To my mind, what makes communication effective is treating every piece of communication as a conversation. It should be a two-way process. One of the common mistakes I see both individuals and organisations make is that they treat communication simply as a one-way process, i.e. ‘This is my message, and I am giving it to you, irrespective of whether you want to hear it or not, irrespective of whether it’s relevant to you. I am just going to broadcast to you.’
Communication should be a dialogue, a conversation, even if you’re public speaking (which is going to be slightly one-sided conversation because you are doing more speaking than your audience), your audience are constantly feeding back. You’ve got to be able to read that and understand that. I think we need to embrace this idea of feedback. I often talk about a feedback loop. If a company’s putting out an advertising campaign or marketing comms, for example, there will be feedback. A lot of that feedback may well come by social media. It might come via your website, but you’ve got to be listening to it, and you’ve got to act on it. A lot of organisations aren’t listening, let alone acting on what they’ve heard. They also struggle to listen to their staff, as often staff surveys are asking very specific questions, and it is easy to guide the way people respond. Try to listen to chatter, and make sure there is always an easy opportunity to feedback – preferably anonymously, so it’s more honest.
I also think your communications have to be relevant to the people you’re speaking to. It’s not about what’s in it for you as the communicator. It’s about what’s in it for the people who are listening or receiving that communication. Put yourself in their shoes. What do they want to hear? What would be useful to them? If they don’t get the relevance to them, you’ll lose your audience really quickly.
That then brings us back to this idea of the feedback loop. You’ll know if what you’re doing is relevant because you’ll be getting feedback. If you’re not getting feedback, that’s a pretty good sign that you’ve missed the mark, that the relevance isn’t there, so people have stopped listening, stopped watching, stopped consuming. Time to do something different.
Currently, especially in situations that have come up in these challenging times, there’s too much communication, which leads to a lot of noise. I think sometimes organisations forget that corporate noise has just been increased and multiplied and almost drowned out by noise at home, from loved ones, from social media, etc. There is just so much noise. That’s true whenever there’s a crisis. It’s important to try and cut through it. That involves getting the relevance right, but also sometimes actually saying, “Now is not the time to try and communicate”, and “We’re going to delay by 24 hours. We’re going to delay by a week” even, if it’s not urgent. It’s also about making it absolutely pertinent. There’s no room for padding. It’s got to be clear, direct, to the point. Our attention spans are short at the best of times, and at the moment, attention spans are even shorter than normal. You’ve got to get on with it.
One of the things that’s come out of the discussions involving moving meetings online has been a lot of people saying, “Your online meetings should be half the length of any real-world meetings”, because, if nothing else, when you’re sitting there looking at your computer screen, it’s much harder to build rapport. It’s much harder to keep engagement. People get distracted. Let’s face it – we’ve all been on webinars and Zoom calls where, all of a sudden, your emails start becoming far more interesting. If you’re leading a zoom call and you start to see people’s eyes drift away from you, or down to their phone, you know it’s time to mix up whatever it is you’re doing or talking about – you’ve lost them.
Furthermore, decrease distractions and ‘noise’ by making sure that there’s not multiple messages coming out at the same time. If you have an announcement, especially if it’s bad news, people may stop listening after you’ve made it because they’ve gone into an internal monologue about how this affects them. I would suggest if you are, for instance, telling your staff that you’re furloughing them, tell them that and say, “This afternoon or even this time tomorrow, we’re going to have another call where I will tell you exactly what we’re going to do to support you.” Don’t just try and put all the information into one message because once people have heard something big, important, impactful, that is all their brain will process, and they will stop listening. If you have to, spread it out slightly. There will also be people whose immediate reaction will be to ask what happens next, so make sure you’re able to answer them, but be aware that a number of the audience may not listen to what you’re saying.
I’d also suggest you make it personal. Talk about your own circumstances. We’re all in this together is the key message. It’s not the boss vs the staff – we’re all in this together. It’s about empathy and unity. This isn’t a problem just for them. This is a shared experience. Using inclusive language, e.g. we, not you or I, keeps everything personal and friendly. I think this really helps get your message across. I think talking as if you were chatting at the pub, or to a friend, can go a long way, rather than delivering a lecture or infomercial.
Without getting too political, I think someone who has done a good job of communicating their messages recently have been the chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is very calm, very measured, very ordered in what he says, very easy to understand. Compared to Boris Johnson, whose style has always been very loose, very unstructured, it’s highlighted the difference. Sunak is putting across very complicated messages but in really quite simple ways. His language is direct. I think keeping it as simple as possible is key.
There are lots of online resources that have emerged as being extremely useful as things change. I think a lot of people underestimate the volume and quality of content on YouTube. There are lots of very industry-specific videos out there now. If you are trying to talk to your agency, for example, there’s a guy called Rob Da Costa who I think has been doing some really interesting video work around having conversations within that market. When trying to find a video, I would look for those specific tools and tips rather than just generic stuff. There’s a lot of very general content out there, but there’s also some really, really targeted and useful resources. I would also ask around. Ask other people whose blogs they’re reading, whose YouTube channels they’re watching, and go to the people who know your sector.
I also think people have begun to underestimate their phones as a resource for building relationships and communicating in these times. Don’t underestimate the power of ringing somebody and just saying, “How’s it going? How are you doing?” People are looking for connection at the moment. A lot of us are at home. Many people are on their own. A lot of us at the moment are hiding behind emails, instant messaging, all the various tools that we have at our disposal. Yet sometimes something more personal like a phone call can really help.
To summarise, my three top tips for challenging times would be these:
- Be human and understand that we’re all going through this together. Chat, empathise, just have a conversation with people. Just find out how they’re doing, how’s it going. Stay in touch with people.
- The second one is ‘don’t sell – just talk’. Sales calls are not particularly welcome at the moment – people are still in crisis mode. People are still trying to find that elusive new normal. I don’t think it’s the right moment to be hard selling, and I’m not sure people are responding well to sales calls. Try instead to be supportive and helpful. I’m aware some would disagree with me.
- Third, keep it relevant. As we emerge from lockdown, even while a large number of people are still working from home, don’t assume that everybody’s sat at home, twiddling their thumbs trying to work out what the hell they’re going to do next. Some people’s businesses are booming. Make your content relevant to the people you’re talking to. Make sure that you’re succinct, make sure you keep it relevant and pertinent to that person. Be empathic to what they might be going through, as you have no idea what else they’ve got going on in their life. Are they home-schooling their kids at the moment? What else is happening? I think just being human and being empathetic will take you a long way right now.