How to Scale Internal Communications

When a business has 10 employees separated by the span of their arms, internal communications are as easy as an extra stretch and a shoulder tap. But as a company expands, the need for more structured – and regularly scheduled – communication grows as well.

Without a plan for developing this core competency, those casually outstretched arms will soon feel like frantic flailings in the deep end. Never fear though! By scaling your perspective, those spastic arms will become a synchronized stroke.

1. The Micro View – Laying the Foundation

Start with the nuts and bolts by developing a communications calendar that identifies:

• Your audience (all employees, salesforce only, senior managers, etc.)
• Your channel (print, online, video, event)
• Your content (earnings, announcement, success story, etc.)

Next, create a one-page document with the processes for each channel – from developing an idea through securing content, approvals and production. In this stage, take the time to create templates that will make your life much easier down the road, from standard PowerPoints to sample event agendas with content slots (State of the Business, Department updates, Q&A, etc.).

The key to success in this stage is not perfection, but execution. Just start swimming, but don’t worry if your backstroke isn’t completely straight. Once you start a regular communications schedule, you’ll quickly see what adjustments you need to make so you can stop hitting the wall with your head.

2. The Macro View – Incorporating Best Practices

Now that your feet are a little wet, it’s time to find out how other swimmers are doing. This means making time for your own professional development, through online seminars, conferences, and networking events so you can see what’s working in other companies, such as virtual town halls, employee-generated meeting content, internal TED-style presentations. Reach out to these fellow communications professionals to hear some fresh perspectives and share some of your own.

Someone somewhere has an idea you can use – or a problem you can help solve.

3. The Meta View – Plugging into the Zeitgeist

Whether it’s gamification, three-way communication, portfolio careers, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster, the trends that shape our daily lives have an impact on the people you’re communicating with. Your employees have a life outside of the organization, where advertising, pop culture, politics, economics and more all play a role. To keep your communications efforts relevant, you’ll need to incorporate these external forces into your internal efforts.

If reality shows are all the range, picture how your senior leaders might respond to a humorous all-in-one-house opening video. If selfies are “the thing”, create a contest for the best customer service video filmed on a smart phone. Even those Buzzfeed surveys can be a fun way to engage your employees and give you an opportunity to drive home some strategic content. Just imagine what messages you could deliver through a “What Kind of Company Mascot Are You?” survey.

Without structure, your internal communications are just treading water. But with the right view, you’ll be swimming your way to success in no time.

Finding The Extra Spark

It’s easy to send an email blast, but if you want your idea/initiative/announcement to have real impact, you need to use your company’s catalysts.

You’ve seen them – the people who seem to know everyone, see everything and be everywhere. Identified not by title, but by the influence they have, these employees are information hubs for the rest of the organization.

So if you want an idea to spread, you need to tap into their vast network.

Catalysts combine respect with likability – that’s why they are so popular – and influential. They don’t really chug the company Kool-Aid, but instead sip it like a fine wine. If you’re not sure who these people are, ask for recommendations. You’ll soon see the same names being mentioned across the organization.

Using Them at Your Next Event

Pre- and post-event communications usually follow a familiar pattern –

An email – “Hey! Our meeting is coming up!”
App updates – “Here’s what we’re doing!”
A video – “Wow! Look how much fun we had!”

It’s time to change that.

Your catalysts can be a powerful channel for delivering great content to your audience. It takes a little more planning, but will go a long way in engaging your audience.

1. Invite your catalysts to special pre-event meetings.
Consciously or not, your catalysts have worked hard to achieve their elevated status. Why not reward them with an insider track as your plan your next event by inviting them to your brainstorm or planning session?

2. Encourage Two-way Communication
Ask them for their input, then show how you can incorporate it. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, so make sure that you’re listening as much as you’re talking.

3. Provide Talking Points
These are omnidirectional communication channels, so feed them plenty of content to spread your words. But also remember that they are busy, with jobs to do, so keep the talking points simple. Three supporting bullets for each main subject is a good rule of thumb.

4. Co-Create with Them
Since they already have an informal platform, imagine the power of an official one – an intranet blog, participation in a video, or a presentation slot at your upcoming event. Better yet, ask them how they would like to communicate what they know with other employees.

