Business communication is one of the key foundations of success, along with trust, focus and plenty of hustle.
You know this, right? Everyone knows it. It’s not rocket science. Rainforests have made way for the books, articles and theses written about it. So why are so many companies and execs bad at it?
Mainly because it’s hard. Even if you figure out what good communication looks like, it’s unlikely you’ll put it into practice with everyone all the time. Focus on customers and your employees may be neglected, and vice-versa.
And then, the big kahuna challenge: different personality types.
I remember a training session I did in my 20s at Hill & Knowlton. Working off a Myers Briggs type indicator questionnaire the facilitators had us work in groups to fix a problem.
First time around, we were teamed with people that shared the same personality type and it was fun. We communicated easily, almost spookily so. It was taken as read what needed doing and how we should get there.
Then the groups were scattered and reassembled with diametrically opposed personality types. Yeesh. Not so fun. There was conflict almost from the get-go, with introverts and extroverts clashing over perceived slights, misunderstandings and opposing views of how to do things right.
The session ended with a lot of crossed arms and crosser faces. But the point had been well made. It doesn’t matter how charming, articulate and friendly you might be, communication is something you have to work at every day.
There’s no character flaw at play when ‘they’ choose not to listen. A lot of people are just wired differently to us – it’s what makes life interesting as well as a challenge.
As George Bernard Shaw once said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.”
You need to know you’ll never master it – the best you can hope for is to be better than the competition.
Practical tips to better communication
Let’s start with an obvious caveat: no guide to effective communication can be written in 500 words. This is meant as a starting point for discussion and maybe to give you some ideas as to where to focus improvement in the short term.
We’ve looked at the ‘why’ do we need to look at this, so let’s consider the who, what and how.
Let’s start with an easy one. Who do I need to do a better job of communicating with? Simple: everyone that impacts my business. Some obvious stakeholders include:
— Staff and suppliers
— Customers and prospects
— Influencers like media and bloggers
Customers and staff are crucial to pretty much any company. Depending on where you are in your funding journey, investors might be equally important. If you operate in a highly controlled industry like finance or kids’ products then you need to make sure regulators are on board.
The important thing is not to neglect any one group. At the very least, set up a monthly newsletter that’s sent to every segment of your database that has news and other features that are of interest to them. It’s not a huge amount of work and it’ll make sure everyone feels like they matter.
We recently helped Albion VC with a study on workplace culture in fast-growth tech startups. The report’s authors advised founders to …’communicate about the business as much as possible.’
Specifically, this should include customer wins, new hires, case studies, new products and partnerships – and the opening of an awesome new sandwich shop down the street.
Beyond the specifics, however, it is important to constantly reinforce a strategic narrative. This is described in the Albion study as being ‘…made up of a compelling vision, an ambitious purpose and a set of unique, authentic values that help guide behaviour.’
It should also describe ‘…strategic ‘anchors’ that explain how the company will be successful and the differentiators that will enable it to stand out from the competition. Finally, it sets out a clear roadmap outlining the activities and milestones needed to deliver the company’s products and services to customers.’
The ways in which businesses communicate are pretty straightforward. There are ‘owned’ channels where you control the message and distribution:
— Company events
— Advertising and promotions
And there are ‘earned’ channels where you forfeit ownership of the message in exchange for someone else’s distribution and reach. Unlike advertising and paid promotions, this is almost always free of charge. They include:
— Media – online and off
— Influencers (social media, analysts, commentators, etc)
— Industry events
All communications strategies should combine both owned and earned channels to get the message across as effectively and efficiently as possible.
The challenges of success
As your company grows, it acquires more customers, staff, investors and other stakeholders. Along with a greater volume of people, there is likely a greater amount of news and other information that you either want (or are obliged) to talk about.
With employees now in several offices, with many working remotely, employee communications can no longer rely on yelled instructions across the room, or industry gossip exchanged at the ping pong table.
Customers are no longer restricted to a couple of organisations in the same city. Clients might now be operating in different time zones around the world, in different vertical markets, using your solutions in radically different ways.
Investors might now include a grizzled VC and ball-breaking PE alongside your great uncle Charlie who threw in £20k at seed stage.
So how do we do a better job of communicating with this ever-growing crowd of people?
Tell a story
As we’ve described in detail elsewhere, the easiest way to connect with the people that matter is by telling a story. Broadly speaking, it breaks down into three main parts:
— Where are we headed – what’s the better world we’re leading people toward?
— What’s the opportunity – for us and others?
— Are we on track – what are the milestones we’re passing along the way
Interact, don’t broadcast
Peter Drucker once said the most important thing in communication is “…hearing what isn’t said.” Make sure you create feedback loops – for example, pulse audits – to make sure messages are understood, gauge opinions and suggest improvements.
Tailor your messages
When it comes to communication, one size does not fit all.
Make sure you segment your databases for both internal and external audiences. For customers, drill down by size, market, purchase cycle and quality of relationship.
Next, put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re communicating with. Create a persona for each segment – an archetype that allows you to picture a real human being as you’re creating content for them.
Think carefully of the language and the storytelling techniques that are most likely to engage different personas and apply them to personalised email and other campaigns.
Tools and automation
Use marketing automation to learn what they’re interested in and feed them more of it. Score prospects based on engagement so you can present qualified leads to the sales team.
Few people sit at their desk wishing they had more meetings to go to. Most start without an agenda or any clear sense of purpose, and there are always more people in the room than need to be.
So whether it’s an all-hands team meeting or a get-together with clients, the same thinking applies. Does it need to be face-to-face or would a call or video conference do the trick? Who needs to be there? What do we need to get out of the meeting and what materials do we need to frame the discussion? Create guidelines and provide training on meeting etiquette and efficiency.