Posts Tagged ‘key messages’


Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Sen. Mitch McConnell rolled out a 7-foot, 3-inch stack of paper wrapped in a red ribbon.  This stack purports to contain the 20,000 pages of regulations created to flesh out the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (“Obamacare”).  Regardless of your politics, the Red Tape Tower makes an impression.

Since its unveiling, the stack of paper has become quite popular.  A quick web search reveals instagram photos, facebook posts, Average Joes posing with the tower, and behind-the-scenes action sequences showing its movement backstage at CPAC.  The tower even has a twitter handle: @theredtapetower.

Emotionally-engaging symbols shape the conversation.

Does the symbol dramatically oversimplify a complex topic?  Absolutely.  Is that the point?  Absolutely.

Mitch is trying to move hearts and minds.  He has struck a resonant chord with some folks.  There is pent-up frustration with the ACA of 2010, and the tower has served as a sort of megaphone for some of those frustrated people, a way to “speak out” quickly, easily, and visually.  “Click to share” takes away the need to communicate complicated thoughts on the topic in prose.

Of course not everyone reacts favorably to the Red Tape Tower.  But Sen. McConnell wasn’t going for 100% “likes”; he was framing the conversation.

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Pablum – The Silent Killer

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

“Pablum,” he said.

I’m fairly proud of my vocabulary, but I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what that word meant.  “It’s mush,” he said, “It’s tasteless, and there’s nothing there to chew on.”

I was at Guidant Corporation, and we were being acquired.  He was a VP in charge of integrating the two companies’ sales forces, and he was describing the messages we were producing to educate our employees.

We then had a conversation about whether these messages were even worth publishing.  Would we lose credibility by saying nothing real and nothing new?  Would people be less likely to pay attention next time, assuming we had nothing meaningful to say?

That was 2005.  In the intervening years, I’ve discovered how rare it is to have a leader ask such questions, to demand more than safe and mushy messaging.  Many leaders navigating their organizations through disruptive change don’t have that same instinct, and end up communicating either Pollyanna messages (“Guys, isn’t this great?  The future is sunshine and roses!”) or messages that are so general, no one understands how the changes will affect them.  In those organizations, the messages are usually very well-written– but good writing and good communication are two different things.

Fast forward to 2011…

Jodi Underwood, the Director of HR at Citizens Energy Group in Indianapolis, helped me develop a model for communicating effectively during times of change:

The model has two axes.

The x-axis reflects a message’s level of authenticity.  Oftentimes, leaders assume that “safe” messaging is the safer route, because they can avoid controversy and tough topics.  But it isn’t safer.  “Safe” messages generate boredom and disengagement, which are riskier in the long run.

The y-axis reflects a message’s level of specificity.  Sometimes during an organizational change, leaders can’t be as specific as they’d like, because the details just haven’t been worked out yet.  In those cases, I advise leaders to start figuring out the details that matter to stakeholders, as quickly as possible.

Should leaders then wait to communicate until all the details have been hammered out, and politically it is feasible to speak more plainly?

Absolutely not.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and people will fill the communications void with all kinds of creative scenarios, none of them good.  Communicate now, with what you have, but always fight for more authenticity and more specificity.

The gravitational pull of planet Status Quo drags us up, and to the left, on the model.  We must actively invest energy into moving down and to the right.  But it’s worth the investment.  Real and detailed messages stimulate new ideas and questions in people’s minds.  They open up lines of communication and invite others into a dialogue.  They drive deeper engagement, which leads to higher levels of commitment and less resistance to change.

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Story Time

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Recently I helped a client’s executives craft key messages about a disruptive change they were implementing. It struck me that the change was complex, the messaging was complex, and that the organization’s employees were going to be lost and confused.

So I drew a picture on the white board and told a story…

Once upon a time there were two valiant knights, named I.T. and Biz. One wielded a sword and shield; the other a bow and arrow. They had a very successful year protecting the local village from marauding ogres [representing the successes of the past year- note the pile of green ogre heads]. They celebrated their banner year with several tankards of mead and then slept off their bender in the village square.

They were awakened late the next morning by the sound of enormous flapping wings. They looked up with bleary eyes and saw a massive form blocking out the sun. As their heads and eyes cleared, they saw the tail end of a monstrous red dragon pass over the treetops into the forest.

