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Comms Principle #6: Translating Strategy into Execution

And so, we reach the final post in this series about Change Project Communications.  When I originally listed the key subject areas, I indicated that the sixth and final post would be called “Translating Strategy into Execution”, and it is, but now that I have reached this point I realize that I have covered it as an inherent part of several previous posts.

However, once again, there is a lesson to be learned here and, once again, I draw on an experience from the past.

Communications - always under the microscope

Communications – always under the microscope

A few years ago, I started work on a new project – one that had been failing, of course – and when I set out my engagement strategy to the Board, the most senior member there (one of whom I was kinda nervous because as well as being very senior he had an innate ability to spot gaps in thinking and pounce on them with inconveniently astute questions) said “Well, communications will be critical to the success of this, so I’ll watch with great interest.”

Simon (for that is the name I will give him) didn’t know me particularly well and was, I believe, relatively unconvinced that I would deliver anything of demonstrable value.

So, I set about executing the strategy.  I subdivided the stakeholders and cross mapped them.  I developed a modular suite of communications focusing on functional areas but all capable of building to an all-encompassing whole.

I reviewed the comms channels available, selecting only those that were well known and familiar to my audience.  I leveraged existing networks, cultivating the folks who managed the networks.  I spoke with key individuals around the world and identified local comms advocates in the Asia Pacific, Africa, Middle East and Latin America Regions who, with their regional experience and contacts, could help me drive the communication deeper than I could do on my own.

I engaged the experts who knew the detail at Global H.Q. to assist with developing the content, and developed a manageable cadence so that interacting with me would not become a chore.  I also syndicated draft materials with experts working in the Operating Companies and End-Markets to see what resonated with them and what they resisted before circulating the finished pieces.

I listened for feedback.  I ensured not only that the voices in the field were heard, but that the people knew they were being not just heard but also considered.

And then, after 6 months, I ran a survey of 500 global stakeholders to find out what they knew about the project, what they thought was missing, and whether they believed the communication had been good.  The recipients ranged from Junior Managers to Heads of Functions, Directors of Operating Companies to Regional Directors.

I was, if I’m honest, somewhat worried about the results as they would form the basis for the follow-up presentation I had been asked to give to the Board on the progress of communications against the established comms strategy.

I pulled the results into a 25 slide PowerPoint presentation, with graphs showing the responses for all the key areas, broken down by geographic area, by function. To my amazement, I had received nearly a 70% response rate on the survey (I had hoped for maybe a 1 in 5 response rate).

The Board required all presentation materials to be pre-circulated before the meeting, so as I stood up to present, everyone already had all the details.  And before I got a word out, ‘Simon’ smiled and said “Robin, it must be very hard to be humble at moments like this.”

The results were staggeringly good.  97% of people remembered seeing the communications, 89% knew who to talk to if they wanted more information or to raise concerns, 85% felt the communications had been timely and informative.  Best of all, 82% described the comms execution as good or excellent.

If this sounds like I’m bragging, please don’t think of it that way.  While I got the credit on the day, I would have achieved nothing had I not had the most awesome team of advisors, collaborators and advocates, and the visible support of my Project Executive.  While I had written and sent out all the communications, it was the knowledge and commitment of others that made them worth reading.

I worked on for a few more months, and was then asked to move to another struggling project.  The existing one had a new manager brought in, and a senior Comms expert from one of the Big 4 consultancies was brought in to manage the communications work-stream.

A year later, I had occasion to catch up with a colleague and ask how things had progressed.  I found the results to be surprising.

Communications was now under attack.  People felt disengaged, uninformed and undervalued.  In a further survey, nearly three quarters of recipients had indicated that communications had been inadequate or poor.

My first reaction, perhaps predictably, was to be thoroughly pissed off.  But then I thought maybe I could learn something useful so I spent a couple of days finding out what had happened.

