When I was six years old I was told that if I played with my tummy button my bottom would fall off?That message was delivered to me some forty years ago and yet I remember it very well even today.
For the last twenty years or so I have been bombarded with any number of management communications that were (mostly) clever, well-intentioned and expensively produced ? but I can barely remember any of them. I wonder what makes some communications so memorable and other messages so forgettable.
Is this communication?s Holy Grail?
There are so many books, so many ideas, so much commentary on what makes good communication that one hesitates to add to the pile. I cannot even profess any particular expertise in the subject.
However, this fact in many ways simply illustrates the problem; we all think we are expert, so we all have an opinion?too much heat perhaps, not enough light.
Why therefore do I feel qualified to write an article on ?communication? when if I had been asked to write something on ?VAT reform in the former Eastern Bloc? I would have declined politely on grounds of zero experience or expertise? Why, in fact, do we all seem able to comment on internal communication initiatives, advertisements and marketing campaigns as if we had much idea at all about demographics, psychology, behavioural science etc?
It?s because we all know when communication works well for us ? and this is the theme I want to develop.
The true test of excellence in communication is not the quality of the message, not even the content of the message nor the cleverness of the means of delivery?Excellence in communication can only be judged in the way messages are perceived and acted upon by the audience intended to receive the messages.
This is what I call ?resonance?.
And it is in this intensely personal quality that we can all be expert and by which we can all judge the quality of communication.
When I was told, four decades ago, that I should stop playing with my tummy button, the message was simple, direct, personal and understandable. I understood what was required of me and I could see that the consequences were not worth contemplating?The reason the message is so clever however is not in the quality of the message but in the quality of its resonance.
The message made a profound impact on me and I can still recall it vividly, despite the fact that it was not backed by a mission statement, brand values and an expensively produced glossy brochure (or indeed an off-site strategic planning weekend in a swanky country house hotel).
The lesson I draw from this fact is that if we can find the messages that will resonate with our colleagues, our teams and our clients ? then we will truly have cracked the conundrum of communication. A conundrum that trips up each and everyone one of us from time to time?For the plain fact is that despite our best endeavours sometimes people just have an unerring knack of misunderstanding or ignoring what we intended them to hear.
But this is obvious and you may well be thinking ?so what??
Well, contrary to what you may think, I am not about to propose that spending time and money on mission statements, core values, brochures or off-sites is a waste of time and money.
In fact I think from time to time such things are essential?indeed I rather hope that the fashion for scoffing at the very idea of a mission statement may pass?not because all mission statements work (most don?t) but because if one finds a statement that truly resonates it will be memorable for a very long time; a message that is memorable for a very long time is a very powerful thing indeed.
The ?so what?? however is a good question and demands that I have something to say on how we make messages resonate. And how to make messages resonate is the perfect question in communication?
When the Post Office changed its name to Consignia I am sure small fortunes were paid to consultants to help find a message that would resonate; self-evidently however the money was not well spent. While the logos looked great and the imagery was clean, while the colours were vibrant and the research into all aspects of everything was thorough and disciplined, somehow the message bombed.
And yet compare this situation with the success of the Nike ?swoosh? ? It?s not even a word for goodness sake! A rounded tick sign has become a universal metaphor for style, credibility, prowess and a symbol for athletic endeavour.
You don’t even have to like the product to admire the fact that this message truly resonates.
Is getting a message to resonate therefore down to luck or judgement?
Is it like drilling for oil?you may have all the tools and all the science on your side but when you start drilling there may not be oil?
Or can our analysis only be formed when we can see if it has worked or not – the equivalent of football punditry?when can all be expert after the event and with the benefit of multi-angle slow-motion replays?
In my judgement it is possible to plan for and succeed in achieving resonance knowingly and thoughtfully. I also think it is possible to make resonance much more powerful and to elicit a much greater opportunity to see increased returns for the investment in communication strategies ? whether internal facing or external?Let me tell you how.
For a message to resonate it must have three elements; each element must be present because any missing element dooms the message to fail.
The three elements are:
1. The message must be passed on by someone who is viewed as credible. This is the Set-up phase.
2. The message must be simple and have immediate impact. This is the Delivery phase.
3. The message must be reinforced with consequences that matter both to those both giving and to those receiving the message. This is the Investment phase.
In the set-up phase it is crucial for the message to be perceived as credible in its origins. Tired leadership or, worse, discredited leadership will struggle. For this reason alone we have to have more decisiveness and honesty around the qualities of leadership needed to carry communications forward.
If there is cynicism in recipients the message will struggle to have impact. Too often however we simply do the equivalent of talking louder to foreigners who fail to understand us?Unless we are honest about the issues in our places of work ? internal communication will, at best, cover cracks. It will never deal adequately with the issues. Tackle this head on, thoughtfully and thoroughly?and make good decisions that are visible to those that are affected by them.
In the delivery phase, great care must be taken to ensure that every single recipient of the message understands it and has received the message in a way that supports exactly the intended consequences.
Never confuse cost, cleverness and impact with understanding. The questions at the heart of this issue are ?what does it mean to me?? and ?what must I do now?? these questions must be specifically and clearly addressed in the way that communications are delivered.
The ?launch? event with its theatre, lights and music may be absolutely perfect?So, however might a personal phone call that takes a few seconds.
Finally, the messages must become real. Actions should therefore be rewarded or challenged if they support or run contrary to the communication; there’should be tangible evidence of benefits for following the communication and a genuine, honest investment in the tone of voice required to support the communication.
This investment over time will clinch the success of the communication.
Communication in business too often resembles a game of hop-scotch; alighting on different messages and quickly moving on to the next?But confidence and consistency help to establish a messages credibility; help your people believe in the stability of your communication strategy, its proven track-record, and your people will be much more prepared to invest their emotional energy to support it as well.
I know this can sound glib in the context of an article but suspend your dis-belief and tie in my thoughts into your own experience. Think of a message that has resonated with you…from a parent, a teacher, a colleague, a boss, a coach?Why did it resonate?
I can almost guarantee that it will have resonated (and still be memorable today) because 1. you viewed the messenger as credible 2. you understood it immediately and because 3. either through your own observed experience or through judgements you made in different ways, the message mattered to you.
The next time you are about to launch (or, more likely, relaunch) a communications strategy?dust off this article and check you have covered the three bases as well as you can?
It may still be communication?s Holy Grail but if proof were needed, I can assure you that as of today my bottom has not fallen off.