Five ways to make a bigger difference through communication
By Sue Dewhurst
I don’t know about you, but I want my work to make a positive difference to people and organisations. To me, that’s essentially what using communication in a ‘strategic’ way is all about.
It sounds so simple when you say it like that. But any professional communicator surely knows how easy it is to fill the working day responding to requests for help and producing beautifully crafted ‘stuff’ … but not, hand on heart, being able to say you achieved something valuable and worthwhile.
I certainly know the feeling myself. In the early days, it was because I was oblivious to what employee communication could be. I loved the creativity and variety of my work, and I had a general belief that communication could help keep people informed and build ‘morale’. But it wouldn’t have entered my head to think about it in a more structured way and I made too many assumptions about what generating content could achieve.
The lightbulb went on when my then-manager bought me a copy of Bill Quirke’s book, Communicating Corporate Change. It opened my eyes to a new way of working with communication. From that point on, I’ve been on a constant quest to find better ways to approach conversations with leaders; to understand what science can tell us about how human beings learn, remember, experience change, why we do the things we do and what helps to change behaviours. That question of “how I can make a bigger, more positive difference today?” is always there.
Here are five ways that usually help. They are not new. They are not rocket science. But they resonate with the many leaders and communicators I meet in my workshops, and after 25+ years as a professional communicator, if I invest time in any one of them, it still helps me move forward.
1. Find out more about the problem before you offer a solution
Almost every communicator I meet tells me they jump to solutions too soon. If we don’t understand the problem or its root causes, it’s unlikely we’ll contribute to solving it. Dare to ask more questions and listen for longer. Allow yourself to sit with the sensation of not knowing the answer yet, and savour the moment when a stakeholder says “that’s a good question”, sits deep in thought and emerges with a golden nugget of insight.
2. Spend more time learning about those you’ll communicate with
Communication is about mutual understanding. I can’t recall an occasion when I’ve spent time listening to, watching or talking with employees and not walked away with valuable insights. They’ve offered reality checks, wake-up calls, evidence, a sounding-board, an authentic voice, peer influence. They’ve helped me understand problems and suggested answers I wouldn’t have thought of myself. I’m also a great believer that attention needs to be earned. We might think employees ‘should’ listen, but at the end of the day, if we develop communication that seems meaningless or irrelevant, it could well be ignored.
3. Set good, clear objectives
I spend a lot of time on this, and I often see communicators go through the pain barrier with it on workshops! When they really sit and think about it, they often realise they don’t actually know what they want to achieve. I use the method of understanding the business goal and translating it into a do/feel/know. So much value comes from being able to combine an understanding of what your business stakeholder needs with what matters to employees and what might be the root causes of an issue … and then translating all of that into an agreement of what you’ll work towards together.
4. Measure something that matters
Communicators tend to measure channels. We know that only gets us so far, but we keep doing it anyway. If you want to make a bigger difference, measure something that really matters. For me, objectives and measures go hand in hand. When I measure, that’s what I’m most interested in. How are we progressing towards the objectives? What’s most helping/hindering us? What should we do more of/less of? Are they still the right objectives or has something changed?
5. Reframe what it means to be ‘helpful’
We all know that feeling of sitting in front of someone and longing to give them what they want – a quick delivery of whatever they’ve asked for; a fast solution. We also know what people most often want is a communications output, be it a video, an infographic or a story on the news app. And we know these things are highly visible and easy to measure. All these factors make it the easiest thing in the world to fill your days just giving people what they want.
Try making a list of other ways you can help people move forward. It might be asking a powerful question that helps your stakeholder gain a new perspective on their issue. It might mean helping a project team come to a shared agreement of what they want to achieve through communication. It could involve bringing insight from employees or customers. Celebrate and value these things in your team meetings. Keep the positive feedback you receive. If a stakeholder appreciates this ‘new’ way of helping, ask if they’d like you to do more of it. The road to being a more strategic communicator is paved with good intentions … but it takes persistent effort to stay on the right track.
Strategic Comms Expert training
If you’re interested in the points I’ve outlined here, you might want to consider the Strategic Comms Expert training*. It’s a highly practical program that helps you think about how you’re approaching your role and equips you to use frameworks and techniques you can use as soon as you step back into the workplace.
You might also like the book I wrote with Liam FitzPatrick – Successful Employee Communications. I hope it sparks something of the inspiration I found from Bill Quirke’s book, in those early days. (He inspires me still, by the way).
* Editor’s Note: IC Kollectif is a partner of esmdee, and supports in exclusivity The Comms Expert Series. The next Strategic Comms Expert training is taking place on May 5-7 in London. Save 10% on registration fees by using the discount code ICKollectif. For more information and registration, visit the esmdee website or get in touch by email.