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.

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding advice on a very relevant topic, April. Proper communication vehicle is just as important as the communication itself; sometimes more so.