This year, I interviewed 40 internal communications professionals. I asked all of them the same questions to learn about their experiences, projects and perspectives.
This December, I took a look back at one question in particular:
What skills are most important for someone to succeed in internal communications?
After tallying and analyzing their responses, I created a top 10 skills list — excluding the basic skills of strong editing and writing. Many other important honorable mentions didn’t make the top 10 list, but are listed at the bottom of this article.
To show why these skills matter, I selected specific quotes from interviews. It was very difficult to narrow down the list as there were so many insightful comments. Each featured quote links to the full article.
These skills are important for internal communications professionals — and anyone who communicates internally at an organization. Here’s to growing, learning and strengthening skills for success.
“Instead of being called ‘Internal Communications,’ it should be called ‘Internal Listening.’ Your ears are your best friends in this function.” -Sean Langston, Jr.
“The most brilliant mind in the room is likely the quietest, because they are listening to everyone else’s opinion…and becoming more brilliant in the process!” –Jessica Thrasher
“It’s about listening to leaders: what they are saying and what they are not saying. You also must hear people out at all levels by being willing to listen to what they feel they need.” –Becky Graebe
“Because our core job is shaping our environment and providing context, we absolutely need to dial in to what that is so that we’re not just dropping communications that don’t land well or connect with where people are at.” –Diane Tate
“It’s also so important to be able to listen to someone and find out the real reasons why we’re doing this, how we’re doing it and what impact it will have on its employees.” –Chase Warner
“Often, someone will have a project where they think communications is the solution and when you drill down and ask what problem they are trying to solve, it changes things completely.” –Arlene Amitirigala
2. Relationship building
“Beyond those basics, the key to really succeeding in these cross functional roles is to be nice to work with, prioritize relationships, get your job done, but do it in a way that makes people want to work with you again.” –Laura Hunter
“You have to be willing to get out there and have conversations. At Blue Apron, I sit in meetings with executives and I’ve packed boxes alongside our associates in the fulfillment centers.” –Samantha Hillstrom
“There’s nothing that has been more helpful to me in my career than having had good relationships. This allows you the opportunity to help others, and ultimately show how we can serve our organizations.” –Elizabeth Wang
“As an advocate for both your organization and your employees, it’s essential that you build strong working relationships with colleagues throughout the organization, at every level. Creating these connections fosters a foundation of trust, communication and credibility that enables you to effectively do your job.” –Brianna Barker
“Take the time to find out what your stakeholders really care about, how they prefer to get internal updates, and what demanding projects and stresses are on their plate. Shadow another business unit or department for a week.” -Megan Dold
“It’s EQ over IQ.” –Danyelle Pollack
“Empathy. It’s important to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand how they might feel. I try to be the advocate for the employee in the room” –Hannah O’Brien
“Believing that great customer interactions, brand reputation and business performance rely on well-informed employees who know the end game – and how to get there. And respecting their role and their voice in the company’s success.” -Liz Soltoff
“Being able to balance your own agenda with the agendas of the people that you’re working with and understanding different people have different goals and like to communicate in different ways as well. I think that’s super important to meet people where they are.” –Camilla Boyer
“Communications can get very personal, so it’s important to approach this work with empathy. When communicating something, it’s important to come from a place that reflects your audience’s perspective and what they want to know.” –Cheryl Magat
“I encourage internal communications professionals to think like journalists because our role is about finding the story. It’s more than being able to write, it’s about giving people reasons to care and sparking thoughts and behaviors that will benefit the organization. We can push out information all day long and not tell a story.” –Nicole Neal
“As communicators, we need to think about how to develop and deliver content in a way that’s engaging, insightful, and worth their time. That means we need to be creative in which channels we use, how we craft the message, and even how it’s delivered.” –Netta Conyers-Hayes
“Storytelling can be brought out in an email, a presentation, social media or a blog. Someone needs to be really good at crafting a narrative that is compelling and emotionally inspiring while understanding the channels you can use to build trust.” -Lindsey Sanford
5. Flexibility and resilience
“I pitch a ton of ideas and they don’t always get implemented, but I don’t get rid of them. I revisit them every few months by reminding leaders: ‘We talked about this a few months ago. It wasn’t the right time, what do you think about now?’” –Tracey Pavlishin
“Ultimately, where you start may not necessarily be how it needs to evolve, so being flexible and knowing that the first version will change will help you build a better product in the long run . . . It’s also important to have flexibility in your day! I often tell people that you sometimes have ten things that you want to do on your checklist when you come into work . . . you may have to wipe all of that stuff off of your desk and focus on a new priority.” –Butler Rondeno
