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How effective are your communications channels?

14 September, 2021
How effective are your communications channels illustration of office teaching people via flip charts

We are all familiar with a whole range of different communications channels we can use to get messages across to our workforce. The recent pandemic has added even more channels to the already bewildering array. In fact, it’s probably pushed us forward a good ten years. Each of these comms channels has its own uses but, to create a really powerful communications strategy, you need to know which channels to use and when. We can easily use the most immediate channel to get a message out quickly, without stopping to think about whether it is correctly targeted or whether it will be effective.

The communications channel hierarchy

As you can see below, there is a hierarchy of how effective the various channels are, not just in getting the message across but also in changing mindset and behaviours. The further you move up the hierarchy, the more time it takes to achieve a result, hence the temptation to go for the quick and easy option, but at what cost? At the higher levels of our comms triangle, we have far more opportunity to influence behaviours and mindset. A study at the University of Southampton concluded that, “The more a message needs to change behaviours and win over hearts & minds, the more it has to be delivered using face-to-face channels”. This may be a somewhat simplistic conclusion but it does get to the heart of any successful comms strategy.

Just communications triangle

Communications channel overload

Once upon a time, we had a traditional, tried-and-tested but limited set of comms tools. Most were based around passive media – noticeboards, company newsletters or beautifully-produced, full-colour quarterly editorials. The problem with these was that the information was already obsolete by the time they came out. The scattergun approach meant everyone received the same information, whether it was relevant to them or not. Things have changed massively, particularly over the past year or so. Today’s communications, and the channels that surround them, move at a much faster pace. Therefore, our communications have to be a lot more agile. We have an amazing array of much better and more immediate tools at our disposal but this makes a well-planned and effective comms strategy even more important. Without one, it is too easy to fall into a black hole of information overload, where none of your messages have the impact they deserve.

As we’ve said many times before, your big picture-type messages can be quite abstract. There is no way you are going to communicate your big picture with a couple of emails and a passive PowerPoint presentation. These sheep dip approaches will never conquer hearts and minds. You need to be as high up the communications hierarchy as you possibly can, using a combination of those higher level channels.

The 3 critical communications elements

Through our work with a very wide range of organisations, The Big Picture People have found that there are 3 critical elements in getting people not only to see and think about issues, and make an emotional connection (see our earlier blog about rational vs emotional thinking), but also to create long-term behavioural change.

  • Visualisation
  • Dialogue
  • Interactivity

Visualisation – a picture paints a thousand words

We are all familiar with visualisation and its impact in any comms strategy. If we send out a social media post, we know that a GIF, a video, or even a static image will always draw a lot more attention than a block of text. The human brain is naturally enticed by colour-rich images. We are wired to make a visual interpretation of information. In fact, the adult human brain can understand a visual scene in around 1/10 of a second. This goes right back to our very first experiences. We learn to recognise and trust faces long before we can make sense of the spoken or written word. So, visuals are essential when trying to get your big picture across to everyone in the organisation.

visual processing sensory receptors visual scene

Dialogue

We probably think that we do create dialogue in our organisation. We rely upon comms channels such as social media, Yammer, Slack, but is this actually dialogue or just an exchange of information? Real, meaningful dialogue has an organic element that these channels struggle to replicate.

  • Me to You : Many organisations still rely on putting out a lot of static, download information. Think of this as Me to You. It may be visually interesting but communication is all one way. If we just tell people what our big picture is about, what the changes are and the strategies we are putting in place, we are unlikely to create buy-in across the organisation. They will understand but it will not change behaviours.
  • Me vs You : Next, we have sectors with a strong ethos of debate (Me vs You). Academic debate is alway seen as having high value but it is inherently adversarial. It allows people to see more than one side of an issue but does not help pull people together.
  • Us Together : Real change starts with dialogue (Us Together) where we can explore ideas, scenarios, possibilities, on a more organic level. When we engage everyone in meaningful dialogue, at every level of the organisation, we end up with a far broader big picture and a much better understanding of it from everyone’s point of view. Dialogue is an incredibly powerful tool and one that TBBP feel passionate about.

Interactivity

“I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”

Confucius (and later, Benjamin Franklin) knew what he was talking about. Telling people what to think or how to behave doesn’t work. You need them to interact with the reasons behind it. Get people involved in working something out for themselves and you will have a much more dramatic and impactful outcome. They suddenly see why or how you are doing things. These lightbulb moments help to make things real and relevant, fixing them in their minds. A study by Slack [Slack Future of Work Study, 2018], found that 80% of workers want to know more about how decisions are made within their organisation. So, instead of telling staff that you need to save x%, give them the figures. Explain what comes in, what goes out, and how much is left over. Then get them to have a go at finding answers. They are much more likely to go along with you AND help you find innovative solutions. An unexpected benefit of this is that people from very different parts of the organisation may well come up with ideas that the leadership team would never have thought of on their own.

We find this works well in small groups. Give them tasks but make them fun and challenging. Organisational change is often seen as sombre and scary so people naturally avoid your communications. Harking back to our Rational vs Emotional Thinking post again, you need to generate enthusiasm and a sense of urgency, starting at the top.

Which communications channels to use and when

All communications channels have their own merits but there is no one-size-fits-all channel. The success of any comms programme is knowing what works best for different types of messages and for your people. You should try to whittle down the number of channels to make it manageable, and make everything available in one place if possible. The more places people have to look, the more likely they are to miss something. Then consider who you are talking to and what outcome do you want to achieve. If it’s a quick update that’s relevant to everyone, a mass email or intranet post may be fine. If you are announcing major change and you need to win over every department, you need a much more targeted, hands-on approach.

Gamification

Gamification of your big picture communications challenges your workforce in a fun and inclusive way. Using gaming techniques that make games so approachable, it allows everyone to take part and voice their opinions, explore possible scenarios and outcomes, and it breaks down barriers. It also taps into the vast accumulated knowledge at every level within the organisation. We strongly believe that major change (behavioural, organisational or cultural) is a social process. Therefore, social learning is incredibly important. We need to analyse our feelings alongside those of our colleagues. We have to know what they think and feel, recognising that we are all part of the process. We then calibrate our feelings so that we can move forward together.

The Learning Map approach

The Big Picture People specialise in helping organisations through the quagmire of change. We work with companies to create a visual representation of their organisation’s change landscape. Very often, part of the challenge is getting the leadership team to clarify a single, consistent definition and articulate that narrative to us. It can be a highly cathartic process and helps crystallise the way forward. Then we create a tailored toolkit, or Learning Map, for managers to use with their teams, combining visualisation and dialogue to get all noses pointing in the same direction in a way that is fun, non-confrontational and interactive.

Find out how Learning Maps and bespoke games helped eDF manage substantial change and upheavals within their organisation. Or, if you would like to explore how a Learning Map could work for your business, book a free 30-minute consultation and we’ll take you through the ins and outs.

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