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A toolkit for powerful change communications

Leading change is tough. Try out this simple methodology to get to the heart of what you want to say and what people need to hear.

By Ian Jessop 05 September 2016

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Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to send subliminal messages or be an illusionist for people to buy into your vision.


Take the ‘priming’ technique, a subconscious memory trick centred on the perceptual identification of words and objects; it can take years to master. In practice, it means that if a person reads the word “banana”, they’re more likely to pick the colour yellow. Say ‘try’ and ‘cycle’ in separate sentences and you’re priming someone to think of the word ‘tricycle’. But clever priming can lead to the opposite effect (reverse priming). When people realise they’re being manipulated, they overthink their responses and their feelings become biased.


Delivering information doesn’t need to be that complicated. To communicate powerfully, a short story will do. And stories don’t need to be five minutes long – you’re not writing a novella. Instead, try a two-sentence metaphor or simile. For example: “Cracking the US market is like trying to teach a Neanderthal to use a digital watch.” This simple method creates three-dimensional stories that have meaning and energy. It’s also a useful tactic for offering your own opinion (no one can argue with your view when you place ‘like’ before it).


Of course, a storyteller’s artistry starts way before the delivery. A good story starts with good preparation.


Four elements of all communication


1. You


What’s your relationship with the communication? Do you own it, believe it? What’s your natural style, and how much can you flex it? What’s your connection with the audience, for instance, is there historical baggage? What do you want them to feel about you – love, like, indifference?


2. Them


Who are you communicating with? What’s their preferred style of communication and does that suit the message you wish to tell? What’s their response likely to be? Indeed, do they bring their own emotional baggage to the room?


3. Message


Can you distil the communication down to three sentences? And then, down to one? It’s deceptively simple, yet after working with many global CEOs, I find that the message often comes too late. When the message is considered first, the desired outcome is clearer and the rest of the process much simpler.


4. Objective


What do you want your audience to think, feel, do? There’s often a supra-objective and then minor objectives underneath; so are you clear about the objective? The objective can never be to “give an update” or “provide information”. There must be an outcome. What do you want your audience to do differently as a result of the update or new information?


These elements are not exclusive to face-to-face communications, they work over the phone, via Skype, and they’re relevant to one person and many.


The relationship between the four elements


Message and objective don’t always have to align. For example, an executive might request £1 million to spend on R&D from the board and the objective is exactly that. But another executive might have the same message and an entirely different objective – perhaps, for the board to see them as the next board member. An objective like this would change the way the message is put together.


Any communication could be driven by any one of the four elements. You might think: ‘Surely the objective is the main driver?’ And, most often, it is. But not always.


If your company was in trouble and you were asked to speak to the press, message would be the most important thing. What if your business had an industrial relations problem and you had to negotiate with the union? The ‘them’ would be most important. Everything would be driven by what they’d respond to. And if you had to deliver a difficult message and still needed the group to like you? The ‘you’ would be the imperative.


You need to weigh up these principles and then put what’s important right at the top.


The ‘why’ isn’t as important as the ‘what’


Thinking about ‘them’ requires particular attention, because it’s hard to get to the crux of what makes people tick. On the Leading Change programme we run an exercise in delivering difficult communications. Two groups (A and B) are given a difficult message. For example: “We’re moving our headquarters from London to Dubrovnik.” Group A gives the message, group B receives it. We ask each group: “What are six things you need to say or hear?”


We find the results are always the same. The Bs (receivers) always finish first, in half the time. They also use simple, Anglo-Saxon language. In contrast, the givers use complex, Latinate language, with many sub-clauses in a sentence. They also tend to use longer words. Their points are more official, and the language more passive than active. Bs make few changes to their six points, while As’ scribbles and corrections run onto a second sheet of paper.


Time and time again, we find that the messages don’t match up. People receiving the news don’t want a rationale. Those delivering the news focus too much on justifying the ‘why’. The receivers want to know what’s in it for them, when the change is happening and how the people in charge will help them work through it. The more time spent justifying the communication – “London is too expensive” or “Dubrovnik is the source of our target market” – the more the Bs tune out.


Another mistake is to presume how people feel. The Bs don’t want to hear that the As “know how difficult it is” for them or how they “must be feeling”. They don’t want to be second-guessed. Also, when people receive a difficult message and it addresses the ‘what’, they tend to accept it.


You don’t buy a car; you buy a fast car


I was a theatre director for 13 years, so while a script is fixed, I know that authority comes from the delivery. All it takes for the tone and meaning to change is the careful selection of particular word types. If you stress nouns, you can seem academic, fact-driven, solid. Doctors and accountants tend to use nouns, as they focus on the ‘what’. Verbs are the ‘how’. People who inflect verbs can be seen as action-orientated and energetic – prevalent word types in the retail and FMCG industry. Adjectives give colour and definition: they’re the ‘why’.


People buy adjectives, not nouns


We buy fast cars, sexy cars, hybrid cars. We don’t buy any old car. That’s why car salespeople, advertising executives and actors stress these words. 


What happens if you prefer nouns over verbs or adjectives over nouns, and you’re asked to switch up your use of language? It can change the delivery of your communication, and also your attitude. But it takes time to test.


As well as the types of words you choose to stress, idiosyncrasies can be powerful. Get rid of generic words: authentic leaders speak from the heart. If you only have one sentence to say something, could you make it count more by replacing “nice” with “phenomenal” and “lots” with “oodles”? Think about the words that tell a story about you and use those.


Of the 24 most common emotion words in English, only six are positive, write Dan and Chip Heath in their book Switch. Negative emotions come more easily. If you’re communicating about a change, keep these odds front of mind. You will have to work to capture their hearts and minds. By reordering the four communication elements, stressing the right word types and playing with language, you have the tools to set the tone. Sticking to the script is for actors. Want my advice? Get power talking.

Comments (1)

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