Archive for the ‘Communication Skills’ Category

In praise of persistence

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Calvin Coolidge said it best:

Press on- nothing can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Perseverance and determination alone are omnipotent.


4 Steps to Improved Manager Communications

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Every manager encounters a thousand communication opportunities every day.  It’s a metaphorical statement, but you catch the drift. A thousand chances to add value; a thousand chances to screw something up. The best of them, the leaders, know what to do with those opportunities, and fortunately, it’s not a secret.

Oh, sure, there are “naturals” out there — those gifted souls whose kind and gentle nature makes them magnets for great teams and whose command of language makes them a joy to work for. But most managers aren’t naturals when it comes to communication. They need to be carefully taught.

In my work with literally thousands of managers over the years (quite shocking to have totaled them up last year…), they seem to have two big problems in communicating with their teams.

1. They think more about what they need to say than what they need to listen to, and
2. They fail to consider the audience before deciding on messages, or methods to communicate.

Some of the issue is simple education — many people become managers because of technical expertise. They’re great engineers, accountants or public relations people who get promoted. They don’t have formal training that helps them be effective managers, let alone effective communicators. They often think communication is someone else’s job, except for operational and policy matters.

Yet, they’re often harsh critics of their own bosses — middle managers seldom feel like they know what they need to know. That takes its toll, as resentment builds. Managers feel like they’re going into battle with an unloaded weapon. Pass these four methods along to fill that gap, and use them yourself!

  1. Think critically about audiences. In this case, the more specifically, the better. It’s not just “employees” — there are groups of employees with differing needs, experiences and objectives that must be considered. Apply the same discipline to the leaders above your level.  An exhaustive listing of these potential groupings will help give a firm foundation to your communication plans.
  2. Consider communication objectives in the context of business objectives. Managers should be specific about what they want employees to think, feel or do as a result of communicating with them.  Again, go through the same exercise with your own management in mind. Keep your objectives organized by audience so you can make all communications work toward those goals.
  3. Evaluate messages. Messaging isn’t limited only to information flowing from you to subordinates. Boil down and simplify to be sure your language fits precisely the objectives for your audiences. As Strunk and White wrote, “Make every word tell.” Your employees, and your boss, will thank you for taking the extra time to do so.
  4. Finally, you’re ready to consider HOW to communicate. Methods can vary from hot (face to face discussion) to cool (email, telephone) to cold (memo, letter, statement).  As you think about the first three items on this list, fit the method to the context. Think of this less from your own preferences, and more from those of your audience, given the objectives you have for them. It’s the essence of receiver-focused communication.

If there were a #5, it would read: “Start now.”


One Rule to Choose Method of Communication

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

“It’s just too complicated and difficult.”  So began a conversation with a frustrated colleague, struggling to keep tabs on the myriad communication vehicles sprouting like mushrooms in a damp glade.  I asked, “What’s complicated about having so many choices? Choices are good, right?”  He didn’t think so.

I have to admit, our profession was a little easier to execute back at the beginning of my communication career. As an internal communications specialist, we had a print newsletter that represented 90 percent of our communication activity, followed by VHS videos and a mainframe email bulletin board that no one really used.  Oh, and we got faxes from Corporate, copied them and walked the tower delivering the latest announcements.

Externally, we did news releases and media advisories, called reporters and tried to get a haystack full of clips to demonstrate our superior abilities. Once in a while, we’d do a news conference.  Yes, this was before the Dawn of Time Itself.

These days, you hear someone talking about “The New Twitter Whatever,” and the first thing that comes to my mind is, “Twitter? Is it passè already? Where exactly will this new method of communication fall alongside Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Digg, De.lic.ious, Posterus, Amplify, Yelp, Yammer, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, YourSpace, HisSpace, HerSpace GLBTSpace, and all the other stuff?

The answer (write this down now) is: Use the method that fits the objectives for your audience.

Think about the end result — the objectives of your communication — and walk through the strengths and weaknesses of these different methods.

  • Outcome – Increased enrollment in 401(k) plan
  • Method – Newsletter article, intranet quiz, reprint of magazine piece, video explanation from CEO, in-person meeting with representative

In the scenario above, which method is likely to work best? You may choose more than one, but if you could only choose one, which would it be?

  • Outcome – More qualified prospects
  • Method – TV news piece, trade publication story, customer referral request, Twitter campaign, CEO blog

I’m oversimplifying the issue.  There are a number of intermediate steps between more generalized communication activities and the outcome we see here.

There is no doubt that the ever-increasing modes of communication are making PR people’s lives more challenging. But the thought process, considering each method through the prism of the desired outcome is the path to choosing well.


