‘F’ is the clarity around the first steps to achieving that vision and ‘R’ is the resistance to the change.   In a nutshell, the formula says that the combined ‘score’ of D, V and F has to be greater than the score for R, otherwise change will not occur.   In comms language, it means that we have to have positive engagement around why we’re changing, where we heading and how we’re gonna get there … and then hope that all that outweighs the forces of resistance, such as fatigue, disengagement, lack of investment, flagging leadership commitment, active disruption and general apathy.   I often use the Gleicher Formula in presentations about change to make me look intelligent, but the whining dog story works just as well.   They both essentially emphasize the fundamentals of change communication – we have to reach a tipping point at which our people decide that the effort required to change is ‘worth it’ – that the uncertainty and stress of undertaking change is outweighed by the good that will come from it.  To do that, we have to move along the three lanes of the highway – ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ – at the same time.   Failure to have a convincing message behind each of these will reduce the score on the left side of the formula and risk the failure of the change.

I heard a third analogy the other day which I also think sums this challenge up rather well:   “Even hell is a hard place to leave if you know your way around.”

What’s the point of face to face communication?

As comms professionals we’ve always been taught that face to face is always best.  It feels instinctively right and surveys always confirm it to be true – given the choice, employees will always prefer to receive information face to face from their own boss.   As a consultant and trainer, I myself have never strayed from the path when advising clients.  Of course it’s true.  It makes perfect sense.   But what’s the point of face to face communication?  No, really, what’s the point?   Why is seeing a leader on a platform giving a presentation any more effective than being sent the slides by email, or downloading a PDF off the intranet?   Why are people so keen on being in the same room?

The answer is not in the words.  It’s in the eyes.   People want to communicate F2F because they want to see the other person’s eyes … and the face, and the expression, and the posture.   Face to face is a physical medium, and that’s why we like it.    Approach a new born baby (well, give it a week or two!) and watch the way it studies your eyes.  It’s fascinated.  The baby will stare into your eyes searching for meaning.   We never lose that curiosity.   Eye contact is one of the essential ingredients of human relationships.   There’s an old saying that goes “never trust anyone you haven’t looked in the eye”.   Eye contact is vital to building trust, so when our leaders ask us to trust them, they’ll stand a much better chance if they came to actually meet us.   It’s probably why we don’t trust politicians – because the vast majority of us have never looked one in the eye.   Many of us will have people in our LinkedIn network who we’ve only briefly met, say at a conference.   But why do we feel we know them?  Because we’ve looked into their eyes, and they’ve looked into ours.   Face to face communication is not so much about what’s said in the room, it’s more about what happens in the room.  It’s far better to have a leader go round the room meeting everyone and looking into their eyes, than up on  platform reading off a slide.   I heard a lovely quote the other day on a creative leadership webinar that said “leaders should be generous with their eyes”, which I think puts it rather well.

And it’s not just about eyes.  The human face has almost 90 muscles and so it’s an incredibly informative feature.   You hear about people’s face ‘lighting up’ when they’re excited or ‘looking down in the dumps’ when they’re fed up.   Interpreting facial expressions is a party trick of our right brain.  We’re instinctively good at reading expressions and emotions, when words aren’t required (particularly women).   Emotional connection also builds trust and engagement, but how much emotion do we see in the typical workplace?   We teach managers not to show emotion – don’t blink, don’t let them see you sweat, don’t admit to any failings.  We expect leaders to be strong and pokerfaced.    But that’s not conducive to effective face to face communication.  Surely we want communication to be natural, expressive, collaborative, authentic and have some emotional content?   That’s why we choose face to face, right?   But most leaders feel they need to leave their real self at the office door.   In meetings and presentations, we listen to the words but we listen to the eyes and the body more.   And the body never stops communicating.   This culture of emotional impotence has got to change, and it is I hope.   The term ‘emotional intelligence’ – the capacity to understand and relate to people – is gaining some traction in many organisations as leaders realise the increasing need for skills like empathy, creativity and relationship building.    This is what builds trust and engagement.   As comms people, we know we’re right to promote the face to face channel, but we should remind ourselves why.

The six essential skills of the creative manager

I’ve been working on a series of learning modules and workshops for leaders called The Creative Manager designed to encourage managers to be more creative in the way they lead, engage and get the best out of their people.  It’s not easy being a manager, particularly a middle or line manager, in a large organisation nowadays.   We ask them to communicate corporate messages, facilitate discussion, lead their people through change, maintain motivation, drive up engagement, inspire innovation, role model behaviours, improve wellbeing, solve problems, manage performance and many other things.  It’s a big ask, that’s for sure – and in my opinion one which requires a much more dextrous and creative style of leadership capability.   So I’ve been looking at how we can ensure our managers have the modern communication skills to meet these expectations as well as the techniques to exploit the creativity that exists inside them and their people.  In doing so, I’ve talked to leaders, listened to experts, read books, attended talks, followed the latest thinking and generally used my intuition to finally plump for six core capability areas which I think define the Creative Manager – storytelling, novelty, play, empathy, affinity and purpose.   Of course, these are not ‘new’ skills in themselves and many managers already have a natural tendency in one of more of them, but for me they comprise the six areas in which a manager’s creativity can best be harnessed, exploited and shared.  Let me explain:

Storytelling – This is the art of using stories to release creativity, motivate, inspire and share knowledge.  Of course, storytelling has always been a natural part of the human psyche – from cave drawings to Hollywood – and storytelling in business is not a new concept.   But do most managers really understand the power of a good story and do they have the techniques to both tell and encourage stories as an engagement tool?   Stories make people care.  They help people visualise and simulate, they provide context and they inspire people to act.  A lot of storytelling ‘training’ is patronising.  If you’re human, you can tell stories.  But I do think managers could benefit from a few simple techniques to enable them to communicate the company narrative through creative storytelling.

Novelty – This is the term I use to sum up the skill of bringing freshness and perspective into the workplace in order to drive up engagement, productivity and innovation.   Most organisations are logical, analytical, left-brained environments with their standards, guidelines, set processes and repetitive behaviours.   Unfortunately, these environments can stifle creativity and make office life dull and boring.   People sometimes don’t feel they have the ‘permission’ to raise new ideas or they don’t have the right stimulus to innovate or do things differently.  I think managers need the skills, techniques and imagination to inject some new thinking into the way they connect with their people and inspire them to action.   To me, novelty is about looking at things in a different way, injecting some ‘newness’, being curious and inspiring creativity by drawing out and developing the ideas that can lead to innovations and engagement.   It’s not the manager’s job to come up with all the ideas, but it’s very much the manager’s job to facilitate an environment where ideas can surface, grow and flourish.

