Communicating Change

It appears that there are at least two common problems besetting most organizations with whom we work or have contact. They are Communications and Change. Put the two together and the problem grows. Communication is a dialogue, not a monologue. Transmitting information is a two way process that includes participation, integration, agreement and feedback. Even if the need for change is blindingly obvious, there is almost certain to be opposition either to the method or the objective - or both.

A good communicator takes the audience along step by step and to do that he or she must understand the audience. Empathy is an integral part of effective communication. So many communications appear to be content or sender driven and spare little thought for the receiver. E-mail and other technological methods compound this situation.

The language of the communication is important. The communicator should limit the use of the first person. 'You' and 'us' will have a greater effect than ' I '. Addressing an audience as 'we' shows empathy. It will not placate the cynics or hard line opponents but it will help create an atmosphere of understanding where participation and integration can flourish.

You, us and I

Heinz Goldmann, the Swiss guru of communications advises using 'you' and 'us' five times for every ' I '. Unfortunately the higher the member of management, the greater difficulty in keeping to the rule! To improve empathy the communicator should also drop such filler phrases as ' I believe' , and 'I want'. Never assume that management interests and motivation are the same as those of the staff. That is why understanding the audience is important.

People, of course, receive a message in different ways. An effective communicator must appreciate those differences and it is important to know :

  • What is the mood of the audience? Are they committed, interested, neutral or opposed?
  • What are their goals? How can they be integrated in the objective?
  • What are they able to understand. What is their cultural and educational background? Are they specialists or generalists?

In short, those who receive the communication must understand it and feel they are being addressed personally. There is no more effective way of communication than face-to-face contact. Letters, faxes and E-mails may start the process but words without contact are bleak and can be subject to misinterpretation, even if the communicator has taken note of the questions above.

Feedback takes time, misunderstandings are plentiful. If contact is face-to-face then, what you say is important but how you say it is even more so. A colleague who sat through several days of presentations by well known companies recently was disappointed at the standard. Some speakers were patronizing, others downright boring and several had problems with their computer generated graphics despite the fact that there was adequate time to prepare beforehand.

Common Mistakes

So what are the common mistakes that result in a failure to communicate? In our experience they include:
  • Inadequate preparation
  • Over projection (too theatrical) or under projection (lacking impact)
  • Lack of empathy
  • Failing to involve the audience
  • Misjudging the audience
  • Weak start and finish
  • Misuse of audio visuals
  • Stage fright
  • Inability to handle interruptions or tough questions.

Different people prepare in different ways. In general it is good to be ruthless in the selection of material. Keeping the communication short and simple is a must as is rehearsal. Do not be afraid to try out your presentation beforehand.

Body language speaks volumes. How many speakers have you seen with head down and reading from notes addressing an audience that lost interest some time ago? Eye contact - even with large groups is essential.

As for empathy, remember Goldmann's five to one rule. The best speeches involve the audience. The speaker asks questions and invites opinions and experiences but all the while is checking on their understanding. Active participation creates dialogue and feedback.

Misjudging the audience is a failure to address their motivations. The M.D's rousing speech to staff may well put them off if their motivations are different from those of the Board. Make sure your communication fits the occasion and the need.

Know what you want to Achieve

Goldmann differentiates between persuasion, motivation and action speeches. In communicating change the persuasion speech is the most likely to be used.

Persuasion Motivation Action
Listeners are opposed/
Aim : influence, convince, convert, or change attitudes
Listeners are positive
Aim : stimulate, motivate, fire up and inspire
Listeners are very positive
Aim : to trigger real and immediate action

The start and close of any communication must have impact. Key points must be reinforced. It is a useful trick to memorize the first couple of sentences of the opening and closing. It helps you to maintain eye contact and increase the impact of what you are saying.

Audio visuals should both explain and reinforce. It is a pity that so many fail to do so. We have all seen the transparency with a wealth of detail that serves only to confuse. Sales forces may go for one word motivation but the minimalist approach is to be favoured. Limit the information and make sure the projector and the microphone work beforehand!

There is no perfect formula for curbing stage fright except to be aware that everyone suffers from it and if they do not then they are probably not giving their best. Adrenalin makes one alive and ready to perform. Stage fright can be limited by being aware of many of the points already discussed here. Sound preparation and a knowledge of the audience will help improve self confidence. Thorough organization of notes and equipment should ensure you are not thrown while presenting. The trick is to accept that being nervous is normal but to work hard on preparation and rehearsal so that the appearance of nerves is minimized and the performance looks natural.

Handling difficult questions could be the subject of a 'Tips & Tools' in itself. Suffice it here to say, do not lose your temper and remember that most audiences will side with the speaker under attack if that attack is aggressive or rude. Regard an attack as a request for further information and do not be afraid of asking for time to come back to that particular question.

The key to success is knowing your audience and being positive.