Mutual understanding and empathy form the foundation of communication.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch teaches his daughter, Scout, that you never really understand someone until you’ve stood in their shoes and walked around in them.
That advice holds true for internal communicators.
Liam Fitzpatrick and Klavs Valskov, authors of “Internal Communications: A Manual for Practitioners,” advise that communicators must understand their audience to succeed:
Being able to reflect on how staff feel, what they might understand and how they might react to a message adds value to our advice and differentiates it from the guesswork and speculation of other senior people.
Internal communicators have a range of channels to seek out different viewpoints. Surveys, forums, focus groups, social networks and idea schemes can all be effective, but other tactics can provide more substantive personal insight and help you tap into a rich source of stories.
Here are five ways to step into the shoes of your audience:
1. Get frontline experience.
When former Asda CEO and Royal Mail Chairman Allan Leighton started as a graduate trainee at Mars, he was assigned to the Maltesers production line. His role? Picking up errant chocolates that tumbled off the conveyer belt.
After a frustrating morning spent pursuing rogue candies across the floor, his amused co-workers shared the trade secret: Step on them first, then sweep them up. With this secret, as Leighton later wrote in “On Leadership,” his colleagues revealed an important lesson: “Operators know best, and getting close to them is key.”
Getting practical frontline experience is not just for young leaders or CEOs on reality TV shows. Communicators can gain practical insight into the challenges of other roles. Spending time learning about someone else’s role helps build credibility, trust and dialogue.
2. Manage by walking around.
Abraham Lincoln’s practice of visiting troops on Civil War battlefields is an early example of Managing by Walking Around. Many leaders still use this method of wandering around the office and chatting up workers to measure morale and uncover potential issues.
Internal communicators should take advantage of this strategy as well, whether to build relationships and camaraderie or to gauge how key messages have landed.
How do you do it? Simply schedule a regular time to walk around your workplace and chat with colleagues who’re available. Arm yourself with open questions first. Check perceptions of recent messages, or try a question like: “If there’s one thing we could do to improve communication around here, what would it be?”
3. Use informal touchpoints.
Managing by Walking Around works best when you strategically schedule your times to roam about, but each day is also filled with informal opportunities to get to know your audience better.
For communicators, it pays to make the most of these impromptu opportunities and casual conversations. Liam Fitzpatrick and Klavs Valskov assert that if you eat lunch alone or at your desk, you’re not doing your job properly. You may not want to sacrifice every lunch break, but making the most of each interaction pays dividends.
Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup Co., called these informal moments “touchpoints.” For leaders, Conant writes, each moment is an opportunity to “infuse the agenda with greater clarity and more energy, and to influence the course of events.”
For communicators, each touchpoint is an opportunity to make a deeper connection, to gauge understanding and to gain insight into how your audience feels.
4. Build your networks.
In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first American president to cultivate a network of sources outside the federal government. Roosevelt sought the views of businessmen, academics, friends and relatives to find out what was happening “on the ground,” rather than relying solely on official sources.
Follow Roosevelt’s lead by establishing your own company networks and sources. Get to know people in every department and from every experience level. You might even consider approaching certain colleagues about being a part of some sort of communications advisory committee.
Why not start an engagement group to facilitate dialogue? Organize a network of change champions and respected internal influencers. You can also simply set up an informal group of contacts across your organization with whom you hold regular calls or meetings.
5. Use visual cues.
Even when you understand the needs of your audience, it can be easy to overlook them.
Visual cues can help. In “Pre-Suasion,” influence expert Robert Cialdini notes that visual cues in meeting rooms helped consultants generate better solutions. Using glass-fronted meeting rooms in busy areas did the trick, as using meeting room walls to display large “action pictures” of employees at work.
Building a thorough understanding of the needs of your audience takes time, but it’s an essential investment for communicators.
By regularly stepping into your audience’s shoes, you’ll gain insight into their needs—and actively use that insight to improve your company.