Play – There’s enough evidence now to prove that happy people make productive people, and that people who are encouraged to laugh and be playful make more creative and engaged workers.   Most business communication is about serious messages delivered in a serious way, so this skill is all about how to inject some playful behaviour into the workplace.  When we talk about play at work, it’s not about bringing a board game into the office or putting a snooker table behind the filing cabinets.  Play in this context is about creative problem solving, collaboration, laughter, knowledge sharing and experimenting.   Managers shouldn’t be afraid of being playful.   Play is a perfectly valid and effective way of learning about the serious business of work.   One day managers will be appointed on their sense of fun.

Empathy – The best communicators make an emotional connection with their audience, but you don’t have to be Gandhi to make an impact.   What’s more important is the ability to empathise with and understand the people you’re communicating with, so you can tailor your delivery and engagement style to match their needs and preferences.   This skill is about listening, understanding and relating to individuals – behaviours that will make every leader more effective.   Empathy is sadly lacking in many organisations today and there’s compelling evidence that the next generation of managers who have grown up in the digital age are going to be particularly poor at empathic relationship building.   We need to get this bit right.

Affinity – Why is it that some messages stick and other’s fail to connect?  What makes a good message and what makes a great communicator?   This is a skill I am calling Affinity – the art of connecting with an audience so that they listen, understand, trust, value and act upon your words.   This doesn’t come easy to many managers but you don’t need to change who you are to make a connection and build affinity.  I believe managers need a creative toolkit to help them to bring messages alive, to liven up their team meetings, to inspire their people to act and to cut through the noise.   A little bit of imagination can go a long way.

Purpose – Ever since the first human beings looked up at the sky we have pondered our place in the universe and our reason for being.   Today the ‘search for meaning’ is stronger than ever and in business the desire to see purpose in what we do is becoming a critical area for leaders and communicators to respond to.   For managers, the challenge is to not just communicate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of company strategy, but the ‘why’.   If people care, they will act.   So how do you make people care?   I see the ability to build a sense of purpose as a key leadership competency for the future.

As I said, some managers already excel at these skills and many more have the creative drive to keep their people engaged and motivated in other ways.  But all I’ve tried to do here is to put a simple framework around the answer to the question “how can I be a more creative and engaging manager?”.    I say here are six ways you can start.

Flash mobs in the office?

I took my daughter to the Cheltenham Literature Festival this weekend (hey, I’m not saying its middle class but I heard someone say “stay here Blossom, Mummy’s gone to find Hector”).  I love the festival atmosphere –  listening to authors talk about their books, learning about new subjects and having the chance to meet great writers face to face (especially inspiring for children).    I myself came face to face with a world famous philosopher in the hotel, whose talk on ‘wonder’ I had been to the day before.  Here was one of the great thinkers of our time – just me and him in a corridor, my chance to ask a profound question about existentialist rationality or wave theory … so what do I say?   “I don’t think the lift is working Professor Tallis”.  Doh!  Anyway, the reason I mention the festival is because this year they had ‘Flash Poets’ popping up when you least expected.   They would just unroll a stand-up banner next to a queue or alongside a path and just start reciting poetry.   I love this idea.   Not because I’m particularly fond of poetry (I can only recite one poem and that’s a limerick I learned when I was about six*) but because the ‘flash mob’ concept is such a great way to get a message across.   It speaks to the point made in the book Made to Stick about the element of surprise in communication.   The best way to capture someone’s attention is to break a pattern.   When you’re quietly standing in a queue of sitting on a park bench you don’t expect someone to start belting out poetry.   It’s unexpected and therefore memorable (and possibly a little irritating).   Bring the concept into the workplace and it’s a creative option for communicating a message.    If you want to spread a message about a project or initiative, why not do unscheduled flash appearances where crowds are gathered (restaurant, car park?) to give a quick 3-minute presentation and distribute some handouts, then move on.   It has to be brief, fast-moving and ideally light hearted, and if it is I bet people remember what you’re saying.   In our sanitised and highly managed internal comms environments nowadays, a little bit of flashing might be welcome change.

*There was an old man from Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds
In less than an hour
His face was in flower
And his head was all covered in weeds

 

Things I learned at a conference

I spent the last two days at the Melcrum Internal Comms Summit in London.   Now, I’m not a natural conference-goer, but having not attended a professional event of this kind for ten years (the last one I went to I actually presented at) I thought I should pop along to check up on some good practice, do a bit of networking and see what’s happening in my industry.   Overall, an interesting couple of days and whilst not all the presentations worked for me personally, it was good to sit at the back (as I always do) and soak it all up.   Here are some reflections of the two days:

The clear message for me was the fact that our industry needs to start letting go and stop trying to manage everything.   As I have said many times in this blog, I think internal comms is too over-managed.   We can’t – and shouldn’t – try to control all workplace communication.  We need to let it happen more.  The Gen Y workers won’t tolerate the restrictions of managed channels – they want and expect to be able to connect, collaborate and communicate ‘on the fly’, as they do out of work.    As futurist Anna-Lise Kjaer said in her opening keynote:  “We must move away from the channel centred approach to communicating and move to a more personal approach.”

Comms people need to wrestle strategic control of the technology that enables this to happen.   In my experience, most comms people don’t see ‘collaboration’ as part in their remit beyond using tools like Yammer as a comms channel.   But here’s where we need to drop the silo thinking and look more holistically at the workplace in general.   Collaboration is a form of communication and engagement, as is knowledge transfer, learning, formal training, idea sharing and community building.  We can’t (and shouldn’t try) to manage all these things, but we should recognise the part they play in building a communication culture.

Purpose is the new black.   Anne-Lise talked about the importance of work having a higher meaning.  Purpose is what drives people.   I love her line “If you can’t feel it, it’s not making a difference.”   It’s a point I keep making here on this blog.   Engagement is about emotion and if you want emotion you have to aim for that part of the brain that deals with feelings.     A brilliant engagement example from the insurer RSA (where I cut my comms teeth!) showed what happens when you give people a reason to express themselves and be proud.

