The essence of communication is transmission between senders and receivers. An interesting and enjoyable conversation can be had by leaning out an open window and talking to your neighbour. In a corporate context, this can be done over the phone, via email, Teams, over the table in a conference room, or maybe on the bus on the way to the airport. Different places and channels have their strengths and weaknesses, and work more or less effectively depending on the topic and the circumstances.
In the previous change traps, we’ve pretty much covered the when, where, with whom and about what.
Now let’s look at the potential traps that lay hidden within the actual message. There’s a lot to say about this, but here we’ll look at three interconnected content traps that we find especially problematic—all quite common when it comes to communicating about change.
1 Talking about bananas while pointing at an apple
So, as the sender, do you actually know what you’re talking about? “I should know, shouldn’t I? I am the manager, after all!”
Imagine this. You meet the Learning and Development guy from HR, enthusiastically sharing all the benefits of working remotely with this new e-learning module you’ve created for the service technicians on your team. HR guy buys the story and prepares for you to introduce it to the team. Great team meeting; everything’s said and done. Boom! Let’s go!
A week later, Mr. Expert Technician Guy contacts you. “Listen, I spent an hour walking through the learning module you made for us. I couldn’t find anything I didn’t already know – and you got a lot of stuff wrong. What exactly was the point of that?”
Put simply, if you decide to spread the message, you better know what you’re talking about.
2 Umm… What?
You’ve just participated in a fantastic presentation made by the suits from the Big Blue Consultancy Company. You’re mind-blown. What a fantastic performance, how elegantly all the short-comings and threats to our business were wrapped-up in a colourful PowerPoint presentation. The conclusions? WOW! And finally, the recommendations, crystal clear, almost poetic.
So, you’re convinced, and so are all the others in the management team. Now it’s just to spread this masterclass piece of magnificently designed enlightenment to the rest of your people.
Bleep-bleep-bleep! Warning! Warning!
Beware of the language. An old Swedish proverb, written by one of the country’s greatest poets, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, is this: “Talk to peasants in the peasants’ way but with learned men in Latin”. This expression is about adapting the language to the recipient’s ability to care, and to know what you’re talking about.
The external consultants often bring their own language to you, based on their theories, methodologies, and use often pretty technocratic expressions. At best, it’s just about understandable to you, but the words seldom resonate with the words spoken normally by people within your organisation.
The change communicator’s job is to translate those expressions, sometimes used behind closed doors, into a language that lights the spark and addresses the emotions of the receiving people. It’s also about avoiding empty embroidered language. Art for art’s sake all the way—but not in change communication. This is a job that should not be neglected.
Here’s something fun to try. Print out a copy of Bullshit Bingo (from bullshitbingo.net – it is actually a thing!) and bring to the next planning meeting. Or create one yourself for your company, with the help of your teammates. It’s fun, yes, but at the same time it has a serious undertone. It’s crucial for you to be on the right wavelength and use the right language. A round of Bullshit Bingo is a good way to validate your messaging platform.
3 Finally: Who are ‘you’? Who are ‘they’? Who are ‘we’?
Is it you, them, or us?
A good presentation with a clear, relevant message and a few great stories to illustrate it is what you need if you want to capture the attention of your audience. Try using a clear and challenging question to start an interesting conversation.
What we’ve often seen is that the message itself is delivered in an unintentionally ‘talking down’ way. The audience often perceives the message as a call from some higher power that signals them to just do as they’re told.
As communicator, a ground rule is to think not only about your story, per se, but the pieces of information that it contains. Which words, expressions and examples will give your audience a sense of you talking with them?
Are you a priest who speaks to the congregation and asks everyone to bow down to the will of the higher power? Or are you a travel guide who doesn’t sit in on all the answers, but knows the destination? Think about it and make your decision about which ‘hat’ to wear when writing the script for your ‘vision’ film, blogpost, speech, or whatever.
In practice, it’s difficult to get the right balance between clarity, on the one hand, and inclusion on the other. Clarity about expectations and direction is an important basis for change work. But at the same time, the feeling of being involved is just as important. You need to create a feeling that you’re not only asking people to jump right into the change journey, but that there’s an expectation that everyone will be a part of and influence the journey ahead by their own actions. How you formulate and deliver messages in text, stories or speeches plays a vital role.