Monday, February 22, 2010

Written Word or Spoken Word?

[This blog is an excerpt from my presentation, Communications During Times of Uncertainty]

Let's say you have an important communication that needs to be delivered to your organization. And, let's assume that like many companies in the last few years, there's been a lot of change and uncertainty within the organization. How do you determine the proper communication vehicle for your message?

Here's a short list of factors to consider:

Size and Geography

Is this a global organization, a single office site, or somewhere in between? If an organization is in one location, regular face-to-face communication by leaders is recommended during times of uncertainty as this can be done at no extra cost and it strengthens relationships with management. However, the more sites you have, especially with a global organization, the more expensive it is to deliver a message in person. Teleconferences can be used when language won't be a barrier and time zones are manageable. Recorded video/audio emailed or posted to an intranet site can also be effective if a Q&A session is not needed. If you have senior staff in each site available to deliver your message, this can be another way to deliver your message in person without the expense of travel. Otherwise, written communication will be most cost effective for multiple sites.

Urgency of Delivery

Most communications that need to be delivered urgently are not celebrations. They tend to fall along the lines of emergencies (natural disaster), major organizational change that has just occured (key leader is leaving to "pursue other career options"), and instructions for speaking to press/clientele (as in, "no comment"). Under these circumstances, your initial communication is best done in writing. You may be an excellent speaker, but the reality is that very few of us are able to effectively deliver urgent news in person without inadvertently creating more cause for alarm. There's nothing like being called into an unscheduled meeting without an agenda to send an already nervous team into a panic. Your staff will convert an urgent tone of voice into anxiety, a hurried body language into fear, and their own minds are racing so fast they won't hear much of your message. Conversely, a well written memo can be delivered quickly via email without passing along emotion that can be misinterpreted. It also allows the individual to go back and read it as many times as needed to fully comprehend the message. Your initial email can always be followed up with teleconferences and team meetings depending on the next consideration, which is:

Potential for Emotional Reaction

Is this a message that will add to the uncertainty (hiring freezes), confirm fears (closing an office), or be perceived as a takeaway (cutting benefits)? If so, your communication plan should include face time so that questions can be raised and addressed before emotions mushroom. If the communication involves detail that employees need to have, plan to send it in writing in advance to the management team for review with talking points. Follow up with a memo to the full staff, and ask the management team to address with the teams immediately thereafter using the tips from the talking points. Allowing time for Q&A is important when emotions are running high.

Instructional vs Informational

The more instructional your message, the more important it is to put it in writing. If you are communicating a deadline, an action with multiple steps, a policy, training expectations, etc., these need to be given in writing to provide clarity and consistency at the time of the communication. It further allows the reader to file it away or put it on their calendar and review it again when they most need it. Informational communications such as sales wins, high level news sharing by multiple teams, and year-on-year status can be done verbally during team meetings and conference calls. These can be accompanied with bulleted PowerPoint slides as needed, but the details can be delivered verbally allowing individuals to take notes of what is most relevant to them.

Private Sector vs Public Sector

If your organization is privately owned, you have more bandwidth to put information in writing without need to consult with the legal department. Once a corporation has stockholders, there is a need to be more cautious about the content of written business communications. Emails can be forwarded, intranet content can be cut and pasted into new messages, and memos can be photocopied and brought home in briefcases. Conversely, verbal communications translated into an individual's own handwritten notes are less likely to travel. Your message can be delivered verbally along with an instruction of confidentiality and request that it be cascaded internally as needed in further staff meetings. An example of this would be a high level monthly financial status that's shared with senior level management and then cascaded verbally to employees prior to the detailed written quarterly statements that go out to all the stockholders.

Credibility of the Communicator

If you plan to deliver a message in person, make sure the person delivering it (and that includes you), has credibility with the team being addressed. Get feedback on this. Do you come across with sincerity and authenticity? How do you do with Q&A? Do you have an established relationship with this group or is this your first meeting? During uncertain times, face-to-face meetings are a wonderful opportunity to restore trust with teams. However, if it's not done well, it's also the fastest way to alienate yourself and create suspicion about your message. Get the right speaker for your audience, or else plan to deliver it in writing instead.