Metaphors work.   David Harrington from Shell showed a video to demonstrate the conflicting priorities and unintended consequences of managed push communication.  The amateur staff-made video shows a customer in a restaurant being bombarded with cakes from a number of different waiters – each portion of cake representing a different corporate message.   As the waiters deliver well-intended individual servings we see the poor customer’s plate pile higher and higher with cake and her face drop lower and lower with confusion.    A perfect visual analogy to demonstrate a common problem.  For many delegates, the ‘cake video’ remained the one big takeaway.

We need to be more creative.   Of course, given the name of this blog, this is the area I’m most passionate about.   I really want comms people to realise that creativity is different from creative.   Creative is what we buy from creative agencies.   Here we’re buying production – an output.  And  jolly good these outputs are too, many of which were superbly demonstrated at the conference by the likes of Kingfisher, M&S, Syngenta and RSA.  BUT, creativity is not the same thing.    Creative agencies are great at production but they don’t have exclusivity on creativity.   Creativity is a skill, a behaviour and an attitude, and it’s an ability we all have.   We just need to know how to use it and have the confidence to do so.    The need for creativity came up time and time again at the conference.   I am now even more convinced that creativity is the BIG SKILL that communicators need for the future.   I’m not the only one.   A recent survey of global CEOs highlighted creativity as the “number one skill” organisations need to learn to face the complex challenges coming down the track.   We should be at the front of the queue.

Most comms are pointless.  OK, that’s my take on it but the Shell presentation highlighted what we all know … most people don’t engage with outgoing push comms.   David’s data showed that 85% of Shell videos had less than a hundred views and an even greater proportion of online articles had less than a hundred hits, out of an audience of many thousands.   The phrase “in a land without data, my opinion is king” resonated with many people.  Understandably.

Comms should be a disruptive force.   Benedikt Benenati from Kingfisher gave a great presentation about his belief that internal comms can and should drive change through forceful and sometimes disruptive interventions.   Getting people out of their comfort zones, making leaders ask their people for help, forcing issues like the elephant in the room (with a life-size model elephant!) and generally being a nuisance.   I like what he said about not wanting a big budget and deliberately keeping his team lean in order to drive up creativity.   I also like the fact that he doesn’t want his team to be ‘part of the system’ because that would make them too safe.   An argument perhaps for comms to not be at the top table, but outside throwing stones in through the window.

I don’t like conferences.   Nothing against this event, very well staged by Melcrum, but personally I just don’t connect with conferences.  Maybe if I was in-house I’d feel different but being on the agency side I just don’t like the predatory atmosphere.    It’s not my natural environment to hand out business cards and compete for attention.  It’s too false for me.   I’d rather take the name badges off and just have a nice chat.

Mobiles in meetings … bad idea

I’ve decided to change my ways.  The other week I was in a meeting with about ten people around a large table.    Eight of the ten people sat down, took out a pad of paper and then plonked a mobile phone (sometimes two) in front of them on the table.    I’m afraid to say I was one of them.    I feel bad about it now because I never stopped to consider what message I was sending out to the other people in the meeting (nor did they).   It says “I’m having a conversation with you but if my phone rings or I get a text message I will treat that communication as more important than the interaction I’m having with you”.    Now I read at the weekend that studies carried out by psychologists at Essex University show that mobile telephones can damage relationships even when they are not being used.   The research shows that if a mobile is visible during a conversation, people feel less positive towards the other person.   The psychologists said that the presence of mobiles during meetings or conversations affects the closeness, connection and quality of the communication, especially when the topic is “personally meaningful.”    They say mobile phones trigger thoughts about wider social networking, reducing the level of empathy in face to face conversations.   Empathy is something we should be worried about in the workplace, especially us communicators.  Managers and leaders are increasingly lacking the empathic skills to connect with their people.    With mobiles and smartphones, I’m sure there’s a macho, hierarchical element to it as well – “look at me, I’m in a meeting but I need to be near my phone coz I’m so important.  Look at how critical I am to the running of the business. I can’t miss a thing.”    In the particular meeting I was in, none of the phones rang and I didn’t hear a text alert, so the operational aspect of the meeting wasn’t disturbed.   In many ways, that underlined the triviality of the “phone posing”.    So I’ve vowed to never have my phone on display during a work meeting again.  It’s not big and it’s not clever.

The ten best ways to make your message stick

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.

Forget the leader, it’s the first follower who deserves our praise

I love the concept of the ‘first follower’ – wonderfully illustrated in this You Tube hit – because of its relevance to change communication and creativity, my two favourite work subjects.   As the commentary on the video neatly points out, the real hero of many stories is not the leader at the front but the first person to follow.   It can take more courage to be the first follower than it does to be the ‘nutter’ at the front.   The subsequent appearance of a third, fourth and fifth follower allows others to join without being noticed, eventually leading to a tipping point where it actually becomes not only acceptable, but cool, to join the crowd.   As we see in the video, new joiners are no longer following the bare-shirted ‘crazy’ leader but following the followers.  It’s a nice visual analogy.

For us change communicators it highlights the importance of working hard to reach the tipping point whereby it becomes acceptable among the community to engage with and hopefully embrace the change.    We don’t need to convince every single stakeholder to ‘buy in’.  We just need to convince the first follower and others to do so, knowing that the crowd will follow.    Of course, we want to take everyone along with us and we’ll try our best to engage at an individual level, but the lesson here is that it only takes a few colleagues to take those brave few steps.   Reaching the tipping point on the change curve is our goal, when the organisation shifts from resistance to exploration, but by highlighting quick wins and supporting the first followers, we comms people can help get people on their feet.

First followers are just as important in creative environments.   Someone comes up with an idea that everyone else instinctively thinks is impossible, impractical or just plain crazy.  But what if one person stands up and backs it, and then another?  Where’s the tipping point?   Putting forward ideas and challenging the way things are takes courage, but so too does saying “I agree” or “good idea”.   It’s far easier to be negative than positive, we all know that, so first followers are vital to nurture ideas with potential.   Personally, I think the You Tube video acts a good analogy for the acceptance of creativity at work, or even creativity in internal comms.   Those of us who believe strongly about it are the mad dancers waving our arms around on the sidelines.  But it only takes a few brave first followers and then you watch the crowd run.   I don’t care, as long as we’re all up dancing.