5. Instill a Little Friendly Competition
The best get better by the company they keep. Solicit their ideas for what would make the next meeting even better. Give them parameters so they have a clear idea of what the deliverable can be. (“Elephant rides, no. Employee-provided TED talks, yes.”) After implementing them, take a survey as to what resonated with attendees and then give a prize – and credit – to the catalyst with the winning idea.

6. Make them Look Good
Find ways to showcase their pet projects. This may be something at work – their team’s performance, for example, or an extracurricular activity, like the soup kitchen they volunteer at on the weekend. It’s a simple way of saying thank you for the time they’ve invested with you.

7. Show Them Off
After the event, give them a chance to share what their takeaways were from the event – both the planning process and the meeting itself. And if your budget allows, take your Influencers on tour with a road show. Sure, it’s important for executives to be visible, but it’s equally important to promote your catalysts.

Catalysts are a powerful – but often overlooked – group. By tapping into their network, you’ll create more bang for your internal buck.

Creating More Zing for Zigzag Employees

Company loyalty has gone the way of Polaroids and hypercolor shirts – once the rage, they’re now just a faded memory.

Employees that would have developed their career within a single company now seek opportunities that will amplify their skill set, whether with their current company or outside of it. Constantly on the lookout for the next big thing that will boost their visibility or bootstrap them to a better gig, they know that success in today’s economy means the one who has the most experience wins.

They are agile, attention-challenged, and addicted to high performance.

And, they are one of your most valuable assets.

Engaging this group comes not from persuading them to stay for the long haul, but by making the time they are with the company mutually beneficial, including time spent in internal meetings.

The same-old-same-old will drive this group away faster than you can say, “greener grass.” So challenge yourself to find new ways to connect with this cohort with the following approaches:

1.       Convincing Content

From senior leadership’s opening remarks to the supporting media within, every content element should connect the “big idea” – the new strategy, focus, BHAG – to what it means for the audience.  Less “WIFM” – what’s in it for me – and more “WIFMWP – “what’s in it for my work portfolio”?

Go beyond “a more innovative culture” or “increased efficiency” to the specific work opportunities and skills that will come from the new strategy/focus/BHAG.

Tip: Find stories that feature employee successes directly tied to a skillset or opportunity. People love seeing themselves on screen, even when they’re just thinking, “That’ll be me soon.”

2.       Free Flow

When designing the agenda, schedule time for internal networking…but not your grandfather’s networking, the structured kind with a project and desired outcomes, like building a ship from parts in a “mystery box”.

Trust your attendees enough to give them unstructured networking time – to either form new connections or strengthen existing ones.

Tip: Distribute the agenda before the event so individuals can schedule meetings ahead of time. And clearly label this allotted time, “Networking”, as opposed to “Break” so employees know they will have ample time to take care of business…and business, because who you know is just as important as what you know

3.       Bonus Breakouts

Deep dives within a functional team are clearly important, but so are cross-functional sessions that span divisions. Imagine the discussions that could happen if a skills breakout – like Contract Management, Negotiation, and Marketing – brought together individuals from different teams.

Can’t picture it?  That’s the point. After all, if you already have a sense of the answer, why bother with the question? The discussions that come out of these meetings can spark new ways to work or solve existing problems, which is why they are so valuable.

Tip: Solicit suggestions from attendees before the event for the expertise they would like to develop. Then, build the breakout content around the responses to give attendees the most value for the time they invested.

Making each moment matter takes some extra work, but it’s the individual moments that do make our work matter.

No matter where that work may take us.

The 7 D’s of Delivering Great Meetings

How many times have you been asked to create a meeting that is “fresh”, “innovative” and “relevant”?

You may answer with a confident, “no problem!” But internally, you’re wondering what these words really mean for your next event. In fact, you may immediately go down a road of rethinking the agenda, seating, breakout sessions, etc.

But this misses a critical first step.

You need a plan.

Without it, you risk throwing random ideas at a moving target. Not exactly a receipt for success.  Instead, use the following process to generate targeted ideas that not only meet your audience’s needs but also preserve your team’s sanity.

