communication planning

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.

 

FindReplaceCommsPlan

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

Cutting through with simple communication plans

 

Competition for attention

In the scramble to produce interesting content and to ‘cut through’ the noise, organisations are constantly searching for more ways to create colourful tactics, to have brands that shine, and to amplify their message.

The ‘creativity’ side of communication is booming. But with such a fierce battle for audience attention, even the most carefully crafted message or clever visual can fail to connect.

The result is that scarce, hard-won resources are spent on communication that looks or sounds great, but that doesn’t achieve the outcomes required.

One of the many strengths of the Gold Quill process (and a point of difference between GQ and some other award programs) is that it evaluates the end to end communication process: not only the tactics produced, but also the degree they are suited to the situation; and it requires that results can be demonstrated.

Essential components for a communication plan that delivers results

Communication plans can take many forms, but having reviewed hundreds, those that stand out always:

  • Identify the right problem before thinking about tactics.
  • Demonstrate deep understanding of stakeholders and audiences based on research.
  • Set goals and objectives that are SMART.
  • Ensure outcome measures are clear and don’t overly rely on measuring outputs.
  • Create solutions – combinations of tactics and execution – that take into account the context, the need and the audience.
  • Deliver in partnership with the owner of the business need.
  • Measure as they go.

The danger with “Here’s one that we prepared earlier”

As a communication advisor, I’m often asked for a template or example of a communication plan or tactic that can be re-used in a new environment. While models, canvases and templates are helpful, the value they provide is in the adaptation to the current situation and context.

When I developed the shorter COMMS Plan, the focus was on a process for communication planning that helped communicators consider the specifics of the current situation – regardless of the type of organisation. The first step in the process is CONTEXT for a reason.

One of the exciting developments in communication planning is an increased use of design thinking. Using a clear process to ensure communication meets the need can lead to better tactics, often created in consultation or partnership with the intended audiences.

The basics of good communication remain universal: right message, right audience, right method.

That doesn’t mean shouting louder, it means working smarter.

By considering context, outcomes, messages, methods and support before jumping in to solutions and cool tactics, communication can have the substance to support the shine.

A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

The cost of collaborating poorly

Graphic designers… from imgur user Abaft.

This post from imgur user Abaft really made me chuckle when I first saw it. Recently I have been working with a range of creative suppliers: designers, social, content, web, and it made me think of the feedback sessions we have. In communication and change, we (as clients) often have a very specific idea of what we want the outcome to look like, and sometimes it takes a few goes to get there.

But behind the humour, I think this image says something more serious about the challenges that crop up between communication craft and communication strategy. It made me wonder if designer has missed an opportunity to help the client through the non-creative part of our job: coach, strategist, advisor. Because the rework (sometimes) comes from having missed something in the brief.

Unlike the trusted creatives I am lucky to work with, the creator of this fee scale has not ensured clarity and trust from the client before the design process gets underway.

A little bit of knowledge goes a long way when shaping a brief – understanding the creative process as a client helps us (as clients) understand what is possible and what is not. Too much knowledge, and we become perfectionists unable to articulate our goals, and our preferences. In a creative process, we all bring bias and personal taste to the room, and it is the job of the designer to help the client through this by explaining the process.

Spend time upfront in establishing a strong rapport. Spend the time clarifying the outcomes and the brief. Spend the time in giving the feedback.

This fee scale would look different if it drew on the sweet spot where collaboration occurs.

Once there is trust, clarity about the problem to be solved, and collaboration toward creating solutions, then there is the space for the designer (or a writer, or a coder, or any professional service provider) to deliver.

Collaboration doesn’t mean all being in the room at the same time all of the time. It means ensuring that the range of skills and ideas of the co-creators are able to be brought to bear at the right time in the process.

As clients, our job isn’t to be sitting on their shoulder. It is to ensure our creatives understand what they are collaborating with us to create. And to trust their process when it leads to a better outcome.