The Change Communications Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow famously introduced us to his ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a psychological pyramid of human motivation starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom (breathing, food water etc) through to safety, belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization a the very top.   The hierarchy has become one of the best known and most referenced psychological theories regarding human motivation and change.   So, inspired by Maslow, I’ve put together my own version of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the context of change communications.  In many ways, this is just a different take on the change curve, but here I’ve tried to map out the communication needs of workers facing organisational change.  The key point here is the importance of understanding what people go through during change and why their communications needs reflect their own psychological motivations.   So here we go …

Let’s start at the bottom, with what we should call security.    A natural human reaction to any change, or threat, is made in the gut via the oldest and most primal part of the brain.   Actually, it’s the amygdalas to be precise (see my recent post on this).   The instinctive question is ‘what does this mean to me?’ and almost certainly the psychological response will be to perceive the change as a threat.  The first priority then for our audience is to evaluate the extent to which the change will impact their security – will I still have a job, will I earn less money, will I still be able to support my family, will I lose what I value?    From the comms perspective, any other message is likely to fall on deaf ears, or its value will be muted.    But it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to satisfy these needs immediately – especially if the change has a negative people impact – so our focus will be to establish the basics around why the change is happening, what the future looks like and how we intend to get there so that people can internalise and interpret accordingly.   Support, clarity, dialogue, listening, reassurance, empathy and patience is the name of the game here.  Only when our people have this need satisfied, or at least acknowledged, will they be ready to move on.

The next question is ‘OK, so even if I don’t lose my job, will my role change – will I have to do something different?’.   This will spark a whole range of exploratory questions to ascertain the level of threat and the likely impact of personal change.  The key focus here for the individual is to find out exactly what will be different so he/she can come to a conclusion about what it means to them.   Of course, some people may welcome the opportunity for change because they may not be happy in their current role or may seek change or advancement.   Some people may even want to leave the organisation entirely  (although they will only do so if they can satisfy their need for security, like a big fat redundancy cheque!).   The comms need now moves to picture-painting, answering questions, conversations, timescales.  There will be frustration if needs aren’t met, so expect that and plan for it.

The needs then become more nuanced.   I think identity will come next.   So having satisfied the first two needs around security and role, the next big question will be ‘where do I fit?’.   This means understanding more about what the organisation will look like in the future – what team and department will I be part of?   Status will play a part here too.   Will I come out of this change in a better position, with a clearer sense of purpose, with good colleagues around me?   How will I contribute to the organisation?   Here is when we need to  ramp up the engagement.   People will begin to feel part of the future so they’ll be seeking answers around ‘what it will be like’ and what the wider organisation will look like.   It’s probably only at this stage that they’ll start showing true engagement around the big picture as they contemplate their position within it.

So next will be what I would describe as value.   If I’m satisfied up to this stage, I have reassurance around my security, I have an idea of how my job will change and I know more about where I fit.   So now I’m needing to know more about how I’ll do my job in the future.   What new skills will I need to learn?  Will my skills be valued in the organisation (and in the marketplace)?     To meet needs here we’ll need to provide clarity around things like operating models, capabilities and training.   Engagement will increase here as individuals look to understand what’s expected of them in the new world.

Which takes us onto the penultimate stage of my little pyramid – opportunity.   As our people gradually have their core needs met, they will start to look beyond the ‘here and now’ to what comes next.   They will seek and explore opportunities from the change, so their needs will become more forward-looking and personal.   They may ponder opportunities for advancement, they may seek new challenges and they may have ideas to contribute.  They may also be keen to play a more active role in shaping the future so this is a good time to engage them with opportunities to get involved.  By now, they’ll be through the change curve and exploring what the future holds.

Finally, we come to the top of the tree – fulfilment.   Like Maslow’s final stage of self-actualization, this is about the need to reach ones potential.  In our context, this is achieving that level of engagement that leads to mastery, commitment and the pursuit of excellence.    We all have a need to be the best we can, but we must understand that other needs come first.   As change managers and change communicators, we have to be patient, plan our interventions and work hard to satisfy our audience’s needs.   I’ve always believed that change communication is as much about understanding human behaviour as it is about good communications practice.   I hope this explains why.

QR codes on gravestones… why not?

I read in a magazine yesterday that an enterprising funeral parlour in Dorset is offering to place quick response (QR) codes on headstones which, when scanned on a smartphone, open up an online biography of the deceased.   At first this sounds a little morbid, but then why shouldn’t gravestones go digital?   The password-protected codes enable mourners to see photos, videos, tributes and obituaries from the graveside, although they can also be placed (for £300) on trees, benches or plaques.  There’s something quite heart-warming about that if you ask me.  What a romantic way to preserve someone’s memory.  QR codes have been around since the mid-nineties but only recently have they crossed over (swarmed over more like) from industry to the world of advertising.   The codes are now a familiar sight on print adverts, offering quick and effortless access to websites as a way to coax potential consumers to engage with the product or service.   Clearly QR codes have huge potential for internal comms too and I wonder how many organisations are exploiting this technology.   As we continually strive for new and creative ways to ‘sell’ our wares to ever-demanding audiences, QR codes clearly offer an option to support campaigns, layer messages and exploit curiosity.    It seems a reasonable next step when you consider how smartphones are taking over our lives.   I read in the same magazine* that a third of smartphone users in the UK check their devices for social network and email updates in bed before saying good morning to their partners.  According to the new survey from Three, it seems 26% of 18-24 years olds sleep with their phones.  Oh dear.

* The Week, 15th September 

If your company uses QR codes for internal comms purposes, please let me know.  I’d love to find out more.

Time for Slow Communication?