A great strategy is pointless unless it can be executed

A great strategy is pointless unless it can be executed

The new Senior Executive had, as I mentioned, insisted on bringing in an external Comms Consultant.  This consultant (at the not inconsiderable rate of $2000 a day) had then spent 3 months criticizing my Comms approach as being too simplistic and labor intensive, and had developed a new strategy calling for dedicated comms channels, new databases, a new area on the intranet, and the development of an impressive array of comms pieces, from animated videos to Computer Based Training modules.

And then, with the strategy complete, the Consultant had said “OK, well, my job is done”.  When asked what how the strategy would be implemented, the Consultant seemed to take the view that that was not her role.

She was, however, more than happy to bring in a team of consultants from her company that could execute the strategy (about 8 people, all billing around $1200 a day).

This was by now about 5 months after I had moved off the project.

Over the next 3 months, the Comms Consultant team came on board, started developing the materials, engaging with the experts, pulling information together at the center, and finally beginning to communicate.  Everything they sent out was immaculate, impressive looking and hugely detailed.

The results were awful.  People didn’t recognize the communication, didn’t know who to ask questions of.  They didn’t know where to find documents when they needed them.  They called and emailed and were thanked for their input, but never heard any more.  In short, they felt as though they were cogs in a wheel rather than partners.

Hopefully, that little story tells you more about the process of communication than I ever could.  Yes, I know I just told the story, but you know what I mean.

In case you missed it however, I will end by mentioning the 3 key learnings that I took from this ghastly collapse.

#1 – If you are a Senior Manager, don’t abdicate responsibility for Communications.  If you are going to take the coward’s way out and use Comms as a convenient scapegoat in the event of failure, then your support for and engagement with the communications process while it is ongoing needs to be absolute.  Throwing the ball over the wall to an expert and telling them to just get on with it is stupid, stupid, stupid.  Listen to your Comms Manager, if you don’t agree tell him or her why, and give them a chance to convince you.

#2 – Don’t reinvent the wheel.  People are creatures of habit.  From a communications perspective when you are trying to get people to support changes in working, or measuring, or even if you’re trying to convince turkeys to appreciate Thanksgiving, you have to talk to them in language and through channels that are familiar to them.  Don’t ask them to learn a new job and a new way to communicate.  They won’t appreciate it, and you will bear the brunt of their disaffection.

#3 – Do some real work.  Please, please, please remember this one.  Comms Strategy is terribly important.  It is critical.  But if you don’t execute it properly then seriously what was the point?  Comms should always be built on a sound strategic foundation but in the end it’s basically well-organized common sense and bloody hard work.  It’s about writing, revising, listening, revising again, distributing in a regular and consistent manner, listening and starting again.

Cat Herding - The furry underbelly of Communications

Cat Herding – The furry underbelly of Communications

I love communications.  It is fulfilling, creative, informative and constantly evolving.  At the same time, it can be infuriating, thankless, monotonous and indefensible.  A roller-coaster ride of emotion and iteration, commendation and censure, exasperation and gratification.

People that “get” communications understand this, and are willing to be supportive, trusting and committed to your strategy.  Project Managers and Executives who understand the difficulties of herding cats will make it their business to give you visible support and to make sure that other members of the team are enablers, not inhibitors of communication.  If you find yourself working with people like this, you need to treasure the experiences because they are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Many of my senior executives stayed in touch with me after I had moved off the project, some became dedicated and hugely appreciated mentors to me, and I remain friends with them to this day.

In my career I have worked with a handful of people who “got” communications.  I still treasure the insights I gained from the (sometimes hard) lessons I learned, and I believe that the experience has made me a better communicator.

Roberto, Simon, Gerson, Lorrie, Tom, Chris, Paul, plus a few others, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and wish you all nothing but success.

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Comms Principle #3: The Importance of Dialog

Comms channels and stakeholders

Hooray – ‘Oliver’ is getting the message, so put your feet up and wait for the change program to succeed

In the first two Comms Principles of this series, I’ve talked about channel selection and stakeholder segmentation.

