How to Communicate Messages That Matter

February 2023
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Every year around this time, I’m reminded of how much strategic communications and New Year’s resolutions have in common. Stick with me — I promise this analogy connects.

For both, it’s a great time to reset, identify annual goals and map out a strategy to achieve them. But then February rolls around, and we’re reminded: Setting the agenda is one thing; sticking to it is an entirely different ballgame.

The plan may make sense in a vacuum but not stand up to the rigors of daily life. All we’re left with is exercise equipment gathering dust in the corner and a gameplan in the digital recycling bin.

Keeping a strategic vision on track while partners across the organization are lobbing requests over the fence with “urgent” subject lines and tight deadlines is challenging. However, communicators who effectively build and wield influence can consult across the company, stay above the fray and keep the bigger picture in mind. 

Easier said than done. How do you support teams across the business without being pigeonholed as a “doer” rather than a strategic arm of the business? Let’s start with something simple.

Don’t underestimate the power of a strategy meeting.

You likely already have regular tactical meetings on the books with leaders, stakeholders and business partners. Rather than trying to squeeze strategy into those practical half-hours throughout your week, schedule a separate, quarterly check-in where strategy is the focal point. 

Strategy should consistently be discussed and evaluated throughout the year, not just in January. Setting aside this time is a great way to keep your vision at the forefront.

And speaking of reporting, don’t underestimate the importance of carefully tracked metrics. 

Tie results to every activity.

In communications, you’re always going to be faced with people requesting quick turns and support on projects unrelated to your strategy. However, when you’re intentional about measuring and tracking how each project makes progress toward company objectives, it becomes far easier to consult to partners. 

Armed with tangible evidence of what worked and what didn’t, communicators can steer stakeholders toward sound strategy, which ultimately builds trust. 

The next time a stakeholder thinks they need support that pulls you away from your goals, you’ll have the data to suggest that maybe they don’t.

Avoid pitfalls.

When navigating conversations with stakeholders like that, there are two main ways communicators can go wrong. These sit at different ends of the spectrum, but each can create real problems and undermine your influence. 

  1. Saying “yes” too much: When communicators say “yes” to every request without providing strategic input and direction, they become order-takers, often ending up managing tactics that don’t move the needle toward any real outcomes. 
  2. Saying “no” too much: On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve also seen communicators who prefer to say “no” to all requests for the sake of maintaining a sense of control over their purview. However, this results in communications teams that end up doing little that impacts real change and can make them an afterthought of the business. 

I counsel teams to strike a happy medium. Look for ways to say “yes,” but don’t do it in a vacuum. When you know what you want to accomplish, communicators can examine incoming requests, figure out how they could be reframed to fit within your agenda and then tie them back to your strategic priorities. 

Like improv, communicators who lean into a “yes and” approach can build trust and create a more cohesive story.

It requires additional time and energy to intentionally bring people along, but the more buy-in you achieve by providing sound consultation, the more likely you are to succeed. 

Look around and be ready to pivot.

One of the benefits of providing communications support to different arms of the business is the opportunity to have sightlines across the organization. You don’t know what you don’t know, so stop and look around when you can. Listen for information, even if it doesn’t seem directly applicable. You never know when it suddenly might be. 

This is a great way to avoid being caught off guard at the eleventh hour, and it provides a chance to proactively offer support on major initiatives. The earlier you’re brought into the conversation, the more effectively you’ll be able to steer the strategy. These actions can have a direct impact on earning you a seat at the table, which generates influence. 

Similarly, go to all the events and gatherings you can. Attend the all-hands meetings. Take advantage of town halls and webinars. Ask to attend the staff meeting of a department you support. 

If your CEO is speaking externally, tune in and listen. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist. The more information you gather, the easier it’ll be to piece together a holistic, relevant strategy that drives the business forward. 

Look for opportunities to help your clients brainstorm and raise your hand to participate in planning conversations happening around you.

Leverage and apply information.

The more information and context you have, the better your questions will be, and asking good questions leads to compelling communications and strategic stories. 

So next time a business partner approaches you requesting an email about their latest initiative, you’re equipped to ask more than just “What information would you like included?” and “When is it due?” Instead, you can ask things like:

  • How does this tie back to the company’s objectives?
  • How can we weave this into the broader plan?
  • How might we position this in alignment with our mission and values?

When communicators adhere to a strategy, wield their influence and consult to the organization, the stories they’re telling are more likely to matter to their audience. 

Rather than just churning out content for the sake of content and crossing items off a companywide to-do list, messages become more strategic, more cohesive and are more likely to be remembered. 

And you’ll get more mileage out of your strategy than that dusty treadmill. 

Return to Current Issue Writing & Storytelling | February 2023
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