Here’s how you could spend your day.  A quick shower, an energy bar and a scan of the papers before catching the express train to work, on which you speed read the executive summary of yesterday’s meeting.   You then spend a day having power meetings, sending instant messages and calling colleagues (on speed dial) about the fast track promotion you’ve been offered.  Lunch would be fast food washed down with Red Bull and a power nap.  On the way home, you stop off for an instant spray tan to look good for the speed dating session that evening.  You end the day checking urgent emails via your superfast broadband over an instant coffee and a 60-second news round-up .   You live life in the fast lane.   You’re a real speed demon.   Or, just maybe, you could SLOW DOWN.   There’s a growing (I was going to say fast growing) trend for slowing down.   Take the International Slow Movement for instance.   It began in Italy in the eighties as the Slow Food movement to advocate slow, leisurely dining with friends and family using local, organic produce.  It’s symbol is a snail and it now has 85,000 members in 50 countries.    The movement has now grown to include Slow Travel, Slow Cities, Slow Art, Slow Parenting and Slow Gardening (and others).   In London, the Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment aims to revive the pedestrian spirit of Plato’s Academy and eighteenth century coffee shop conversation.   I also came across the wonderfully titled International Institute of Not Doing Much (IINDM), whose Slow Manifesto includes classics like “we shall slow down in the fields and in the streets, we shall slow down in the hills, we shall never surrender!” and “some are born to slowness—others have it thrust upon them.”   They have 4,000 members and according to their brilliant website: “Over the past few centuries, our wise members have been pondering the nature of effort. On the whole, we don’t like it.”   I’ve joined up.   But there’s a serious side to slowness.   In the West especially, we have this inbuilt ‘time is money’ mindset and that if you’re anything other than ‘mad busy’ then you’re seen as lazy, weak or a failure.    How many times do you say to a colleague in the office “are you busy?”.   What would you think if they said “nah, not really”?   Evidence shows that speedy work is bad for your health, bad for wellbeing and bad for productivity too.   Working hours in the UK are longer than anywhere else in Europe and yet Scandinavian countries – where they work the fewest hours – are among the most competitive nations in the world.   According to recent surveys, around a quarter of Americans ‘always feel rushed’ and 20% of Brits skip lunch.  Even the siesta is on its last legs in Spain.   But ‘fast is not always best’ is a message that’s beginning to gain some traction.   Companies are investing heavily in wellbeing programmes and some are introducing ‘quiet spaces’ for workers to go and recharge their batteries.    Can we communicators help?   Should we be developing our own strategies for Slow Communication?   Maybe we should be more considered and planned in our message delivery?  Maybe we should review the language we use to cut down on the ‘fast adjectives’.  Maybe we should warn against communications that talk about speedy benefit delivery and step-change initiatives.  Maybe we could encourage measured and thoughtful briefings?   Maybe we should stop doing 50% of the comms work we think the organisation can’t survive without (trust me, it can).   Maybe we should introduce well crafted prose that takes time to read instead of the half-cocked, ambiguous and jargon-filled email that we rushed out in ten minutes to half the workforce.    Bring back the printed newsletter.   Double the length of team meetings.   Play classical music at town hall events.   Hand out cigars (OK, that one’s a joke).   Spike the intranet so it takes twice as long to download (that’s only half a joke).   Train managers on the art of conversation.   Hold coffee-shop debates on key issues.    Have comms that ‘reflect on’ and ‘walk through’ big issues.    Move the message focus away from ‘the final outcome’ and more towards ‘the stopping points along the way’.  Have more tea breaks.  Encourage your audience to read and think, not scan and ignore.   If you’re really keen, have meetings with no actions, practice looking out of the window and invest in an office tortoise (this is getting silly, stop me someone).   Finally, when you next think only an email will do, remember this.  Before the telegraph connection between England and Australia in 1872, a letter you sent to your cousin in Sydney would take 110 days to arrive.  You’d get a reply after seven months.

The ‘F’ word we just can’t talk about

At the base of your brain are too small almond-shaped organs called the amygdalas.  They sit deep in what’s known as the limbic system, the oldest part of our brain in terms of our evolution – the part that houses our most basic, instinctive and animalistic impulses and reactions.   Our amygdalas play a crucial role in controlling our emotions, especially fear.  They jump into action when we face any sort of threat – like a rampaging bull, a man with a gun or, er, a change programme.    When it comes to stress and anxiety, our amygdalas have a lot to answer for.   The trouble is, like the rest of the limbic brain, our amygdalas can’t answer for anything.   You see, the part of our brain that controls our feelings (good and bad) has no capacity for language.   Language, reasoning, planning and other conscious thought processes originate from the newest part of the brain – the neocortex (which is unique to mammals) or more specifically from the prefrontal cortex – the development of which puts (most of) us humans beyond the apes.    There are two reasons why this is important for communicators.   Firstly, it explains why people react instinctively to change.   When confronted with a threat – as complex changes at work could be perceived – it’s our instinctive limbic system that reacts first and generates stress.    Whilst the organisation is saying “we’d like to give you some details about the change programme” our amygdalas are waving their arms in the air shouting “run away, run away”.   Or “stand up and fight” if you’re that way inclined.    The human survival system kicks in and our behaviour becomes more irrational and unpredictable.   Or predictably unpredictable in some ways.    We might deliver award-winning, well crafted, meticulously planned and clinically executed comms but still find our audience feeling uncertain, disengaged and stressed to bits.   And that’s the key word – FEELING.    How do people FEEL when we ask them to change?  How do they FEEL when they find out they might lose their job?   How do they FEEL when they can’t ask questions?   How do they FEEL when no-one sits opposite them and asks them how they are?   It’s why good change managers (and change communicators) take account of both the hard and soft elements of the transformation.   Ironically, most organisations tend to be better at the hard, logical, practical stuff and not so good at the soft, emotional, behavioural side of change.   It’s the soft bit that’s actually hard.    Unfortunately, our ability to understand the answer to how people feel is hampered by the second reason why this stuff is important.   People can’t tell us how they really feel.    If you’re a parent, how would you put into words the love you have for your children?   If you play sport, how would you describe the feeling of winning?   If you’ve recently had a great holiday, how would you explain that sunset that took your breath away?    Hard isn’t it?   It’s why Olympic gold medallists – when asked how they feel – often say “I can’t describe it” or simple “unbelievable”.   We can’t describe why we love people –  we just do!   It’s because the part of the brain that deals with feelings doesn’t do language.   There’s a disconnect.   It’s also why we sometimes just feel a decision is the right one, without being able to explain why.   It’s why we refer to ‘gut reactions’.   My rational prefrontal cortex may say one thing, but my stomach FEELS something else.   Scientific evidence seems to suggest that ‘gut feel’ decisions made in seconds are often better than those taken after hours of rational analysis.   The advice to “go with what you feel” can often produce the best results.    In comms-speak, it’s why our first draft is usually the best one.   All of this puts effective change communication even higher up the agenda of must-haves for successful organisational change.    By understanding what people go through and anticipating how they may feel we can play our part in softening the impact of the change – controlling those screaming amygdalas!    We can put extra effort into explaining the ‘reason why’, we can manage the expectations of our leaders, we can train our line managers to provide support and empathy, we can take steps to address questions quickly, we can bring people together, we can help them articulate how they feel, we can time our messages to better reflect where people are on the change curve, we can use language that reflects their emotions.   When I run change comms workshops, I must use the ‘f’ word – FEEL – a hundred times.  I keep stressing it because I think it’s important.  I can’t explain why. I just do.

