Culture element: communication

0 By Daria Williamson
Culture element: communication
Reading Time: 7 minutes

The element of communication is one of the most significant building-blocks to your organisational culture.

We spend most of our days communicating with others. But how often do we stop to consider what we are communicating, and how we are communicating? And how do we know if what and how we are communicating are hitting the mark?

Communication: getting the content of your message right

In these days of instant messaging, constantly-refreshing newsfeeds and three-second sound-bites, it feels somewhat quaint to spend time crafting a message before getting it out there. But there is a great deal of power in the words we use, and word selection can make or break your communication efforts.

The English language has “borrowed” from many other languages, giving us a rich pool of words to draw from. But that also makes it a tricky language for precise communication. When there are so many options, how do you choose which ones to use?

Select a few “hero” words

These are the touchpoints you’ll return to over and over again. They should capture the essence of what you want to communicate, as they’ll become a shorthand for the message. Make sure that they are linked to your organisation’s mission, purpose, values and culture.

Should I use verbs or nouns?

Think carefully about what you want to express with your hero words, and select the class of word accordingly.

  • Verbs, as “doing” words, convey a sense of action and movement. To be grammar-geeky for a moment, the gerund or present continuous tense creates a strong sense of energy. For example: creating, winning, perfecting, delivering
  • Nouns, as “naming” words, create a sense of identity. For example, leaders, creatives, visionaries
  • Adjectives, as “describing” words, establish a look and feel. For example: authentic, professional, innovative

Road-test your hero words

Run your list past a few people who will give you open and honest feedback. Make sure they know whether your message is for an external or internal audience. And tailor your road-test crew to align with the intended audience. If your message is for an internal audience, have more people from within your organisation in the crew.

Ask them what the words convey to them – and be prepared for responses you might not want to hear! Just because we want someone to perceive a word the way we do, doesn’t mean they will do so. It’s better to discover at an early stage that a word doesn’t work the way you intended it to, than to have committed time and money to spread your message, only to find out your audience is receiving an unintended message.

If necessary, rework your hero word list, and road-test the new options. At this stage, it might be helpful to remember that everything we do in life is an experiment, and each change we make takes us closer to perfection!

A man holding a can with a string, shouting into it.
Choose your words carefully!

Craft your messages using your hero words

Now you’ve got your list of hero words that capture your essential themes, you need to craft your messages around them. And be sure to apply the Goldilocks principle: using them neither too much nor too little.

When crafting your message, it’s important to think through how you will be sharing it, and how you can increase the impact of your communication. Some aspects to consider include:

  • How you will convey your messages – in meetings, via email, on promotional material etc.
  • Less is often more – keep your communication simple and direct, and avoid jargon unless it’s really necessary.
  • Timing – a long speech on a Friday afternoon when everyone is itching to start their weekend might not be popular.
  • Different audiences and formats will call for different styles of communication. Ensure that you’re not diluting or confusing the message as you move between audiences and formats.
  • The types of questions you might field from your audience – how will you respond to them? If you take time to prepare well, you’re less likely to be surprised in the heat of the moment.

Again, it can be helpful to road-test your draft messages to make sure they line up with other people’s perceptions. Crafting a compelling narrative that makes your team excited about the future, and their part in it, can increase their engagement more than almost any other action you can take.

Right, you’ve selected your hero words, crafted your message, and you’re ready to get communicating. Not so fast! There’s something else to consider before launching your messages out into the world.

Communication: it’s not just words

Communication is so much more than the words we use. Our non-verbal actions, the decisions we make, and how we conduct ourselves broadcast our attitudes, thoughts, intentions and values to everyone around us. I love this quotation, because it sums up the power of non-verbal communication, in all its glory:

Black text over white background: "What you do speaks so loud that I vcannot hear what you say" Ralph Waldo Emerson

Does your non-verbal communication support your chosen message?

We need to be consciously aware, not only of the words we use, but of our non-verbal communication. If we are thinking, deciding and acting in a way that is not aligned with our intended organisational culture, we are actively undermining it.

Consider:

  • which values you prioritise when making decisions. Do you use the published organisational values, or the “real” ones that aren’t printed on the wall?
  • your posture and tone of voice. Crossed arms, a frown and a sharp tone of voice communicate a very different attitude to an open posture, a smile and a warm tone.
  • how you use micro-expressions. Things such as smiles, winks, smirks, nods, eye-rolls etc) will either underline or undermine your (and other people’s) words
  • the ways you form agreements. Do you have a group of favourites within your organisation, or are you open to working with everyone?
  • how you manage disagreements. Are they an insurmountable barrier, or something to be negotiated for a win-win solution?

How do I know how my non-verbal communication is influencing my message?

Ask

It’s pretty simple: ask the people around you what impact your non-verbal communication is having! Of course, you’ll need to have built a bit of trust before people will tell you what they really think, particularly if you are a leader.

A woman and man sitting at an outdoor table, deep in conversation
Honest feedback can help hone your communication skills

If the people you ask quickly answer “Great! Perfect! Couldn’t be better!”, without making eye-contact, and then rush away, consider what their non-verbal communication is telling you.

It can be really hard to hear that we aren’t doing something well. But the only way to get better is to have a realistic idea of how we are currently performing. There’s a reason that the vast majority of sports have a scoreboard that is updated during the game – because when you know how your performance is stacking up in the moment, you can do something about it.

Reflect

You can also reflect on how other people engage with you and your message. Think about their verbal and non-verbal communication as they receive and respond to your messages. Ask yourself if people are:

A man in a red shirt in front of a black background. He is holding his left arm in the air with the index finger raised, looking upward and smiling as though he has had an insight.
Reflection can be a powerful source of insight
  • using hero words in their own conversations and messages?
  • acting and speaking in alignment with your messages and the culture you are seeking to cultivate?
  • making changes that help them work together more effectively, achieve targets, and make great decisions for long-term success?

If you have answered “yes” to most questions, then your verbal and non-verbal communication are likely to be congruent (in agreement with each other) and encouraging a culture that supports your strategy. If not, you might have some more work to do.

Get a coach

And finally, you can engage a coach who can work with you to develop your verbal and non-verbal communication skills. They can help you identify your communication strengths and how to deploy them for the greatest effect. They can also work with you to understand the areas where you need some support, and how to manage those areas well.

A set of Scrabble (TM) tiles spread on a table, with letters spelling out "coaching" set up on a tile rack

Remember, you don’t have to be excellent at everything to be a leader. Part of being an effective leader is knowing your limits and when to delegate to other people’s areas of strength. A coach can help you develop strategies for knowing when to delegate, and how to delegate effectively.

A skilled coach brings an independent viewpoint, and they are totally committed to your success – there are no hidden agendas, so you can relax and trust that they have your best interests at heart.

You can become a great communicator

There’s no such thing as a “naturally talented” communicator – we all have to learn and practise the skills. “Great” communicators have worked hard to hone their skills and craft their messages to have maximum impact. That means that you too can become a great communicator – and with a bit of effort and practise, you’ll see great results.

Communication coaching and training

If you’d like to develop your skills, I offer one-on-one leadership and communication coaching, and group or one-on-one communication skills training. I’d love to talk to you about how I can help you become a great communicator. Please feel free to get in touch by email or phone.

The organisational culture series

This post is part of an ongoing exploration of organisational culture elements – please check out my previous posts about organisational culture and stories as a culture element.

Sources

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