Our heroes sallied forth into the woods on a reconnaissance mission. After some investigation, they determined that not just one but three dragons (yikes!) had moved into the neighborhood. The first two were twin dragons. They were fat, mean, strong, and stupid. The older of the twin dragons had the curious name of Complex Business Processes. His younger twin brother went by the moniker Complex I.T. Systems. These two were strong and tough, but tended to be a bit sluggish and predictable. The third dragon was more dangerous. He was long, slippery, and treacherous. He had a poisonous bite, and some even claimed he had the power of invisibility. He had various names, including Culture, The Way We Do Things, and We’ve Always Done It That Way. When fighting the twin dragons, it was wise to keep an eye out for the third, which slipped behind opponents unnoticed until it was too late.

Our heroes continued their reconnaissance and discovered the dragons’ lair. In addition to the mounds of gold coins that filled their cave, the dragons guarded three precious treasures. The first treasure was Mercury’s Shoes, winged footwear that enabled their owner to travel with great speed, flying above the entanglements of the forest floor [representing productivity and efficiency]. The second treasure was the Cornucopia, which magically produced whatever its owner imagined [representing rapid product development]. The third treasure was the Crystal Ball, which enabled its owner to see things as they really were, and as they will be [representing business intelligence, for fact-based decision-making].

Fighting and decapitating ogres last year taught I.T. and Biz some valuable lessons, including that they were most effective when fighting alongside each other, since their separate weapons had maximum effect when combined. They would incorporate that learning into their plan to battle the dragons.

They expected to get charred, clawed, bit, and poisoned in their fight. But they reasoned that those wounds would heal, and they would then be stronger for having engaged in the battle. Our heroes believed in their hearts that the three magical treasures were worth the fight. And what was the alternative? To let the dragons consume the village, one damsel at a time?

Our brave knights had pure hearts and the strength of ten. They would not allow that ugly future to come to pass. So they took up arms, said their prayers, and entered the dragons’ lair.

After I told that story, there were several smiles around the room. Folks love a good fairy tale, and the executives now understand the key messages that had been dry and inscrutable before I put them into my Medieval blender. They also understand that the rest of the story is unwritten, and that the future of the village is in their hands.

The lesson? Stories and metaphors stick. The client’s employees are now talking about knights, dragons, and treasures. We’ve created a simple, common language that engages employees at all levels in the project’s strategy and vision.

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Bypassing the Water Cooler: Communicating in Times of Change

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Nature abhors a vacuum.
–François Rabelais.

When major changes are announced in an organization, an interesting dynamic develops:

Employees have a greater than usual need for information.
Leaders tend to more strictly control the flow of information.

In times of uncertainty, employees increase their sensitivity to any signals present, frequently misinterpreting whatever facts are available and filling the information gap with bizarre scenarios they have generated. Rumors, half-truths, and well-intentioned guesses end up dominating the talk around the water cooler.

So, what does this information gap cost an organization? Frustrated, anxious employees can cause significant organizational headaches. Bonds of trust between leaders and their employees erode, leading to reduced employee satisfaction and engagement. Customer-facing employees who are distracted or upset tend to make more mistakes, build less rapport, and engage less deeply with customers. Quality, customer satisfaction, and employee productivity suffer.

For leaders who want to minimize the confusion, frustration, and disorientation that attends major change, here are some practical ideas:

Clarify the big picture, repeatedly.
Seek out answers to the big picture questions, such as, ‘Why are we making this change?’, ‘Where are we going?’, and ‘How much will it hurt?’ Then craft those answers into simple, memorable Key Messages. Most importantly, share the Key Messages, over and over again, until people cut you off and finish your sentences for you.

Answer the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) questions whenever possible.
Tell people as much information as you know about the details that will affect them personally.

Engage in two-way dialogue about the change.
Acknowledge individuals’ pain. Be authentic and express how you feel about the change. Surface others’ emotions, and deal with them productively. And get comfortable saying, “I don’t know;” you won’t have all the answers.

The hardest step on any new journey is typically the first one. Few leaders enjoy engaging in emotionally-charged conversations with their teams. But a willingness to “jump into the fray” can bear huge dividends in morale, productivity, and quality. Godspeed.

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