Why experts can’t communicate

Have you ever tried to explain something you know a lot about to someone who knows nothing of the subject?   Have you ever been frustrated by an expert’s attempt to explain something to you in simple terms?    At work, have you ever been asked to communicate details of a programme or a strategy and then been sent a 40-slide PowerPoint deck containing all the key messages (of course you have)?    There’s a scientific theory for this – a cognitive bias called the Curse of Knowledge.   In a nutshell, it means that when we know something really well, it can become hard for us to imagine not knowing it.   Being well informed about a topic can mean that we lose our ability to explain it in simple terms to someone less well informed.   The term came to prominence in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (which is a decent read for comms people actually).   In the book, the brothers explain how the more we increase our knowledge of a subject, the harder it becomes to communicate our ideas and messages about that subject clearly.   They recount a famous experiment by psychologist Elizabeth Newton in the early 1990s in which she paired volunteers into two groups – tappers and listeners.   Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song and tap out the rhythm on a table.    Their partner, a listener, was asked to guess the song.   So, how did they do?   Dreadful.   Of 120 songs tapped on the table, the listeners guessed only three correctly (an embarrassing 2.5%).   The interesting bit though is that before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right.    Here, the tappers thought their partners would get the song 50% of the time.     Here’s what Chip and Dan say about the experiment:  “The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.   When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.  This is the Curse of Knowledge.  Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.  And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”   This curse is something internal communicators will understand.   A senior business leader wants to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organisation.  The leader, and his colleagues, have lived with the strategy for many months – discussions, drafts, workshops, consultancy etc – and their knowledge of the topic is deep and complex.   For them , the ‘tapping’ bit should come easy.   The audience, however, knows very little.   They are the ‘listeners’.   The leaders will want to communicate lots of information in words that come naturally to them.   They know the subject down to the micro level, and their ‘cut off point’ in terms of detail they feel should be communicated will be some way down – “if we tell them x, we should tell them y, and then we should include something about z”.   Our dear listener, on the other hand, doesn’t have the depth of knowledge and familiarity to take it in, process and internalize the many ‘taps’ coming their way.  So this is where we communications professionals have to come in and say “that’s enough”.  We have to understand what it’s like to not know something.   We have to explain to the passionate project manager who feels everyone should know everything about his project that, actually, they probably don’t.  And even if they do, they don’t want or need it all at once.   Simplifying a complex set of messages is one of the biggest challenges we communicators face.   Convincing senior, knowledgeable leaders to not communicate can be even harder.

How many internal communicators does it take to change a light bulb?

Apologies to my fellow professionals, but I’m feeling a bit cheeky …

– Four to draw up the strategy (and remain firmly at strategic level throughout)

– Two to do the stakeholder mapping

– One to put the change into the wider context of improved enterprise illumination

– One to define the impact of the change

– One to define the future vision of enlightenment

– Six to be ‘kept in the loop’ for no apparent reason

– One to brief senior leaders

– One to rebrief the senior leaders who couldn’t be bothered to turn up the first time

– One to craft the message

– A committee of 28 to review, edit and approve the message

– One to research bulb-changing good practice

– Two to devise the channel framework

– One to create the PowerPoint deck

– Three to comment on the font

– One to search Google Images for a suitable graphic

– Four to train the middle managers on managing change

– Two to organise the cascade

– One to remember that cascades never work

– One to ‘just do publishing’

– Two to develop a convoluted measurement process that won’t reveal anything

– One to check the distribution lists

– One to prepare the awards entry

– Two to obsess about ROI

– None to actually sit on the project team

We don’t have enough finales

I took my daughter to a children’s creativity festival this past weekend.   It’s a great little festival called ‘Just So’, now in its third year, combining painting, storytelling, music, magic, circus skills, den-building, crafts, drama, writing, pottery, getting very muddy and generally having a jolly good time.   Fun for us grown-ups desperately trying to hang on to our inner child too.   Anyway, we attended a talk by a children’s author.  She spoke about how to write stories and gave an insight into her personal style.   She explained that she always starts her one-page story plan at the bottom, with the finale –  imagining how the tale will end.  Will it be a sad ending, a happy ending or a cliff-hanger?    Then, she works backwards, creating a setting and a central character and adding a number of key ingredients – one of which was that the ‘hero’ should always have something that he/she very, very badly wants.    Another is that there should also be conflict.   So, in the way that my mind wanders, this got me thinking about our organisational stories, like delivering change programmes and meeting objectives.    Conclusion:  We don’t have enough finales in business.   We have all the ingredients of a good story –  colourful and heroic characters, a desire to achieve something, a call-to-action and plenty of conflict but we don’t have finales.   Our ‘endings’ are usually a list of bullet points from a business case setting out a (finger in the air) list of benefits, outcomes and cost-savings.    But what we should be aiming for is a finale– an eye-watering, soul-stirring, heart-lifting, air-punching, morale-boosting climax.   Organisations are great at starting things but terrible at ending them.    It’s one of the reasons most change programmes fail.   We don’t start with the finale.   I mean, we don’t articulate the ending in a way that drives the rest of the story.    So the lesson for communicators –  start at the bottom of the page by imagining the outcome of the change (or the strategy, or the project) as a finale.  Make it dramatic, emotional, colourful, inspirational and then work backwards, creatively filling in the gaps to author your own dramatic storyline.   Next week, how to build a den in the office (only joking).

Bring on the Meaning Makers!

