All communications begin with the message. So why does it matter, what are the core elements and why does this medium make a difference?
Why does it all matter?
The central abiding challenge of strategic internal communication is understanding how we influence behaviour in the workplace. The aim of great internal communication is to get people to act in the ways that the organisation needs them to do in order to support its core objectives.
That can be as simple as delivering the right customer experience or being a productive member of the workplace community. Or it can demand that employees act as external advocates or embrace fundamental change.
Whatever behaviour you need, your success depends on people being persuaded that the actions you are proposing are the right ones.
Some people might argue that compliance is not dependent on consent.
There is still a school of thought that believes it is possible to command employees to follow certain procedures and practices. And it is undoubtedly true that the fear of dismissal, reprimand or punishment will shape some behaviours on the job. Safety or security rules are commonly enforced without any attempt to explain why they must be obeyed.
However, increasingly there is evidence that without persuasion, compliance to enforced behaviours is temporary or weak. Studies into discretionary behaviour highlight that employees will only observe minimum standards, and will do as little as they need to avoid trouble.
The real value comes when people at work see the point of doing something, and are ready to invest effort above what is demanded of them.
Recent studies by consultants such as Blessing White have continued to promote this view and are well worth reading if you want to catch up on engagement.
What do we mean by ‘messaging’?
When we talk about messages in employee communication, I find that people very quickly start confusing what and how.
I am mainly focused on the idea that a message is a shared meaning or concept. I am not discussing the significant issue of who a message is crafted.
Anyone who has worked in communication will have experienced what I call the ‘challenging’ debate. I’ve called it that after a particularly maddening three-week long discussion I had with a colleague once about whether the CEO’s speech should refer to the coming year as being ‘challenging’ or ‘tough’. To this day I don’t understand the nice point that my colleague was trying to address but I do remember Russell Grossman saying “the messages you craft the most, you use the least” – in other words don’t get hung up about the words until you’ve got the central idea down.
Which isn’t to say that the how doesn’t influence the what. Obviously sending out redundancy notices by SMS message will undermine your messages about caring and concern for departing employees. But if your channel or media is decided before the message, you may be putting the cart before the horse.
Trees falling in the forest
Essentially communication is a social process. If there is no one to share a meaning with all you are doing is shouting.
As a result, it simply isn’t possible to consider a message without considering the audience.
I know that could seem to be a banal point but I am afraid that my experience of many workplaces is that communications all too often seem to be despatched with scant regard for the reaction of the recipients. In fact, communication is commonly said to have happened when an intranet story is posted or an email sent. The fact that no one read them or understood what they said doesn’t seem to bother some people.
The truth is that one of the key skills of the communicator is to understand how a particular concept can be shared with an audience group. Through experience or analysis, we should be able to show other professionals how persuasion works in their workplace and explain how they’ll always get superior results when they try to convince people rather than just shouting at them.
Central to this is the communicator’s need to understand audiences. If we don’t have a reliable and current insight into what our colleagues think, believe and understand we cannot advise our fellow managers. If our insights lack analysis and objectivity we are not likely to add significant value.
The theory bit
There is a considerable body of theory around the issue of how people are persuaded to act in one way or another. It’s a field that has fascinated academics and practitioners from many different disciplines including psychologists, political scientists, marketers and almost anyone who has ever had to mount a campaign of one sort or another.
The literature on the subject of persuasion is full of attempts to address questions such as why people continue to smoke tobacco in the face of overwhelming evidence of the harm it causes or why so many people are willing to deny the facts of climate change despite the scientific consensus of its reality.
Communicators who want a deeper theoretical underpinning on the processes of persuasion should probably spend a little time looking into:
• Social Judgement theory (Sherif) from the 1960’s which first developed the idea that we have fixed views or prejudices which limit the range of topics on which we are open to persuasion
• Elaboration-Likelihood Model (Petty) from the 1980’s which suggests that we can either be convinced by strong rational arguments (as long as we’re motivated to listen and can understand what’s being said) or we can be swayed by emotional triggers
• Cognitive Dissonance theory (Festinger) which argues that we’ll seek out a course of action that conflicts least with our beliefs or values.
