The mandatory pre-conference blog post and social update: #IABC19 Edition

I thought about a lot of #comms things on the way to Vancouver ahead of #IABC19 and this is my jetlag-fuelled take on why this is a crucial time for Communication Professionals.

It’s WCE. World Conference Eve. Already this week, fellow airline passengers from all parts of the globe have been subjected to communication professionals explaining their job and answering questions – the airline seat/UBER pitch is longer than the elevator pitch – as they wended or in some cases still wend their way to Vancouver for IABC’s annual tribal reunion.

In Vancouver, it’s 11.22pm Friday as I begin to write this, but back home in Australia it’s already Saturday at 3.52pm. I travelled back in time almost a full day as a result of crossing the International Date Line. Maybe I am feeling retrospective as a result.

Time accelerates as we age. I’m the same age as IABC, and I know with the number of changes I’ve experienced in the past year (from personal, professional and purpose perspectives) that sometimes, time moves a little too fast to allow the list to ever be entirely crossed off. So, here we are in June, the night before the Biggest Gathering Of People Who Do What I Do (henceforth called ‘the comms tribe’) and I am writing a blog post because…well, because you can’t not have something to show. It’s WC, people!

IABC World Conference is an interesting wormhole that brings the past, the present and the future together along with the comms tribe. It is the fire that we gather around to tell the stories that make sense of our professional world: Where did we come from, where are we going, why am I here?

IABC is approaching it’s 50th year as an organisation in 2020, with roots going back much further than that. The business of communication is not new. Here’s a paradox, though. While the practice becomes professionalised, new research is developed, the technologies both of communication and of the businesses we seek to improve continue to develop. And yet, the core challenges of the communication profession often seem inscrutable, constant and wicked:

Information is not communication.

While the former grows meta-exponentially, often fuelled by the activities and technologies of ‘communications’ we see greater problems than ever in terms of facilitating shared meaning. This isn’t a new problem.

There’s more noise than signal.

Ok, we know the sender-receiver model was talking about technology and not about people so it’s a very flawed way of viewing human communication. But, as a metaphor, it is truer now than ever.

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Internet Minute 2009

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Internet minute 2019.

Emotion trumps fact.

Communicating things that matter in a way that matters is really hard work. Complexity is inevitable. And it’s increasingly hard to fight misinformation because of the aforementioned noise, biases, bubbles and shareability.

Bad information = shareable. Good information = lost in the noise.

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Not a fake tweet.

Everyone and everything communicates.

Our species has been communicating for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a little arrogant of us as communication professionals to rock up at well after 11.59pm on the evolutionary clock and think we’re suddenly going to be in charge. But our career-ancestors, the shaman and the priests, the academics and the jesters, the town-criers and the cave painters, the scribes and the documenters – the leaders – have been doing this much longer than we have, and in very few cases have they ‘got everyone on the same page’. At best, they’ve been able to create resonance, or motivate, or inspire or lead. At worst, they’ve been propagandists or censors, Inquisitors and snake-oil sellers. I’ve gone on a tangent, but a relevant one. At the worst points have they ‘controlled the story’ or ‘silver-lined’ it, neither of which promotes understanding and shared meaning. If we think we are in the business of control, we have to ask which of those professional columns we will be in when the AIs machine-learn the history of communication somewhere shortly down the path.

Which leads to another wicked problem.

Communications technology has been the tail wagging our collective dog.

Pretty much since Gutenberg.

A quick review of any of the literature of the past 50 years of communication practices shows that what we do has been play catch-up with channels as communication vehicles as they are developed largely by people who are not human-communication professionals. Do any of us want to go through the 2010s retrofitting ESNs to corporate cultures because IT got a bulk license when they did the infrastructure deal? No. But here’s where we have learned. There are multiple current studies and approaches being developed by communication leaders and academics dealing with the next big technological wave: AI and what it means for communication, business and society.

(For all the issues with the World Economic Forum, Davos can at least be relied upon to make sexy the issues that communicators strive to educate their businesses and clients for the preceding three to five years.)

It’s hard but we got this.