NYT ‘Corner Office’ shows power of leadership communication

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

It’s usually on page two of the Sunday New York Times business section. A short Q & A with some notable business leader that covers the usual ground —  “How do you hire? What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?” This week, Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, is on the hot seat, and she joins a long list of her peers in crediting effective communication for much of her organizational effectiveness.

There isn’t anything particularly earth-shattering in the interview, and truth to tell, there usually isn’t. But I continue to be heartened by the focus on communication as a business process that I see in this feature almost every week. Faust says:

“I spend a huge amount of time reaching out to people, either literally or digitally, and with alumni networks all over the worl, so that I can connect. Leadership by walking around — that a digital space now, it’s virtual space.  An enormous amount of my job is listening to people, to understand where they are, how they see the world so that I can understand how to mobilize their understanding of themselves in service of the institutional priorities.”

The interviewer says, “But you can’t make everybody happy.”  Her reply:

“No, you don’t make everybody happy, but if people feel they were listened to, they’re going to be much more likely to go along with a decision.”

If that short conversation doesn’t motivate communicators to see themselves as something other than a media publicity machine, I don’t know what will.  We, alone in the organization, are well-equipped to counsel leaders on communication effectiveness.  Yet, we too often cede this skill to Human Resources (“Well, it’s really about training people, and that’s HR!”).

We are the experts at communication. We understand why dialogue and discussion among our employee base is important. We know what a good presentation is and how to help improve the level of communication in our organization.  If not us, whom? And yet, most of us would rather work with a reporter on a media story than do the hard work of remaking our organizational culture from hierarchy to high performance.  We rationalize that choice by claiming that the media story has more impact on revenue. But the jury is still out on that, except for marketing communication and product PR. I submit that we’d positively affect reputation in a measurable way if we focused more on making our leaders and their teams communicate better.

I’ve been reading the Corner Office in the Times for years. I haven’t yet seen an executive say that media relations is a core leadership function.


How much should grammar matter?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

I know that I have officially entered the time of life when I begin sentences with, “Well, in my high school we learned English, parsing sentences and studying grammar! They don’t do that anymore, do they?”

But, jeepers, does everyone ignore these simple rules because of expediency, ignorance or simple obstinacy? I really want to know!

Noun-verb disagreements, sentence fragments, dangling participles, tense shifts… It makes me crazy. Comma splices, run-on sentences, I really could rant for an hour.

So tell me: Am I a dinosaur?


More from Big D – Part 2 ‘Words, Actions Matter…’

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Big D continues: “The job of the president’s communication advisors is to identify in advance (better than after the fact) any threats to the president’s preferred meanings and to neutralize them rhetorically. (In fact, the oft-stated claim about how much a president values soldiers’ lives is exactly that sort of pre-emptive rhetoric, designed to head off the opposite claim – that the lives of America’s youth are expendable to the powerful class – before it’s even made.)”

I believe we are in violent agreement here, except for the notion that we can inoculate against the president’s say-do disconnect with rhetoric alone. The president’s actions in these matters are of great importance, as D points out.

Maintaining control over key meanings is almost always possible, although it is sometimes easier and sometimes harder to accomplish depending on how the context shifts across time. For example, if a president’s own son is among the soldiers sent to fight a war, it is a relatively easy task. If, on the other hand, the president cancels a program to provide basic armor plating for military vehicles used by soldiers fighting that war, it becomes relatively more difficult, ceteris paribus. Both examples are elements of the broader symbolic environment (i.e., context) that influences interpretation, but that environment does not entirely determine interpretation.

Agreed.  The environment is not the entirety of interpretation. As a counselor to leadership, I argue for no attempt to spin or otherwise mask the reality of the organizations actions – much literature in crisis communication says much the same thing.  Big D adds:

Certain types of management make certain types of communication relatively more or less difficult. I am then in a position to say to the leaders of my organization that their actions could put at greater risk our ability to defend certain identity claims and could require a different communication strategy (which might or might not be successful within any given time frame).

Excellence theory applies (perhaps without attribution) dialogic and rhetorical theories. Its focus, however, on the management of the function and its underpinnings of empirical research does seem to de-emphasize other theories. Jeff says that Excellence: “…doesn’t really address…the actual way that symbol systems work through discourse to construct meanings that then become the basis for action. That’s the hard stuff, especially when you’re talking about public communication. [Excellence focuses] instead on the easy stuff – management – which is why [Prof. James E. Grunig is] so popular.”