Now, let’s imagine that one of the key stakeholders your segmentation process has identified is a cat, ‘Oliver’, and that the channel you have selected to deliver the message is a train, a train that can be verified as one that will reach Oliver.

The message is consistent.  Delivery is always complete.  So the comms strategy must be succeeding.  Right?

Now that may seem like a rhetorical question but it’s not, and those of you that answered “no” are wrong.  On the other hand, anyone who answered “yes” (and there may be one or two) is also wrong.  The correct answer is “we have no idea”.

What do we know about ‘Oliver’.  It’s true that he’s getting the message, but what is his reaction to it?  Does he like it?  Is it annoying?  Why isn’t he moving?  In fact let’s make the question even simpler.  Has Oliver looked at it, or is he ignoring it? The answer is still “we have no idea”. Hmmmm.

Incomplete Comms Process Flow

A Comms Process Flow….sort of

OK, let’s have a look at our Comms Process flow chart – maybe that will tell us what’s going wrong.  As we can see, the Comms Manager sits within the Project Team.  Communications are developed via his interaction with other project team members.

The Comms Manager is not an IT expert.  He’s not a member of the Management Board, he doesn’t get involved in financial planning, and when it comes to Supply Chain processes, he can’t see the Forrester Effect for the trees.   Because of this, he needs access to the people who are specialists – the workstream leads; the senior user and supplier; the Project Manager.

In partnership with the workstream leads, he develops multiple pieces of communication.  He talks to the IT lead, discussing the challenges they face with the legacy systems.  He talks to Operations to learn about inventory visibility.  He talks to finance to understand what the key reporting metrics are and whether there are any that conflict across functions or business units.

With the help of all these experts, he develops a suite of communications materials – some high level and aimed at Senior Management, some in greater functional detail.  All are designed to give each stakeholder the information they need, built with the input of experts, validated across other key project streams and with the Project Manager, and delivered by channels that are proven to reach the target audience effectively.

Yet something is lacking, and if you look closely at the chart you can see why. Despite the fact that the communications pieces themselves are excellent, the process itself is flawed.

Just because you served it up doesn't mean they'll swallow it.

Just because you served it up doesn’t mean they’ll swallow it

The communications are developed within the project team as an iterative process, seeking feedback, involving experts, using their expertise, building layer upon layer.

Then a hatch is opened, the comms pieces are thrown out to the stakeholders, and the hatch closed again.

Now, if the comms materials are raw meat and the stakeholders are ravenous lions this process may work, up to a point.  But as we’ve already discussed in an earlier post, people usually don’t like change, so there’s a good chance that you will not see a feeding frenzy when you serve up a nice plate of Raw Comms.  In fact, this approach has been known to result in the lions eating the Comms Manager.

And so we return to Oliver and we think “If we asked Oliver what he thought about all this, would he have something to say?”.  We look at the process flow chart and we say to ourselves “Why are we seeking feedback within the project to increase our understanding, and yet not soliciting feedback from the stakeholders – the very people that we are supposed to be influencing? Why are the arrows only going one way?”

Engaging with Oliver would tell us whether he (a) knows what is going on and supports it completely without needing more information, (b) doesn’t know what is going on and knows he needs to understand it more, but is afraid to admit he doesn’t understand it and is therefore being stubborn, or (c) knows exactly what it means and disagrees so completely that he is stopping the message getting any further, hoping that eventually it will derail.  There are reasons (d) through (w) as well, but you get my point.

If I was asked to put money on the main reason that project communications strategies fail, this would be it. The feedback of stakeholders is not sought, not valued, not discussed or not addressed.

Some great lessons for communications

Some great lessons for communications

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but frequently it is.  A fairly senior adman that my wife worked for a few years ago used to live by the mantra that if you say something a minimum of three times people will get it. How he rose to his exalted position with such a facile view of communications is beyond me, but the main point that he fails to take into account is that ‘getting it’ is not the same as ‘believing it’.

