Communication ≠ Talk

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 27th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I learned at a very early age the importance of clear communication, be it verbal or written. My parents, both journalists, not only allowed me to develop a comfort with and confidence in my writing, they also taught me the value of the basic Ws of journalism, backed by specifics and evidence, even when you weren’t writing a journalistic piece: who, what, where, when, and why. They knew that clear communication was the path to understanding.

I’ve found that most people who are responsible for the “important” and “official” communication in a nonprofit could greatly benefit from a good, basic journalism class on writing and communicating. It is amazing to me how many situations wouldn’t have blown up, how many misunderstandings and rumors could have been prevented, if communication had come sooner and been clearer. It is equally amazing to me how many times when asked how could situation A, B—right through Z—have been better handled, people respond with that simple, one-word answer: communication.

This summer, students in my Masters level governance and leadership class affirmed the fact that too often communication is a large part of a better solution. (I don’t want to suggest for a minute that good, clear communication is the solution to the problems that ail an organization, but it absolutely must be part of the solution.) With each module of the class, I created a “governance mistakes” discussion board focusing on the particular topic at hand (i.e., relationship between the board and the executive director; financial oversight responsibilities, etc.). My thought was to give students the chance to call out the problems they witnessed with their own boards and allow them to play consultant to the problems identified by their classmates. Whenever I asked the pointed question of what could/should have been done differently to correct the problem, the most common response, and from multiple students, was better communication. Boards think they do a lot of communicating when, in fact, they are simply doing a lot of talking.

One of the things about journalistic communication that too many others don’t consider before starting a communique is the purpose of the communication. Even before a journalist goes to put fingers to keyboard, s/he knows what his/her purpose is in writing the story: to educate and inform the reader about the who, what, where, when, and why. If board members knew what the purpose of the board discussion was (which speaks to the importance of clearly communicating the larger roles and responsibilities of board members and the clear communication of goals for each board meeting via the board meeting agenda) and, thus, could know what they were trying to accomplish before they started talking, there could be more communicating, less talking, and more would get accomplished.

But don’t for a minute think that it is just board members who suffer from an inability to communicate clearly and well. Sadly, this challenge permeates the entire organizational chart. There is a lot of talking in organizations right next to a huge failure to communicate. This becomes most pronounced during those very times when communication is most needed—those times of crisis: you can see lots of talking but very little communication. And yet it is good communication that allows people to understand and move through a situation, even one in flux, with a semblance of control and dignity.
Of late, I’ve been spending a lot of time focusing on the who, what, when, where, and why of people’s communication and it has come up way short. I’ve a number of suggestions that folks might want to consider as they craft one piece of communication, a campaign, a comprehensive strategy, etc. And while some of them may be a “Duh!” they clearly aren’t or they wouldn’t have made the list. They follow in no particular order.

1. Respect the intelligence of your audience. Nothing will close down a person’s eyes or ears faster than even the hint of condescension and being treated like children (if you are an adult). At that point, it doesn’t matter how good the rest of your message might be, it won’t be heard.
2. Know your end goal(s). Before you start to craft your words, regardless of whether they will be delivered orally or in print, know what you wish to accomplish. Do you want to simply inform and, if so, to what end? to allay angst? to provide tools? to inspire and energize? to encourage or discourage dialogue? etc. Then allow that end goal to direct your crafting, indicating what should stay in the message and what should be left out.
3. Don’t tell your audience what you are going to do – just do it. When I started reading nonfiction books with introductions, it didn’t take long to realize that reading the intros was a waste of time. An introduction simply tells you what you are going to read about in the upcoming chapters. By the time you finish the introduction, you could be halfway through the first chapter. So, for example, don’t tell your audience you want to be transparent and open – deliver! Give data, answers to questions, answer questions with data.
4. Timing is everything. The frequency of communication depends upon that end goal. If you want to keep people with you and on your side through a change—be it a physical move, personnel changes, shift in direction, etc., regular, frequent communication works. Short, clear, packed with useful information that quells nerves and defines progress. A key element of timing is to stay ahead of the leaks and rumors.
5. Good public communication respects the dignity of others. If you don’t get this, there’s nothing that I can explain to help.
6. If you want something of others, give them the tools to provide it. To a very great extent, this has to do with knowing your audience. You may know what you are looking for from others, you may know how to get there, but don’t presume that your audience does. Provide real and specific suggestions, offer supports, “draw” a road map. Don’t put the burden on others to give you what you want/need.
7. Once you’ve issued your communication, don’t stop listening. It isn’t deliver and run; its deliver your message and listen for and to the response. Was the goal achieved? the message accurately heard? ready to move on? Or, is there more work to be done, lessons to be learned? If you treat your message like a grenade don’t be surprised by the aftermath.

Whether in a crisis or just moving along normally, the purpose of communication is to move things forward with clarity. Communication must be about the audience, not the author.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.