1.       Discover

Find out what your stakeholders want, from your senior level speakers to your first-time attendees. This can be done easily via survey or a series of brief interviews. Ask questions like:

  • What meeting activities are most important to you?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • How do you like to give/receive information?

2.       Define

Clearly articulate what you are doing – for example, a 2-day meeting, a global town hall, or an executive roadshow. And be sure to identify any pre-established parameters, such as location and duration, or elements, such as a general session or awards recognition, so you and your team know how big the sandbox is and what toys are in it.

3.       Discuss

This is your brainstorming period – with some guidelines. Specify a length of time to blue sky ideas for each element or parameter, including whether the element should be removed all together.  It is also important to incorporate any information gathered in the Discovery Phase.

4.       Develop

Ideas without a plan of execution are just sticky notes on a wall. Too often brainstorming comes up with big ideas that generate big high fives, but then can’t be brought to fruition. Eliminate this potential roadblock by making the “how” part of your brainstorm. If any information is lacking – “Does anyone know the max file size for our intranet?” – assign someone to get the answer and report back to the team.

5.       Decide

Now is the time to cull your ideas, determine which fit within your organization’s culture, budget and abilities. Save any ideas that don’t make the final cut for a later discussion. You may discover that they are appropriate for a difference project or may serve as the catalyst for another idea.

6.       Deliver

Present your ideas to primary stakeholders, with a brief overview of the thought process, needs met, and anticipated response. Keep the discussion high-level, delving into the details when asked, but being careful not to overwhelm with minutiae.

7.       Debrief

After the event, meet with the same brainstorm team to review how well the ideas worked and what could be improved.  This provides the foundation for brainstorming your next event, which will, no doubt, be even better than your last.

By bringing more structure to your brainstorm session, you and your team can design a meeting that is as easy to ponder as it is to produce.

Yes, Virginia. Stories Still Matter

At a recent rehearsal for a national sales meeting, a Marketing Director launched into a new campaign with a very thorough – yet painfully dry – overview of the project’s development. As he clicked through his PowerPoint – chock-full of segmentation data and charts – all I could think was, “Wow, this is really dull.”

Midway through his presentation, I stopped him.

“Hey Dan,” I started. “Was there ever a moment when you thought this campaign wouldn’t happen?”

He stopped pacing, squinting into the lights overhead, then took a few steps forward.

“Yeah,” he sighed.  “Right at the outset.  We were looking for people – real people – to feature in our campaign, but it’s a really sensitive subject.  I remember we had reached out to our network for recommendations and our contacts kept reassuring us that people would come, but…”

He shook his head.

“We’d booked this hotel conference room in Ohio – you know, ‘The Heartland’ – to meet people.  It was January, record low temperatures and the room had a chill.  We were expecting at least 20 people to interview and there was no one.  Just me, sitting there, watching the hours roll by. I kept checking my phone for messages, walked over to the front desk…nothing.

“It was a complete failure.

“I started packing up, wondering how I was going to explain this to my boss when in walks this guy, Steve – out of breath, apologetic. His car wouldn’t start, then he couldn’t catch a cab, so he ended up taking a bus, then a train to get to me. He didn’t have his phone or he would have called…Poor guy, he was so flustered. But all he wanted to know is whether I still wanted to talk to him.”

I took off my coat and poured him a cup of coffee.  Then I listened for the next hour about how the work that we do changed his life.  I’ll never forget it.”

He cleared his throat, coming back into the room.

“Open with that,” I told him.  “It shows how high the stakes were and how much this project means not just to you, but to your customers.”

The next day he told an abbreviated version of that story. During the break, he was surrounded by audience members who thanked him for his perseverance. Maybe they wouldn’t remember the specific metrics around the studies underpinning the campaign, but they knew how much this project meant to the company…and to Dan.

Just as Dan would always remember Steve, the audience would always remember Dan.

Stories instantly connect speakers to their audience, which is why they are such popular openers.  The stories that work best follow a simple formula:

Beginning + middle + end

Help your presenters identify the main character, the challenge overcome, and their reason for telling that particular story, and your presenters will thank you.

They may even tell a story about it.