D believes (and I agree) that management effectiveness is “a hell of a lot easier to measure and explain than communication effectiveness. PR people, however, are seldom going to out-manage the managers, and they are too ready to throw up their hands or have no clear answers when the communication work gets most difficult, which is also when it becomes most important to the organization.”

I don’t think we disagree at all – I am, however, differentiating effective communication from the assumption that it can cure everything, every ill that befalls an organization. The PR measurement Holy Grail is quantifying the impact on a business of communication activity – and the inability of PR to overcome bad management action is often used as a pretext to criticize us and what we do.

Lastly, Big D writes:

Here’s the bottom line for me: Over the past few years I probably interviewed more than 25 people for communications positions at my company. Only a handful, at best, could provide even a rudimentary explanation of how messages related to actions, i.e., how exactly it is that the words they were responsible for stringing together were connected to the outcomes the organization sought. Most of the applicants could talk for hours about project management, working with outside agencies, and so on, but few of them knew a damn thing about communication itself. Do we really need to wonder why we get such little respect as a profession?

We certainly should be experts on communication – why it works and how to improve it – but we also must apply the management function as well. In the course of applying Excellence, we’ll rely upon Rhetorical and Dialogic theories and the traditional mass media theories of forming opinion. I don’t see these as mutually exclusive.

A great discussion. Thanks D!


Words, Actions Both Matter, Right?

Monday, August 31st, 2009

A friend of mine, Big D, is a highly educated and experienced business person who happens to work in PR for a large, international company. I wrote a post not long ago on the limits of communication in business, specifically about the “say-do” gap that exists in many organizations and the need for management problem-solving to address it.  Big D wrote me a fascinating email to disagree with what he termed my assertion that “communication is inferior to action in structuring perceptions,” saying: “The words we use are strong/they make reality.”

I don’t disagree that words are important – in fact, there is a whole theory of public relations (Rhetorical) that supports that statement. I answered him, saying in part: “Behavior is a demonstration of values; language is limited in its ability to demonstrate.”

Both the Rhetorical Theory and much general communication theory are at odds with Excellence Theory, Big D says. Excellence sees public relations as a management function, which necessarily separates the tactics of public relations from its strategy, “this idea that communication is one thing and an organization’s action/behavior is something else.”

I made the argument that language can’t bridge the “say-do” gap if the behavior in question is oppositional to the language, and provided an example of an organization claiming that it values its employees and communities, having a problem if it is engaged in laying off employees and closing plants. Big D replied:

I disagree. Granted, the communication challenge in sustaining that identity claim is greater and the communicator must be smarter and work harder, but a company can indeed lay people off and close plants and still credibly state that it values employees and communities. It happens all the time, and it happens because of the ways in which communicators can influence elements of context and shift the agreed meanings represented by words like “values,” “employees” and “communities.” That’s the magic of the artful use of discourse (or call it strategic discourse, if that’s more marketable). (emphasis mine.)

We often call “influence elements of context and shift the agreed meanings” reframing. Non PR-people call it spin, mostly inaccurately, but still, they aren’t complimenting us. I counsel leaders to avoid words and phrases that can too easily be labeled spin, and be subject to the perception of the say-do disconnect. The “artful use of discourse” is (and should be) a stock-in-trade for any communication professional, and we should beware of reframing ourselves straight into propaganda.

Big D goes on to say that when a country’s leader says, “I value the lives of the men and women in uniform who are willing to sacrifice everything to keep our country free,” sending them to die on the field of battle will not invalidate his/her claim, depending on is how effective the leader is at controlling the meanings of the words in the statement.

This seems relativistic – again, I wouldn’t counsel a leader to say those words, as the claim seems specious at best, if not outright insulting. The leader values the work the soldiers do and the results they will attain more than their lives – he or she has to, otherwise there is little chance he or she will deploy troops in combat. There are political leaders who do not see the value in this sacrifice.

There are many ways of aligning these two seeming contradictions. In fact, Prof. Robert Heath writes in his discussion of Rhetorical Theory that “Cynicism is the outcome of any rhetorical process that is not founded on good reasoning or good reasons.” We absolutely do need to choose our words very carefully because of their ability to create perception and contribute to the development of meaning.

More from the discussion with Big D in the next post.


Sometimes, PR doesn’t seem very important

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

This is one of those times. I’m dealing with a family issue that many people my age do, at this stage of life. My uncle is ill, and we are helping my aunt out. Hence, not much to pontificate about, unless I am suddenly seized with the desire to talk about hospital customer service, image and say-do disconnect. Frankly, right now I don’t have the energy.

Back to my geeky self in a few days, I’m sure.