OK, one last Olympic-related posting, then I’ll move on.   What most struck me about spending some time at the Games last week was the enthusiasm of the volunteers, or Games Makers as they were called.   These purple-shirted members of the public were from all walks of life, giving up their time for two weeks to be part of something special, something they could tell their grandchildren.   Some were assigned to queue control, some were posted around London to provide help and information, and some were given duties at events.    At the volleyball, for instance, they even had volunteers whose job it was to wipe the sweat off the courts between points!   So it got me thinking about how far people will go, and how enjoyable it is for them and others, when they are truly engaged.   Engagement is about having an emotional connection to a cause, a theme, an idea, a purpose.    The Olympic volunteers had this engagement in spades but it can be replicated in any organisation if the sense of purpose and level of involvement is strong enough.   Games Makers reminds me of the term Meaning Makers, referred to by Dan Pink in his book A Whole New Mind about the rise of the right-brained worker.    Meaning Makers are people in the organisation who ‘get it’ and have the skills to make sense of the world to those around them.   And it is a skill.   Meaning Makers don’t read out briefings and deliver PowerPoints.   They interpret and convey messages in a way that connects because they are truly engaged with the subject matter themselves.  They communicate with passion, clarity and credibility.    One of the problems we have in internal communications is that we allocate communication responsibilities based on job title and status rather than on ability and character.   Of course, some communications need to be delivered by leaders, but many don’t.    Meaning Makers can be those subject experts who just have a flair about the way they communicate, like those scientists who can explain the laws of physics and astronomy to schoolchildren.    I’d love to see organisations identify and appoint Meaning Makers who can take on some communication and education responsibilities in addition to their ‘day job’, like the London Games Makers.    Let’s have people with a passion for communication and an ability to engage others be recognised as official Meaning Makers on a particular topic, so that anyone in the organisation can go to them to learn and gain clarity on whatever topic they specialise in.   For instance, who is the Finance Meaning Maker who can explain transactional finance and SAP in a way that engages and makes sense?    Who is the Operating Model Meaning Maker that can bring structure and processes to life?    I’m not saying Meaning Makers should all wear coloured shirts but I would like to see them recognised formally – maybe they have a sign over their desk or a badge so people know who they are and that they are there to help colleagues make sense of the world.    London Games Makers were selected not on their occupation or role in society but purely on their enthusiasm, personality and their ability to connect with people.    So should Meaning Makers.   Creative internal communication is not about doing it all yourself, it’s about using the talents and skills of those colleagues with great communication skills in the organisation.   So bring on the Meaning Makers!

Ten great Olympic inspirations for communicators

OK, the Olympics are here and I’m more excited than a roomful of Pointer Sisters.   So here, for communicators, leaders and managers everywhere, are my top ten inspirations we can take from the Olympics.    So please, spread the word, share this post and let’s inject some Olympic spirit into the workplace …

1. The Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – means something.   They are values that inspire.  Why?  Because (i) they are adjectives, (ii) they can be measured and (iii) they endure.   Too many organisational values are bland nouns with no call to action and no “reason to get up in the morning” quality about them.   When employees start tattooing their organisational values on their bodies, you know you’ve got something special!

2. The Olympics brings communities together.   The torch relay has shown us the power of community and the inherent human search for meaning.   I stood in the rain in Tatton Park for over an hour to see a bloke I’ve never met jog past me with an 800g aluminium flame-holder surrounded by bodyguards and a massive convoy of police, coaches and sponsored vehicles.   Why would I do that?    Of course, it’s not what it is, it’s what it means.   It’s what it symbolizes.   And anything that can bring communities together like this has surely got to be a good thing.   Our organisations are full of human beings searching for meaning and striving to belong.     Remember, the best things in life are not things.  They’re experiences.

3. Athletes understand that performance is as much about the mind as the body.    The ability to carry out the physical requirements of the job – the tasks – is only part of what makes an Olympian.   The job title for a sprint hurdler is to run fast in  straight line and jump over some sticks.   The real work though goes on in the mind – the focus, the motivation, the concentration, the dedication, the commitment, the relentless pursuit of excellence, the confidence, the sense of occasion.    For athletes, high performance is a whole-body and whole-brain concept.   As it should be at work.

4. The Olympics is a triumph of diversity.   I don’t just mean racial, religious and physical diversity, I mean the diversity of sports.   Ever since the industrial revolution and Adam Smith’s theories about the division of labour, we have become obsessed with pigeon-holing people into jobs, roles and professions.   We tend to stay stuck in one occupational sector most of our lives and we focus on becoming a ‘high achiever’ in one area rather than a ‘wide achiever’ in many.    Not only does sport celebrate the concept of a multi-discipline approach (decathlon, heptathlon, modern pentathlon, triathlon etc) but the Olympics exposes us to sports we would never normally engage with.    It’s a time for learning new skills, expanding our minds and gaining new experiences.  So if you work in Marketing, reach out to your colleagues in Accounts.

5. Sporting metaphors work.   Whether you’re stepping up to the plate, raising the bar, passing the baton or punching above your weight, you can’t deny that sporting metaphors work.   According to prominent linguist George Lakoff, metaphors are key to understanding and reasoning.   “Human thought processes are largely metaphorical”, he said.   So in business, using metaphor and storytelling to convey a complex message is a powerful way to communicate.   The Olympics provides us with metaphors and stories in spades.  So, on your marks …

6. Cynics exist – get over it.   Our workplaces reflect wider society, and in all walks of life there are people who are cynical, critical, indifferent or just plain grumpy.   The Olympics brings out the best and the worst of human behaviour, particularly in terms of public perception.    To some it’s a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of sport, endeavour and human spirit.   To others it’s a commercialised, regionally-biased, elitist waste of money.   Logos, mascots, ceremonies, slogans, designs, processes … they all incite opinions.  So do strategies, corporate comms and change programmes.    It’s a fact of life.   Don’t let them get you down.

7. A communicator’s Aladdin’s Cave.   Imagine the amount of information and data swirling around an Olympic Games.   Twenty six sports, 300 events, 14,000 competitors, 20,000 media people, all with stories to tell and messages to get across.   But do we complain about information overload?  Of course not, we pick and choose the messages we want to engage with, and how we want to consume them.   And what a choice we have!   I’m a big believer in learning from other worlds, and the Olympics offers us communicators ideas and inspirations around every corner –the clarity of symbols, the importance of identity, the discipline of campaigns, the power of stories, the integration of channels, the layering of information, the opportunity for interaction, the thirst for education, the demand for speed, the need for accuracy.    Watch, learn and steal with pride.