In his book ‘The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided about Politics and Religion’, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a Professor at NYU’s Stern School for Business provides a rationale for this key difference. Expanding on observations originally made by Plato that human beings weigh evidence in the search for knowledge, Haidt says that we are hardwired to make snap judgements based on our emotions, and then we manipulate the manner in which we process facts in order to justify the largely emotional conclusions that we had already reached.

Ah, you may say, but the people we are seeking to influence are experts in their respective fields.  They are the ones whose experience needs to be leveraged in order for the change to be successful.  This being the case, surely these are the very people that will weigh the evidence to arrive at “knowledge”?

Well, no, or at least not as far as I have observed in my career.  While it is possible that these people are experts, let’s not forget the other ingredients that make successful communications such a difficult recipe, some of which I discussed in Principle #2 – reasons which in many cases are significantly more personal in nature than they are professional:

  • Despite the fact that they are experts, they are first and foremost human
  • Their personal career objectives may not align with your corporate ones
  • There are usually several ways to skin a cat (sorry Oliver) and they may think that the efficiency of their way outweighs the effectiveness of yours
  • They may already have too much to do, and you’re asking them to relearn it
  • The change that you are proposing may make their current role redundant, or require a change in reporting or remuneration with which they are extremely uncomfortable

Of course there are other potential reasons as well, but while not one of the reasons above could be said to disprove any of the theory, invalidate any of the process changes or discredit the new IT solution or organization structure that you are intending to build, any one of them is a very good reason for a stakeholder to not support the change.  They are selfish reasons to be sure, but that fact does not make them any less real, or valid, and as a Comms Manager it is your role to find out what the reasons for the lack of engagement are, and to see what can be done to address them.

Without engaging with your stakeholders, it is unlikely that you will be able to combat these issues.  Certainly there may be ways in which you can address some of them by talking about best practice, pointing to improvements made by other companies or organizations, or talking about changes in the marketplace, but these are somewhat sterile responses and don’t go very far towards addressing what may be intensely personal concerns.  Your stakeholders know that they are personal issues, and may therefore be reluctant to discuss them openly.  And of course if one of your stakeholders feels this way there may be others.

Find a way to discuss the facts, not the conjecture

Find a way to discuss the facts, not the conjecture

To engage with them, you have to make them truly believe that you value their feedback, that you want to hear their concerns or suggestions.  They must have the means to review the documentation as and when they have time, and have a number of clear channels via which issues can be raised.

If you don’t give them the opportunity to air their opinions with you, and thereby have the opportunity to address them, you will usually find that they share them with their colleagues, but that they do so in a manner that undermines the change program, starts rumors and leads to a much greater volume of negative feeling.

So how do you engage with literally hundreds of stakeholders?  I’ll be offering some suggestions in Comms Principle #4 – A Multi-Faceted approach.

 
 

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Obama’s Victory Speech – Great Oratory, Greater Writing

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Romney and Obama – 6 months of finger pointing

Aren’t you glad the Presidential elections are over?  I know I am, and I must say I have found the last few months to be a fairly painful experience.

In Britain, elections last for 6 weeks, not 9 months.  Political advertising spend there is something of the order of $50 million, not $6 billion.  And while there is some mud-slinging in Britain too, it does not even approach the levels of hysteria and vitriol that have been apparent in the U.S. recently.

I’ve deliberately avoided posting anything related to politics during election season. It seems that whenever one takes a position, those with an ax to grind on one side or the other are apt to attack it mercilessly if it is not 100% supportive of their preferred party line.

But with Obama’s win last week, there is one aspect of the campaign that I do want to discuss briefly, since I was particularly impressed by it, and that is Obama’s acceptance speech.

There were, of course, instances where the usual criticisms were leveled at him during the campaign – hesitation, can’t speak without auto-cue, excessive pauses filled with the word “ummm” – but I find these to be politically motivated cynicism, largely from people actively looking for something to criticize.

