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Internal Comms: Why a back-to-front approach can help

“Let’s start at the beginning…” as the saying goes. Or let’s not.

Perhaps I should have started by quoting Anna Richardson, whose rather notorious Channel 4 “dating” show extols the virtue of playing the dating game in reverse by getting your kit off (on national television no less) before you’ve heard your potential date speak or even learnt their name.

Starting with the beginning… It’s the way we’re programmed, the way we’re taught and it’s the natural, logical order of things. But, whilst I can't personally vouch for its success within the world of "exhibitionistic dating", in internal comms, I can state with some confidence that start-to-finish is not always the best route forward.

When we need to communicate something to our people, we are obviously going to start with the most straightforward “what”: What is the message? What are we trying to say? We may, quite naturally, want to move on to the how and the when: How are we going to get this message out? Which channels shall we use? And when do we start issuing the message? By when do we want our people to have got this message?

Now, these are all really good questions. They are all important factors, and they need careful thought and due consideration.

However, those who truly get internal comms know that you need to start with the final step of the process. You need to start with the desired final outcomes.

It is about the what, but it needs to be combined with the question that’s too easily overlooked: the who. Once you know the detail of the comms, the real questions to ask are “who is the audience?” and “what do we want to happen, or to change, as a result of this comms?”

If it’s not a simple change in knowledge we’re after, what we’re often actually aiming for is a behaviour change.

It is these questions that will shape everything about your comms – the format, the content, the writing, the tone and language, the visual style. In internal comms, you have to be quite brutally honest about the messages you’re delivering, and you have to know enough about the intended audiences to tailor these. (This is why a robust comms plan or strategy will always consider the people make-up of the organisation.)

The unfortunate reality is that, often, the people who are initiating the message are a lot more excited by it than the people who are about to hear about it. Changes in certain processes in one particular department (that will undoubtedly benefit them and the overall company) are not that exciting to the members of every other department. Cue rousing renditions of “why am I being told this?” and a glorious chorus in unison of that old classic “so what?”.

It gets worse. So often, a piece of internal comms can be read by many as notification of a change they don’t want or one that will somehow impact them negatively. If it’s a change to quality processes, for example, will they see the headline and immediately jump to the imaginary paragraph that says: “you will be doing more paperwork and leaving a little bit later every day”? They may well understand (deep, deep down) the need for the change (improving quality is always the correct thing to do, right?), but the message could still be greeted with this kind of suspicion and resentment.

This is where knowing your people and starting with the behaviours you want to change will be invaluable. You need to contextualise your message into something that they will not only understand but will relate to. And welcome, even.

I used to work in further education, an industry where changes are not only constant, they’re incessant and unrelenting. And they’re often foisted upon those in delivery by people in positions so lofty (in external organisations) that those initiators have very little understanding of the challenges already encountered at that delivery coalface. When tasked with communicating an additional quality control step to a team of trainers, I knew them well enough to know two things: they were not going to be happy with anything that required yet more admin’, and their learners almost always mattered more to them than anything else. And so, the contextualisation was quite simple: “this will benefit your learners”, “Your learners will be less likely to fail an assessment or be asked for additional evidence at the end of their course.” (This was, of course, also a big bonus to them as the trainer – “do the little bit of extra work now so you don’t have to do a lot more of it when timescales are so much tighter!” By understanding the who and contextualising the what to achieve the desired behaviour change, the message landed much more softly, and was greeted far more warmly, than the stripped back, naked request would have done. (And we’re back to that show again…!)

Of course, knowing your audience will not only help you contextualise your message, it will also help you deliver it in the best possible way. We all know the importance of how things are said – tone of voice, body language etc. – and how the written word can be so easily misinterpreted, which is why short video messages or presentations are absolutely worth the extra effort. How better to humanise a difficult, complex or potentially contentious message than by, well, humanising it!

And similarly, asking for feedback is so crucially important at building trust and helping a message to land. Tailor the message to maximise its appeal and then ask your people how they feel about it - a double-whammy of engagement and trust-building. (Be sure to acknowledge that feedback, of course: answer any questions, address any concerns, feedback on the feedback.)

In short, by focusing on what we know about our people and the desired behavioural changes before we start to compose and create, we should be able to land our messages better and achieve our objectives quicker.

I’m not sure if this approach is back-to-front or top-to-bottom, but either way, no naked attraction (or, indeed, Naked Attraction) is required. Sorry, Anna.


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