Bear with me. I know this got dystopian and at the moment seems pretty far from an inspirational post. There’s no “15 seconds of a baby elephant chasing geese” distraction in this blog.

Well, one GIF maybe.  But only to sustain us to the end of the story.

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Ok, back in the room. Focus people.

Because we – as people who are employed by business, governments, lobby groups, public organisations to use our knowledge, skills and profession to achieve outcomes that wouldn’t be as effective without us – have a pretty competitive and tough job at the moment. We’re fighting disinformation, tech change, other professional disciplines who don’t wait for permission.

The ‘where did we come from…’ is different for many communicators. You know on Survivor, when they merge tribes? Communication as a profession is still at that stage when Jeff gets everyone to throw their buffs in the fire. (Best Jeff Pobst voice: There is no internal comms tribe, no external comms tribe, no brand tribe, there is just Professional Communication.)

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But we’re a bit ahead of Survivor contestants. We have our Global Standard and Code of Ethics to guide us. Which is exactly why coming back to the cave of #IABC19* is so important. I am so excited about what I will hear over the next few days.

The problems faced by the tribe will be near-universal. Wherever they are. Whatever the maturity of the organizations and industries they support. Someone else will have felt that pain. But someone else will also have found a different way, using the approaches and skills and disciplines we have collectively arrived at.

One example recently I witnessed was a panel presentation at the Australian Corporate Affairs Summit (#theCAS) where each panelist cited what was working in their organization, and each type of example was something not new for IC, but that was new to their organisation or sector, and applied with learning and insight. In comms, with professionalisation, we are seeing survival of the fittest practices: those that have had measurable impact.

KNOW FEEL DO (1)

In business, we communicate to create change

What do we do? We can take courses, we can join webinars, we can build our skills and stay current. But, communicating with each other, sharing stories, is still the most meaningful way to make sense of it all.

To paraphrase broadcaster and conference speaker and Celeste Headlee from her podcast interview with Dan Gold** a few weeks ago it’s through listening deeply, inquisitively and critically to those stories from all of our #comms tribe that we continue to advance and develop ourselves and the profession.

Happy #IABC19 everyone.

*If not in person then on LinkedIn, or Twitter, with the tag #IABC19.
**Correction. An earlier edition of this post incorrectly called Dan Gold Mike Gold. I think what I meant was ‘Dan Gold, who is great on the MIC…’

Disclosures: In addition to being an independent communication advisor I work with IABC to develop the Corporate Membership offering in the Asia Pacific region. I attended The Corporate Affairs Summit as a representative of IABC APAC, and this is my late homework. 

Your end of year to-do list

As we enter the summer switch-off in Australia, here’s a different kind of to-do list for the holidays.

Nobody wants to be told to relax. It feels counter-intuitive to be instructed to on how to have down-time. But sometimes, in the busy-ness, it can be hard to go from full speed to idle. These 12 prompts are ways of crossing over into the recharge zone.

Intended as a gentle thought starter, I created this list in 2010 as a way of giving myself some prompts for downtime and reflection after a particularly challenging year, and finding that I really didn’t know how to switch off.

Reflect. Consider the successes and lessons of the year that has passed.

Revel. There are many opportunities for celebration. Take them. Share them.

Recharge. Chances are, you have worked hard all year. Put some fuel in the tank.

Randomise. Disruption is great for creativity. Break habits. Get lost. See what you discover.

Reconnect. Connect with the people you wanted to see more of during the year.

Regress. Summer is a great time to play. Humans learn from play – it is an ingrained skill we sometimes forget to exercise.

Read. For pleasure. There’s no award for the number of business books you consume on holiday.

Reframe. We are often in a different place over holidays (even if that different place is ‘home’!) Consider the landscape and allow the different space to inspire new thoughts.

Recognise. Notice those things you miss when you are flat out. What would it take to notice them at other times of the year?

Record. Keep a holiday journal. Save those insights.

Retain. Decide what you want to retain for the year ahead. Hold onto the right things.

Relax.

Thank you, clients, colleagues, co-creators, collaborators and competitors…

I’ll be back in the new year with new projects, new collaborations and some other big news!