There is also a strong school of thought that suggests that humans are not as generally as rational as we like to think. The ‘Narrative’ approach argues that we individually create meaning from our experiences and communication – a process in which we decide which facts to ignore, discount, forget or emphasise. This approach argues that it is the role of the communicator to create a meaningful narrative or story around a course of action.
The core elements
There are probably very few perfect messages in employee communications. Eventhe simplest and seemingly most compelling actually don’t penetrate very easily – next time the fire alarm goes off in your office spot the number of people who stay at their desks!
However what follows is a checklist of some areas where you can test the impact of a proposed set of messages – the idea is that the stronger you score in each area the more impactful your message will be.
If you’re asking people to believe in something that is so far from their own beliefs or experience, you’re in for a hard time. Communications which go against the grain of opinion or experience are less likely to be persuasive than messages which are supported by existing attitudes.
For example, sales people who are used to being paid commission might be more amenable than colleagues in the finance department to a new performance related pay scheme. Telling people that the IT department is committed to customer service might not ring true in a workplace where computers take ages to repair.
Where possible a communicator should look for ways of connecting a message to existing beliefs or values. Interestingly, when people think that an idea or plan is broadly in line with their existing views, they will tend to minimise the differences between what they want and what is being suggested.
How well does your argument stack-up? People expect their employer to present a strong case in support of proposed course of action and will want to challenge it when they sense a plan hasn’t been thought through.
It is often at the moment of communication that the flaws in a plan become apparent and it may fall to the communicator to point out why a crucial factor has been missed. Commonly people will work on a plan in isolation and the communicator is the first person to see an argument in its entirety.
Obviously, as indicated earlier, we do not all judge facts and data in the same way. Our valuations will be skewed by our prejudices and our personal experiences or values will cause us to apply subjective weightings to different factors.
But, a communicator will want to assess an argument for themselves and not take the slides from the strategy consultants at face value. And they will want to ensure that the advantages of a proposed course of action are both plentiful and compelling.
People can confuse the concept of ‘what’s in it for me’ with the need to make sure people are motivated to think about the issue at stake in the first place.
The more interested people are in an issue, the more likely they are to respond to rational argument in favour of a course of action. Take the example of a new employee appraisal system – you’re more likely to get the attentions of someone who supervises a large team than you are to excite a student who’s only working with you for the summer.
The crucial point is that many subjects that need communicating do not automatically excite or interest people at work. A communicator has to find ways of capturing the attention of an audience group and keeping them interested long enough to digest the arguments you are presenting.
The added complication is that senior managers are often deeply fascinated by the topics they want to share with the workforce. And they can’t understand why anyone else wouldn’t be every bit as excited as they are. A communicator must understand their audiences well enough to spot when a leader’s enthusiasm for a particular subject won’t automatically be reciprocated by the rest of the organisation.
It is essential that arguments are seen to be consistent and there is a continuity of delivery. Communications which are fragmented or episodic are rarely convincing – a failing of many messages about organisational change.
Messages have to be part of a common conversation – employees will listen to an argument in the workplace and will test it against other communications or experiences. For example I once ran a cost-savings campaign that floundered when employees saw the Sales Director continue to arrive at work in a chauffeur driven car.
The communicator’s role is to look for the incongruity in the overall conversation. In this context, Bill Quirke talks about the importance of Air Traffic Control – the orchestration of different channels and messages into a coherent theme.
And the flow of communication should be uninterrupted.
At its most basic, we are more likely to understand an idea or an argument if we can absorb it in a single sitting without interruption or confusion. Imagine teaching a complicated concept to a class of students and having to contend with a fire alarm or a disruptive pupil. The same is true of workplace communications.
Where possible a message or argument should be presented in a complete form – stringing it out over several instalments is rarely a recipe for comprehension or support.
People are not entirely rational. If we are not motivated to listen or a message is just too complicated to understand we will fall back on non-rational cues to help us decide what to do. A communicator should ask whether any of the following triggers are in place:
• Source liking – perhaps unsurprisingly, people are more prone to listen to someone they like or admire. That’s why advertisers or campaigners use popular celebrities – they hope that if we like Roger Federer we’ll buy the razor he’s promoting. Likewise that’s why some senior leaders make great performers at town halls (and why some should never be let out in public!)