Here's to good business communciation, especially during times of uncertainty.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chariots of Fire

On paper, it was really a good idea. I was looking for a family friendly film to show to the Jr & Sr High classes from our church, when I came across Chariots of Fire at the local library. Perfect! It's about values and personal faith. It's an inspiring true story. It's about the Olympics, and that's what's playing in primetime television right now. The movie is 120 minutes long, so I'd show the first half one Sunday and the second half the next. Great plan.

Chariots of Fire went down in flames. My son was part of the viewing group, and he wasted no time afterward telling me that it was the most b-o-r-i-n-g movie he'd ever seen. No way was he sitting through the second half next week. There were no chariots, Mom, much less chariots of fire. Plus, they talked with accents so he couldn't even understand what they were saying.

*Sigh* I saw the same movie with my church youth group when I was in high school, and we loved it. What happened?

Well, in retrospect, turns out there were a few key differences.

First of all, movies have come a long way since then. Considering the special effects these kids are used to, this film had no chance of holding their attention. Who cares that it won 4 Academy Awards. The only special effect Chariots of Fire had to offer was slow motion to create suspense and drama during the foot races.

The film is rated G. G means Good when you're looking for something parents will approve of for a church youth gathering, but it means Go-to-sleep to the average teenager. Back in the early 80's, a teenager would still go see a G rated film. If it was redone today, they'd have to spice it up to at least PG-13 if not R. Seems teenagers don't go to G rated films anymore unless it's one of those nature sagas like March of the Penguins or Earth where it's cool to be green.

And as for the connection to the Olympics, well, yes they are in fact taking place right now. However for these kids, it's just another TV program. When I watched Chariots of Fire, it was a year after the 1980 Winter Olympics. Anyone remember where those games took place? Lake Placid, NY. I lived in Saranac Lake back then, just 9 miles away. When the Olympics came to town, we volunteered at the events, worked at the restaurants, participated in opening and closing ceremonies, and even had the chance to watch the games in person. School closed for two weeks while we hosted visitors from around the globe. For us, the Olympics had been a very real and personal experience.

So where did I go wrong? I took the surface value similiarities - teenagers, Olympics, epic film, church activity - without considering the underlying contextual differences, and assumed a favorable outcome. Frankly, I know better.

I'd still recommend Chariots of Fire, just in case you haven't seen it. And this week, I'm grateful for the reminder to look below the surface.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Be the Catalyst

Catalyst: a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction by reducing the activation energy, but which is left unchanged by the reaction. (

If you work in the sciences, I'm sure you're quite familiar with catalysts and how they can be used to move a process along faster and at a lower temperature. And since the catalyst is unchanged by the process itself, you can use it over and over again.

Regardless of the industry in which you lead, doesn't that sound like something you'd like to have at your next business meeting? Imagine it, an entity that lowers the political temperature of the room and speeds along the process by creating a different path for finding the solution. Wishful thinking? Not at all. In fact, as a leader, that catalyst could be you.

As you attend your meetings this week, pay attention to situations where tempers flare, discussions get stuck, or agendas go off the tracks, and notice how you and others engage/don't engage. Do you sit back and wait for the reaction to finish itself out without you? Do you enter the reaction, but find that you're not making an impact? What would you do differently if you were willing to play the role of catalyst in that reaction?

Here are some things to consider:

* You have to be willing to set your personal agenda aside. The catalyst isn't trying to direct the outcome. Rather a catalyst is allowing the current process to find it's best path to reach the desired end goal as defined by the group.

* You may have to give up the glory for the greater cause. Many times, the catalyst isn't even remembered at the end of a reaction. In fact, if it truly becomes a changed reaction, the group deserves the glory for following the new direction, not any one person. Over time, others will notice that meetings are improved just by your presence.

* You need to be very grounded and centered. The catalyst is unchanged at the end of the reaction, and thus you need to be in a mindset that is open and present, but strong and enduring. If you are distracted or unsure of yourself, you will not be able to meet the demands of the catalyst's role, and may get used up or burned up by entering into the reaction.

Look for your opportunities and give it a try. You may find that you are effective in this role in some situations and not in others. Just like a chemist, you have to know when a catalyst will improve the reaction, and you have to use the right catalyst for the other elements involved and for the desired outcome. But as a leader in your organization, you likely have some good instincts about this already.

Here's to good Chemistry in your workplace this week.