8. Sport is creative.    If you look at sport as a ‘job of work’ like any other, you clearly see the importance of creativity and innovation to achieving high performance.    Athletes are continually on the lookout for innovations that will make a difference.  Some are legal (aero-dynamic cycling helmets), some are illegal (performance enhancing drugs) and some are controversial (hi-tech swimsuits).  Gymnasts, divers and synchronised swimmers are actually judged on their creativity.   Training regimes, diets, equipment, scoring systems, venues and techniques are continually reviewed and improved.   There’s no such thing as business as usual in sport.  In sport, as in business, it’s change agility and relentless creativity that makes winners.

9. There’s nothing wrong with having fun.    The Olympics is the ultimate playground but the office can be playful too.   Anything which gets people playing, having fun and laughing has got to be a good thing.   Play exercises the right side of our brain.  It makes us more productive, it builds relationships, it breaks down barriers, it brings people together, it encourages competition and collaboration, it harnesses creativity, it MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY.    From flicking paper clips into a cup to baking Olympic cup cakes, let’s use this opportunity to inject some play into our working lives.

10. It’s what you do that counts.    Athletes, like organisations, are continually striving for competitive advantage.    At the Olympics, being world class is not enough.   The difference between success and failure can be a fraction of a second, a twitch on the start line, a pull of an oar, a wobble on the beam, a puff of air in the pool, a millimetre of sand, a subjective opinion of a judge.   Four years of training can come down to what happens in ten seconds.    Sport reminds us that whilst strategies, visions, business cases, presentations, briefings, PR messages, structures, policies, standards and operating models all have their place, it’s ultimately grit, boldness, sweat and human endeavour that makes the difference.    Let’s finish with a quote from Goethe:  “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.   Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Enjoy the Olympics everyone.

Shakespeare’s warning

My family and I went to watch an outdoor theatre performance of Twelfth Night in Chester at the weekend.    I’m no Shakespeare scholar and I can sometimes struggle to keep up, but I do try to listen carefully and I often find long passages of prose that completely blow me away.   From Twelfth Night this line stood out for me, spoken by Feste the clown to express his distrust of language:  “A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit.  How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.”  The castaway Viola (disguised as a man) replies, “Nay, that’s certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.”    Now that’s a prophetic 430-year old piece of advice  for corporate communicators if ever there was!   Workplace communication, with its tendency for meaningless jargon and ambiguous or politically correct language can so very easily be misunderstood.   Sometimes our (perfectly well intended) communications are so dressed up with context, background and justification that the true message gets lost mid-way down page two after acres of pointless preamble.    Such communications can indeed backfire on us if we’ don’t follow the golden rules of clarity, brevity and consistency.     Not only does the message get lost, but the style becomes part of the culture.   There are plenty of “good wits” in our organisations ready to turn our over-crafted sentences against us.   Similarly, “they that dally nicely with words” by trying to inject unnecessary and unwarranted hyperbole “may quickly make them wanton” by over-using expressive adjectives and diluting the true meaning of potentially powerful messages.    We could do worse than take the advice of the Bard.  He knew a thing or two about getting a point across…. even if 400 years on no-one knows what the hell a ‘cheveril glove’ is (some sort of loose animal skin apparently).

By the way, at the same time as I was posting this entry, this article appeared on LinkedIn.  Similar sentiments but much better written than mine!

Do you know who you’re talking to?

I was in a meeting the other day with a bloke called Mark.    I’ve known Mark for some time – he’s a project manager in IT and we’ve been working on some comms stuff together.  We’d attend the same meetings, say hello in the corridor and exchange emails, like you do.   All very cordial, all very workmanlike.    In this particular meeting my phone went off (how unprofessional, I know).  My ring tone is an old Genesis track.    Mark recognised it and told me he’d been listening to that exact song in the car that morning.   We continued the conversation about music, and he then mentioned that he plays in a band.   So did I once.    It then turns out that Mark is a mad motorbike nut, spends most of his weekends ‘on the road’ with his mates and also likes walking in the Lake District, as I do.     So ‘Mark the Project Manager’ became ‘Mark the bike-riding, guitar-playing, fell-walker’ in the space of five minutes brought about by a ringtone.   If my wife hadn’t called to ask me to pick up some cat litter on the way home, I wouldn’t know all this about Mark.   Why does it matter?    Well, because knowing about a person and finding common ground builds relationships, breaks down barriers and creates a more informal and relaxed (and creative) environment.    When we’re at work we have a persona – a title, a role, a way of working and a framework of behaviour set out by written and unwritten rules, convention and perceived good professional conduct.   We all try to be businesslike and professional at work, of course we do.  Work is serious business, obviously.   But behind the persona is the person – the lives, loves, likes, dislikes, passions, fears, motivations, frustrations, obsessions, dreams, hopes, experiences, secrets, relationships, problems, stresses and releases that make us all human.    And the colleague we see in the office may not be the ‘real them’.   There’s the person who never speaks in a team meeting but who performs amateur dramatics at weekends.  The office junior who can’t be trusted to order some paper clips but who runs a scout group on Tuesday evenings.   The person who says they’re not creative in a brainstorm but who goes home and whips up an amazing stir fry.  The manager who delivers dull presentations but can bring people to tears with his piano playing.   The quiet part-timer in the corner who answers phones for the Samaritans for two hours every other night.  Not only does this highlight the complete waste of experience and creativity that organisations could exploit but don’t, but it also begs the question what would our workplaces be like if we all knew the people behind the job titles.   Collaboration would be improved, business relationships would flourish, ideas would be voiced, circulated and nurtured, innovation would boom, productivity would increase because people would be relaxed and happier, retention would go up, stress would go down.   All because we’d be working with friends with substance not colleagues with note pads.    So let’s take time to get to know the people we work with.    Opening up a team meeting with tales of what we did at the weekend shouldn’t be considered small talk, it should be big talk.     I’d like to see HR departments formally recognise the skills and experience people have outside of work.   Let’s see communicators do more to identify, share and celebrate the achievements of the workforce out of hours.   And let’s create environments in which people can come together to talk about stuff other than work.   Having conversations and finding common ground with others is naturally human.   And conversations about holiday destinations will soon become conversations about solving business problems.