Until then, happy and safe holidays to you and yours.

Cheers

Jonathan

Recharge

Using the 5-step COMMS model for better outcomes – IABC Webinar

I am excited to be presenting to the IABC member community a webinar on the fundamentals of the COMMS plan model. This 60-minute session provides an introduction to how the model can be used to focus on outcomes rather than tactics when it comes to communication planning and incorporates the seven essential elements of an effective communication plan.

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IABC members are able to view a playback of the session on the IABC Professional Development portal.

3 tools and an essential skill to help managers communicate better

Three tools and an essential skill for manager communication

Organisations ask a lot of their operational and line managers. The day-to-day administration of a team while also focusing on delivering business results can be overwhelming for even experienced operational managers. Functional areas such as finance, human resources, property and procurement regularly decentralise activities to people leaders or provide self-service options that also shifts the action to the manager.  

It becomes apparent why managers can struggle in their communication efforts. An employee’s immediate manager has a significant impact on their experience of the organisation they work for. Across a range of communication audits and studies, ‘immediate manager’ is cited as a preferred source of information, and yet the performance of managers is also cited as a challenge.

It’s no surprise then that so many engagement or communication surveys show that manager communication is not meeting employee needs or expectations. Meanwhile, in research across a wide variety of industries and organisations, line managers in organisations have a consistent request:

Make it simpler for me.

Three tools and an essential skill

There are three simple tools that people managers can adopt that will add to their communication competence and increase their effectiveness in communicating with not only their teams but other parts of their organisation and their stakeholders.

“For us this means…”

Being able to complete a very specific sentence is an important capability for line managers in any organisation. That sentence starts with “For us, this means…”

Organisations are complex. It’s almost a cliche to state that, but it remains an unavoidable truism as the nature of work continues to shift and organisations continue to try and deliver their outcomes in perpetually changing circumstances.

The days of control and command where a manager could know everything that was important to their team are gone.

Given this fact, the role of the manager shifts from being the keeper of knowledge to the provider of context. Providing managers with enough information, giving them time to digest and internalise change, and equipping them to translate priorities for their business area equips them to fulfil their role as a credible source for the team and empowers them to do it in an authentic way.

“For us this means…” is the bridge between the universal messages being driven by the CEO or Executive team, or a corporate communication function, and delivering consistent yet relevant information to the parts of the organisation where change actually occurs.

“Elbows out”

Think about how we usually experience the people we work with. We see them at their most normal as they talk to us day to day about their work or their weekend. We see their natural body language. Regardless of whether they are extroverts, introverts or somewhere in between, we can observe their authentic style.

Now think about what usually happens for managers when there is a substantial change they are required to support. They are provided dot points, speaking notes, briefing packs or a script from the project or human resources or a change team. And then they are asked to deliver those messages. For some, this takes the form of holding the script, and ‘seizing up’ as they are constrained in their communication style. What we see is they suddenly become “elbows-in” communicators as they clutch the script in front of them and lose their natural style.

Investing in managers’ communication competence to enable them to be “elbows out” communicators, comfortable to deliver the essence of a message while not being restricted to a script that forces them to sound inauthentic delivers results in terms of credibility and equips them to be the trusted source that their employees and team members want them to be.

Think before you speak

Managers face time pressures and unfortunately too often this translates into a lack of preparation for communication. Planning communication does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. Five simple questions can help a manager prepare for any kind of communication activity. It might be the one to one meeting they are having with a team member, or it might be the monthly all-hands meeting; asking themselves the following five questions to prepare can help them hit the mark on their message and most importantly, focus on the outcome of the communication.

What is the context of this communication: what is going on here, what has already happened,  and how does that affect what I want to happen?

What outcome am I hoping for and what will that look like?

What message does that individual, team, partner, customer, or stakeholder need in order to move them towards that outcome?

Given the context, the message and the desired outcome, what is the most effective method for this communication? Is this something that needs to be communicated face-to-face?

What is required to support this communication activity to ensure the outcomes are achieved? This might be selecting the right place and time, determining what additional information is required, involving others in creating the communication or ensuring there is a feedback process.

