Throughout a life spent moving from one organizational challenge to another, I’ve noticed that one thread has woven the whole experience together: The unbridled power of good communication and storytelling in successful people.
But one question persists: If communication is so important, and we are more interconnected than ever before, then why are most managers and leaders so bad at it?
In business, or in any relationship, communication is everything with team members, investors, customers, vendors and everyone in between. Ineffective communication results in lost moments and squandered opportunities.
Communication is the lubricant that keeps the engine of humanity running. In our bodies, when cells don’t communicate properly it can indicate illness. When nations don’t communicate with each other, it can cause war. Not communicating with your spouse can lead to divorce.
Yuval Harari, author of the sweeping history of humankind, Sapiens, explains how this capacity to think outside ourselves, to create businesses, constitutions, stories, myths and art, is our X factor. This ability paved the way for humans to organize into large groups and connect by way of a common purpose and meaning. Because we could collaborate for a greater good, we could survive.
Communication is how we relate to our world to build common connections and manage the environment around us. However, as we know from our experience, the art of communication is many times lost.
The most important questions to ask when attempting to form a communications strategy are:
- What are you saying? (Messaging)
- Who are you saying it to? (Targeting audiences)
- How are you saying it? (Tactics)
When managing any fragile issue, external threat or full blown crisis, the most important element and guiding principle is to maintain trust.
Remember that the communications business is about getting people to care. Some degree of trust is always a prerequisite of caring. People must trust that a company’s leadership is living up to the stated values of the organization and ensuring the health and well-being of those they are charged to protect.
Good leaders always consider the people who make up their world and depend upon for success, including customers, members, employees, regulators and investors. Maybe your company is doing many positive things, but if your own stakeholders don’t know about it, then your actions might not make a difference to those people who matter most.
Trust can be simply understood as the consequence of a promise fulfilled. This includes both explicit promises — like reliable internet service, consistent power and water delivery — or implicit, such as living up to brand identity. Are expectations being met?
Trust is broken when people believe you have broken promises or not lived up to expectations.
Be Proactive: Silence Equals Indifference
The first rule of good communication is understanding that trust is built and maintained by living up to these stated values and expectations.
You begin a successful communiqué or response by putting yourself into the position of others by understanding their expectations. How do those interests expect you to act? What kind of action do they call for? Good leaders understand that a response is not about personal preference, but what others expect of them in certain situations. The good news is that it is possible, to at least some extent, to map those interests.
We must remember that in a crisis people often feel incredibly afraid and therefore vulnerable, both professionally and personally. In fact, the hallmark of working with people in the middle of an intense situation is that it becomes very personal very fast. You never really know what someone is going through in their life, but our job is to rise above the inevitable internal tension to look at the entire worldview.
Which means that trust and empathy in any communication are more important than ever.
We expect our leaders to care. In any crisis response we must act and show people that we care. We cannot just tell them we care, but must show them that we care through our actions and our stories. The single biggest mistake in a crisis is indifference.
Which is why lack of communication is so counterproductive, because silence is interpreted as indifference, which is anti-empathy. Why aren’t we hearing anything? This invites opportunists to join the conversation. Remember, if we aren’t defining ourselves, the others will do it for us. In a crisis, there is a maxim that the longer the silence continues, the less control we have over the outcome.
The Hero’s Journey Applied
Fortunately, there is a tried-and-true template for creating great messaging and telling memorable stories. A framework field-tested throughout millennia of culture, from Gilgamesh to Greek tragedies, Shakespeare to The Lord of the Rings.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he laid out patterns that recur in mythology throughout time across cultures the world over. He referred to the summation of these patterns as the “monomyth.”
The monomyth is a basic (and widely applicable) story model in which a hero is called to go on an adventure, meets helpers, surmounts obstacles, solves a crisis or wins a contest, and usually comes home transformed. (A lot like starting a business.) The cycle is also a powerful tool that can be applied to messaging of all colors.
In applying the Hero Cycle to any situation, one of the central questions you should ask is, “Who is the Hero?” Many might assume that in marketing, political and public policy campaigns, the product, candidate or issue would be the obvious choice. Wrong.
In a marketing campaign, it’s always good to consider whether the company should get out of the way and let the consumer be the hero, the one who chooses the right helpers to solve problems. Perhaps the heroine is the woman whose skin will shine with a certain luster when she uses a particular lotion.
Anyone who engages in communications—whether in business, organizational management, crisis communications, advertising, education, law, politics, science or campaigns of every stripe—should understand these timeless, universal truths about the art of controlling your environment through communications.
Don’t let your communications be an afterthought. There are effective methodologies for people and organizations to improve their approach to communications, create stronger connections, and ultimately be more successful.