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Your hope is my nightmare: which way for business communication?

Two of my favorite people in the internal comms world are Lise Michaud and Stephen Welch.

Lise—I have massive appreciation for her launch of IC Kollectif, the emerging Center of Excellence in the internal communication field, and I eagerly await the often-outstanding content that comes from “ICK’s” various channels.

For the holiday season, Lise asked the question of “What is your greatest hope for the Internal Comms profession in 2017” to a variety of IC pros and thought leaders.  Stephen, whose answer appeared this morning, is a fellow North American-turned-Brit who shares my passion for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, so I am generally inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.  But reading this sentence in his answer after my morning Starbucks, I had to strap on the gloves:

“Internal Communication professionals should become more coaches and strategic advisers to senior management, not people who actually “do” communication. Every time an internal communications person actually ‘does’ a communication, a leader somewhere is not doing his or her job”

I get this may be Stephen’s hope.  Indeed, I have been hearing this complaint/advice since my time starting in IC in the late ‘90s.  I reject it – and actually find it nightmarish –  for two main reasons:

  • We often have better and clearer vision of the big picture and what resonates about it than do many of the people we work for, and generally a better way of articulating it than they can.
  • We should not despise our own skills and talents: as communicators our strategic, empathetic and craft skills are all interconnected, and are reflected in the “communications we ‘do’”.  We should not tie one or both of our arms behind our backs as a matter of principle, or withhold helpful contributions to make some kind of point.

Indeed, while some think that leaders taking full ownership of communication delivery is some kind of a dream outcome, I prefer to dream of a more dynamic relationship between leader and communicator—one of dialogue and discussion which empowers communication professionals to deliver the most resonant, best-targeted and highest impact communications we can deliver.

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Writing to Lead/Transcending Self-Censorship

As an internal communicator, it is true that I at my happiest when I am writing.  But what’s less obvious to those who observe me is about when I am writing at my happiest. 

That is when I am pushing the boundaries of self-censorship. 

The fundamental question an internal communicator faces in front of the keyboard is “can I get this approved?”.  At 16:30 on a Friday afternoon, that is a legitimate question, but seeking an affirmative response invariably leads to a descent into deep self-censorship.

Avoidance of confrontation with Above also fuels self-censorship.  Such avoidance may seemingly contribute to enhanced job security, but at the price of diminished self respect, distinctiveness and organisational impact.

Self-censorship is necessary at times, particularly when relationships between communicators and their “line” on specific subjects have already been hammered out.  But we do our organizations no favors when we draft for safety over impact when there is any possibility to get a subject to consider greater boldness.

 At the same time, what we draft has to ring credibly from the mouths of those who speak those words or who approve their distribution on their behalf.

My own default position is clear. I start by asking myself: “What would I say if I were that person, in that situation, pursuing his or her own agenda and seeking maximum odds for success?”

I don’t get everything approved on that basis.

But I have never been yelled at, either for being too outrageous or too timid, in more than 20 years. 

There is some navigating to do with this stance.  It requires real knowledge of the involved content and where possible, empathy with the “speaker.” 

Specifically, it requires a clear delineation between “what I would say in their position” and “what I think they would say if they had the words and confidence to say it”.

It requires confidence– in case one is asked to explain or encourage the use of bolder-than-expected wording.

And, it requires perspective – to always recognize that the subject or speaker has the final say.

But challenging the seductive safety of excessive self-censorship is where the communicator can move from being a stenographer to being a leader.  

Moving leaders beyond the limits of their rhetorical skills, and challenging one’s own estimation of their courage, can move them and their organizations forward.  DoIng so repeatedly and successfully helps one move into a role as a leader oneself. 

Draft with conviction. Accept correction with grace. Savor success, and seek opportunities to help your leaders to lead—and to lead through your words.