It is no coincidence that those considerations form the abbreviation COMMS:

  • Context
  • Outcome
  • Message
  • Method
  • Support

(More information on applying the COMMS planning approach is available freely under a Creative Commons license.)

While simple on the surface, applying these three skills consistently can transform the quality of manager communication.

Listening is the special sauce that brings it all together

Binding these three skills together is a manager’s ability to listen deeply. This includes listening to what the organisation requires them to achieve, as well as listening to what their team needs in order to deliver.

At a time when organisations continue to struggle to engage employees, equipping managers to be effective communicators has a direct benefit and is far from a ‘soft skill’. Investing in developing manager capability in these four areas provides an advantage in terms of reputation, risk, productivity and engagement.

Building the planning habit

It’s a decade since journalist and trend-spotter Malcolm Gladwell introduced us to the idea of the 10000-hour rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell contended that amongst a range of factors practice is the most common denominator in outstanding success. While even Gladwell himself acknowledges this is an oversimplification, the principle applies to many fields including communication management.

One challenge communicators describe is getting into the practice of effective communication planning. This topic comes up frequently in communication training that I facilitate, both at the level of emerging practitioners and for more senior communicators. “Our organisation just wants the outcome, they don’t value the planning.” Or, “We have to have a plan for everything but then it goes into the drawer”. The approach for many practitioners is to find an example of a plan that has worked and to try to adopt that into their organisation.

The risk with this ‘template-led’ approach to communication planning is that frequently a communication plan documents an approach but does not display the thinking that has been applied to ensure that approach is right for that environment.

 

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Too often, communication plans are based on ‘here’s one we prepared earlier’ rather than developed through a consistent process.

Building the communication planning habit

It’s not just Malcolm Gladwell who encourages the idea of practice to achieve mastery. Across fields as diverse as science, the performing arts, personal fitness and writing – whether to achieve greatness or for pure enjoyment – habit-building is an important foundation.

For communicators, treating every communication, regardless of scale or of how ‘business as usual’ it might seem, as an opportunity to build the planning habit provides a number of benefits.

  • Challenging our ‘first thinking’. While many communication decisions are based on sound instinct and applied experience, testing our thinking each time can help challenge assumptions.
  • Building awareness of the function. While it can be rewarding to have the skills to improve communication, showing how the process works demonstrates to stakeholders that communication planning is a professional process, not just an intuitive talent.
  • Amplifying capability. By showing others how something is done, we do not diminish our own capability as communicators. Rather, we grow the skills across our organisations or client groups. In contemporary organisations, everybody is a communicator. Giving people a process to challenge their own thinking is a valuable contribution to improving communication across the board.
  • We get better. Using a consistent approach allows for communicator’s creativity to come to the fore in the way that solutions are developed in response to the needs and outcomes required.

The COMMS Planning approach provides a simple five steps that can be applied to every communication activity to challenge ‘first thoughts’ and helping get better outcomes from your efforts.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

7 Essential Communication Plan Success Factors

Communication planning does not have to be difficult. In the first in a series of simple checklists and tools from the Meaning Business COMMS Plan toolkit, here are seven essential factors for an effective plan.

THE 7 ESSENTIAL COMMUNICATION PLAN SUCCESS FACTORS

Thank you and see you in 2018

Thanks to all the wonderful clients, collaborators, partners, and communicators for a wonderful year in 2018. Meaning Business will be taking a little break from 20 December until 2 January. See you next year.

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No such thing as BAU: how can internal communication professionals manage in changing times?

Earlier this year I was working with a Head of Communications in a government agency that has undergone significant structural transformation and operational change over the past two years.

She was working on deepening the engagement between leaders and employees in different areas and had asked for some advice on how to ensure communication was flowing two ways. I asked, “What business as usual channels do you rely on today?”

“We don’t use the term BAU any longer. Transformation is going to continue. Change is business as usual and we now adopt a continuous improvement approach” she said.

It was a moment of absolute clarity for me. How many of us think of ‘BAU’ communication as distinct from the projects and initiatives that come through the door, or into the inbox.