• Limited opportunity – Implied scarcity is used to sell everything from Harry Potter books to diamonds and ten minutes watching a TV shopping channel will include multiple appeals based on a limited supply. In the workplace this is used to encourage sign-ups for voluntary severance programmes or to promote participation in training schemes. Clearly there are ethical considerations connected to being untruthful or to falsely denying access to a benefit or service, but where a limitation does exist it is a powerful addition to a message.
• Reciprocation – most high value sales strategies include an element of reciprocation; persuading a prospect that you are doing them a favour is intended to create a sense of obligation. Internal communicators look for opportunities to highlight how different audiences are working together or how certain benefits can be achieved if we all work together.
For example people are often persuaded to support a new HR initiative because it could lead to better training opportunities or a move to a new site could allow the company to fund a better gym or restaurant facility. Naturally care is needed to ensure that benefits are genuine.
• Authority – in some situations invoking management’s authority is sufficient to secure a desired action. “We’re in charge around here and we say it’s the right thing to do” is temporarily effective when the speaker enjoys the respect of the workforce and has a track record of being right.
• Commitment – if people are already tied to a cause or an organisation, they are more willing to support a call to action. Political campaigners have known for years about the potency of getting people to wear a button badge or display a poster in their window – such an act may not persuade a third person to support a candidate or a campaign, but it will start drawing the individual closer and closer to a cause. People who have bought into a small aspect of a campaign or cause are ready to start listening to arguments which they might have previously rejected. Internal communicators are familiar with the phenomenon of employees becoming suddenly more positive in staff surveys after many years of service. Messages which reflect on how much people have invested in time and energy in a company or a project can be more potent. Equally, finding small actions that people can take to sign up are often the opening shots in environmental or safety awareness campaigns.
One of the deciding factors in how well people respond to an argument at work is the sheer scale of the change being proposed. A complete reorganisation of the company is more likely to meet resistance than a request to recycle more paper in the office.
Whilst no one would condone hiding to a workforce a far-reaching change the perceived impact of a change can be kept to reasonable levels by ensuring: that the uncertainties about the scope and timing of the transformation are minimised. No one is helped by painting vague and unspecified doomsday scenarios. And ensuring that local implications are always spelt out keeps the focus on a human level.
As much as we like to pretend to be independently minded, we are heavily influenced by the attitudes of our peers. Communicators should look for opportunities to show who else is supporting a proposal – perhaps by creating a forum for people to discuss their support. Equally, overemphasising the support for a countervailing view is rarely a good idea. Make sure that people get a balanced picture of who supports an argument.
There really can be no excuse in this day and age for communications that are either so dense with obscure jargon or are so packed with complicated data that no one understands them. It may seem stunningly obvious but it is a lesson that has to be continually shared with colleagues in management. Sadly, communicators are often bullied into sending out dull rubbish or are given too little time to remedy the turgid guff that’s been dumped on them.
The final challenge for the message is to check how memorable it is. If people just can’t recall what it was they were told or the arguments they were given, all the drafting and preparations behind the communication are likely to be a waste of time.
The simple test is to ask yourself what do we want people to remember from a particular communication and consider whether the message expresses it clearly. Some communicators advise limiting the message to a single point – advice which may be overly restrictive. However, trying to cram too much into a particular communication is asking for trouble.
Proponents of ‘storytelling’ argue that creating a narrative around a message is the ideal way to embed a concept.
The message builder
This is a concept created by Sue Dewhurst, and is a simple template for defining a message. It relies on the concepts given above to make sure that we structure and plan what we’re going to say.
It’s all about knowing the audience
Communicators always need to provide their management colleagues with good advice. And when it comes to planning, developing and testing messages, the quality of that advice depends massively on our understanding of the audiences. A communicator has to understand the motivations, attitudes, experiences and values of their audiences – without these insights the role is reduced to one of minute-taking and mail delivery.
With real knowledge, we are in a position to make an enormous difference to the success of the organisations which we serve.