I personally think he’s a pretty good and highly charismatic speaker.  However, with the acceptance speech it wasn’t Obama himself that impressed me.  It was his speechwriter, Jon Favreau.

Jon Favreau, White House Director of Speechwriting under Obama

Irrespective of what you think of Obama’s political views and his policymaking, his acceptance speech was an outstanding piece of communication.  Anyone who is interested in communications, presenting or speech-writing could do a lot worse than to study it for a few minutes, as it clearly illustrates a number of communications principles.

The Rule of Three

The “Rule of Three” is one of the best known, and most often used principles employed by professional speechwriters.  People who have a professional interest in communications will have heard of it but most others will not.  I first heard it in school, many years ago, via the Latin phrase “omne truim perfectum”, meaning “all threes are perfect”.  But why is it so effective?

A master at work – Steve Jobs’ use of the Rule of Three was an inherent part of his presentations

Good question.  Nobody really knows, although there are numerous theories, many of which build on observations that are immediately apparent.

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Jokes are often structured using 3 protagonists, with the first 2 setting up the punchline and the third being the butt of the joke (a blonde, a brunette and a redhead walk into a bar).  Dickens uses 3 ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Shakespeare 3 witches in The Scottish Play.  Steve Jobs used it to great effect for 3 decades.  And did you notice I used the Rule of Three in the second paragraph?

In Obama’s speech, the Rule of Three makes an appearance on multiple occasions, some short, some more elaborate.

OBAMA: “And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president.”

OBAMA: “You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college and wants to make sure every child has that same opportunity.  You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift.  You’ll hear the deep patriotism in the voice of a military spouse who’s working the phones late at night to make sure that no one who fights for this country ever has to fight for a job or a roof over their head when they come home.”

At the very start of the speech, Obama informs us that “Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward.”

Present.  Past.  Future.

Would 2 little pigs have been less memorable? Would 4 have been unnecessary?

Three has so many more cultural reference points than two or four.  It just seems to resonate better.  Two gives the impression you’re struggling for material.  Four feels like you’re laboring the point.  But three allows you scope.  Past, Present and Future.  Too big, too small, just right.  In children’s fairy tales, Goldilocks meets Three Bears.  In Greek mythology, Hippomenes distracts Atalanta with 3 golden apples.  In classical music, Calaf must answer 3 riddles to marry Turandot.  And who can forget the Three Stooges?

Whatever the reason, the Rule of Three is as firmly embedded in the American subconscious as the fact that America was founded, as Lincoln put it, as “a new nation (1), conceived in liberty (2), and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (3).”

The Rule of Contrast

Another rule clearly used in numerous instances is the Rule of Contrast.  In the Rule of Contrast, a preferred direction or suggestion contrasts with a following less desirable alternative to create an emotional response.

“A shadow has fallen on the scenes so lately lighted by the allied victory.”
Churchill uses contrast in his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in 1946.

However, it is important to remember that we are not writing an essay here.  A speech, particularly a political one, has to be concise, punchy and universally accessible.  If we have to set up the contrast, then it is likely that it will not work.  The contrast selected has to be inescapably clear, and has to resonate across the political divide.  Remember, in his acceptance speech, Obama’s primary concern is to build bridges after a hard-fought partizan campaign.  In doing so, he uses aspirational structures that could just as easily be used in an acceptance speech by Mitt Romney.

OBAMA:  “Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual.  You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours.”

Sometimes, the Rule of Three is combined with the Rule of Contrast, for an even more effective result.

OBAMA:  This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Again, this is a well worn path for speechmakers, and those who use it expertly stand a much greater chance of having their key points standing the test of time.  Some of the best remembered speeches of all time rely heavily on contrast.

MLK:  “A nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.

Malcolm X:  “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock.  The rock was landed on us.”