BAU is dead. What now?

As part of the IC Kollectif IC In 2017 Project, I had some thoughts at the start of the year about how communicators can work with other areas to learn, innovate and adapt. But this realisation, half way through the year, made me consider what communicators can do in times of perpetual change, not just to service their organisations, but to ready themselves for ‘no more BAU’.

Read my full response on the IC Kollectif IC In 2017 Project.

  • Strength in shared practices. Continue to talk about what works, not just with other communicators, but across disciplines. Ask the questions like “why did this work in this environment?” But don’t just ask communicators. Ask marketers, change managers, leaders and innovators.
  • Invest in development. Don’t wait for your company to value you. Skill up, both communication skills and non-traditional skills: design thinking, user experience and business acumen.
  • Change what you can. Look for the opportunities to add the value that our profession can deliver. Be brave.  
  • “It’s not me, it’s you.” Know when to stop pushing the rock uphill. There are amazing organisations that foster and grow innovation. If yours is not one of them, find one that is.
  • Keep the faith. As a communicator, a great day at the office or in the field is a humbling thing. Bank those experiences as a reminder of why great internal communication matters.

 

 

What does a great day in the office or the field look like?

When did your communication activity lead to an outcome that furthered the organisation, the employees and the leaders? Creating connection, improving performance, perhaps just a moment of insight quoted back to you. Share what your ‘great day in the office’ looks like below.

A Time Of Transition

A global perspective on the state of internal communication

IC Kollectif has launched a unique addition to the internal communication canon. The ebook, Disrupting the Function of IC, A Global Perspective featuring contributions from 30 global internal communication leaders.

What is impressive is the degree to which editor Lise Michaud has facilitated diversity in the conversation about practice. This is truly a global communication guide. With voluntary contributors from every region, the guide has captured the differences in the current state of how practitioners need to respond to their organisations.

Diversity brings difference, and a particularly exciting aspect of the project is the range of different opinions. There are few places (outside Twitter) where there is such representation of views and practices that span all the IC practitioner tribes; IABC, Global Alliance, CIPR amongst others.

There are divergent views on how to approach the ongoing symbiosis between IC and technology, on engagement, on the most important skills and the biggest challenges. Communication and communications.

Some of the common themes include:

  • Change is constant, so skills and experiences in responding to changing environments continues to be essential for the communicators.
  • Technology has been and will continue to be a factor for communication practice.
  • The need for the profession to hold the line in terms of ethical practice, dialogue and creating accountability.
  • Liam Fitzpatrick’s key takeaway stands out for me as the common sense that is far from common – stop looking for ‘the next big thing’ and focus on the outcomes.

I feel privileged to be in the same company as the other contributors and applaud all the authors for bringing current and new thinking to one place.

Let the conversations begin!

The 222 page ebook can be downloaded from IC Kollectif (free subscription required for download).

http://www.ickollectif.com/single-post/2017/06/11/Disrupting-the-Function-of-IC—A-Global-Perspective

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Story spotting: listening for stories in your organisation

Everyone is a storyteller. Because we are human. We tell our friends and families what happened at work. We tell our colleagues what happened on the way to work. We tell stories.

And we make sense through stories. We are hardwired for it.

But not everyone is a natural Storyteller.

Here are three resources that start to help identify and shape the stories you encounter in organisations.

Once. Then. Then. The story spine.

A couple of years ago, Pixar’s 22 rules for storytelling

The story spine, Kenn Adams’ definition has been used by Pixar and Disney.

 

The Moth’s 8 Tips

The Moth is a not-for-profit foundation committed to the development of art and craft of storytelling. Amongst their many resources for improving oral storytelling, including videos and podcasts, they have a simple list of 8 tips.  These include:

  • No essays
  • Start in the action
  • Have some stakes

Stakes are essential in live storytelling.  What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.

Anecdote’s Spotting Oral Stories Infographic

The clever folk at Anecdote have created a useful guide to recognising stories within an organisation.

The following graphic has been created by http://www.anecdote.com

Spotting Oral Stories