“I understand when I need to adjust and be flexible, which is always greatly appreciated by my business partners. This also helps strengthen our relationship.” -Miki Levine
“You need to be constantly curious about people and cultures. This means always asking questions and not stopping until you get to grips with what’s happening.” –Rachel Miller
“I encourage curiosity for emerging trends. Sometimes, there’s a risk that you can think of people as employees and don’t always think through their experiences outside of work. It’s about looking at new technologies and platforms and applying that to our work.” –Lisa Mudge
“Curiosity and a willingness to probe are important traits that translate to skills when you partner with colleagues.” -Chase Warner
7. Scrappy and solutions oriented
“I really strive to have my internal comms team be a team of yes. Even if I don’t have the exact solution, I will help point you in the right direction or work with you to create a solution. We’re here to help and make everyone’s job easier.” –Beth Furtwangler
“As internal communicators, we need to be scrappy . . . We are often part of very lean teams and can’t be stunted by not having all the resources or extra headcount or the tools. It’s so important for us to work with what we do have.” –Caitlin Landsman
“Being comfortable when you are put on the spot and coming up with creative ideas to help solve a problem. You won’t always have the answers to everything but it’s all about your attitude when someone throws you a fire and you haven’t got any water to put it out.” –Hannah O’Brien
8. Generalist/Swiss Army knife
“It’s important to be a Swiss Army knife. I have used a lot of my past event production experiences to design successful town halls. My media experience helps me to develop creative and compelling content.” -Sara Glick
“You have to be a ‘jack of all trades.’ There are a lot of specialized roles in the marketing and communications world. As an internal communicator, you end up wearing most of those hats. In a single day, you may have to write a speech for an executive, create a flyer for a stakeholder, plan an event and build a web page.” –Patrick Holmes
“It’s also critical to be a self-proclaimed generalist… Often, you have to take those complex ideas and deliver them to drive people’s understanding in a way that even the most expert leader can’t always articulate. I think it’s a secret lever for aspirational communicators to be able to communicate in such clear ways.” -Sean Langston, Jr.
“You have to be able to do a little bit of everything to do your job really well.” –Camilla Boyer
9. Courage and confidence
“There are communication roles that don’t require you to push back with leaders, but if you are going to be advising senior leaders, you need to be able to convey confidence. Confidence comes from successfully completing whatever challenges come your way.” –Lisa Chen
“One of my former leaders at McDonald’s talked about communicators being the conscience of the organization. We need to have courage to stand up for what we believe is the right thing to do and encourage our companies to be accountable, sensitive and brave when making difficult decisions, especially when it comes to employees. I see this as a great responsibility especially in the DEI communications space.” –Nicole Neal
“You need to be fearless to suggest topics or viewpoints that may not be on the radar of the project team — if it were not for you being in the room and at the table, then these ideas might not be represented.” –Tracey Pavlishin
“Creative solutions are so important to make sure it is presented in the best way and makes sense…You should be reaching out and communicating your messages in a novel, simple and creative way to grab their attention and address the ‘What’s in it for me’ factor.” –Mona Nabil
“A strong sense of creativity is important as well; it’s not always easy to reach people, and in our current world where we’re bombarded with messages from all angles, we always need to think about how to engage with people in a way that makes them stop and take notice.” –Cheryl Magat
The honorable mention skills that didn’t make the top 10 list, but are still important include: being audience focused, a business partner, organized, honest, fun and funny, a juggler, summarizer, systems thinker and planner, strategic influencer, voice and tone expert.
As we approach 2022, planning is top priority, and it’s important to remember:
“I’m really fond of saying solve for the need and not the ask. Everyone comes and asks for a specific tactic – a newsletter, video or an email. But, being able to say, let’s table the tactic and talk about what you’re trying to achieve and have faith in the communications team to get you the result you need in the way that makes the most sense.” –Laura McCafferty
Regardless of your skills, the ability to understand how your colleagues approach work is important to success:
“Instead of guessing, set guidelines or ‘rules of the road’ to operate around and find alignment so you can move forward together. This is critical in internal comms when we all need to operate as one team in service of the rest of the company.” –Eric Gonzalez
Here’s to learning, growing and leading in internal communications and beyond. What skills resonate or matter to you?
Julia Levy is the Editor of The Switchboard, an internal communications newsletter and blog that features career profiles and best practices on the field. It is one of her side project passions, which also includes National Muffin Day and Tradition Kitchens. By day, Julia builds communities and creates content in internal communications. Previously, she worked in philanthropy.