JFK:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

John F Kennedy’s Inaugural address featured one of the best known contrasts ever spoken,
one that was echoed by President Obama in his speech last week.

The Rule of Pictures

One rule that most people will be familiar with is that  “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

Obama’s speech relies heavily on the ability to paint a picture and, in doing so, to generate a shared appreciation and thereby a shared sense of inclusiveness about the points he is making.

OBAMA: I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time.  Whether you pounded the pavement or picked up the phone.  Whether you held an Obama sign or a Romney sign, you made your voice heard and you made a difference.

Charts – not as precise as raw data,
but infinitely more illustrative.

And of course, it is not just Obama that uses this technique.  When addressing a business audience, presenters will normally choose to use dedicated presentation format like PowerPoint rather than a simple word processing program.

When making a statistical point, it is unusual to see the raw data in a spreadsheeet.  We prefer to see graphs that allow swathes of data to be communicated at the same time, allowing us to form an impression of patterns, of trends, and thereby to form opinions.

In political speeches however, it is unusual for slides or graphic representations to be used, because the politician delivering the speech wants all the attention to be focused on him or her, and because of the desire to convey a big message without getting bogged down in the individual details (for politicians, the devil is always in the detail).

But there are ways to provide a physical illustration in order to associate oneself with a perceived positive.

In early 1982, an Air Florida flight plunged into the Potomac shortly after taking off from Washington Dulles airport.  That event is remembered not so much for the 78 who died as it is for the actions of Lenny Skutnik, a passer-by who jumped into the ice-covered river to rescue a Priscilla Tirado who was freezing, unable to hold onto a life ring lowered from a helicopter, and who would certainly have died if not for his actions.  In doing so, Mr Skutnik created a communications phenomenon.

Lenny Skutnik is honored at President Reagan’s 1982 State of the Union address,
thereby establishing a new trend for political speechwriters

Less than 2 weeks later, Mr Skutnik, sitting next to Nancy Reagan, received a thunderous round of applause from Congress at the State of the Union address.  From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, this technique has now become a standard communications tool, a means to amplify a point by providing a physical manifestation considered to represent something unambiguously positive.  In Washington, the technique is sometimes referred to as “a skutnik”.  Watch for it at the next State of the Union.

The Use of Alliteration.

In the film Broadcast News, Albert Brooks mocks a newsroom anchor with the words “A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors placed in powerful posts”.

Albert Brooks in ‘Broadcast News’

To those of us who have worked in communications for a number of years, there is something vaguely depressing about the manner in which local news uses alliteration, rhyme or a play on words in their headlines.

How many times have you seen a talking head describing a news item of limited interest, with a caption on screen that reads “Predator on the Prowl” (apparently, there have been reports of coyotes in the area), “Teens in Trouble” (a group of teens have been arrested for something) or “Grime and Punishment” (a city councillor has been found guilty of accepting bribes from a waste management company).

But while those that are looking out for it find it somewhat jaded, that doesn’t make alliteration any less effective with the general public.  And hence it makes several appearances in Obama’s speech.

OBAMA: “The spirit that has lifted this country from the depths of despair to the great heights of hope.” (Note the use of contrast there as well.)

OBAMA: “A country that lives up to its legacy as the global leader.”

OBAMA: “SEALs who charged up the stairs into darkness and danger because they knew there was a buddy behind them watching their back”.

It’s easy to lay it on a bit thick with alliteration (I’m personally not so sure about that “darkness and danger” bit), but for the most part it’s highly effective and I think that, almost without exception, Favreau gets it spot on.

There are many, many more ‘rules’ of sound communication, but Favreau’s speech for Obama checks all the main boxes.  It’s true that Obama may be a very charismatic speaker, but having watched the speech several times now and re-read the transcripts more than once, the speech was as much a masterful piece of writing as it was masterful oratory.

After so many months of hearing nothing but soundbites and counteraccusation, I like to think the campaign ended on a high note.  In communications terms, at least.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Communications

 

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