7 Steps to Creating An Effective Internal Communications Plan

A smart internal communications plan can serve as a launching point for achieving continual growth, alignment and impact across your team over time. Here’s a 7-step plan to developing your own.

“It’s so ironic,” sighed Angela, a campaign director with a large civil rights organization. We were sitting in her sun-lit board-room discussing the results of a new organizational assessment. “We’ve just led one of the most successful anti-discrimination campaigns in the state. But half of our staff barely know the story, other than what they read in our news releases. The other half know all about it – but couldn’t talk about our organizational vision if their lives depended on it.” She looked up. “We’ve got to do a better job of communicating with our own people.”

 

Sometimes the most effective spokespeople and media relations experts “fall down” when it comes to reaching their own internal audiences. The good news is, we already know what makes communication effective. We live in a world that demands it: being inundated with messaging 24/7 has forced us to become sophisticated consumers of messaging and communications. We just need to apply that same knowledge to our own teams. Whether it’s a simple intra-office memo or communications around a transformational change initiative, here are the basic components of an effective internal communications plan.

1. Clarify your purpose

For specific communications, get specific about your purpose. For example, is the message being delivered for information only, to generate feedback, to generate new ideas, or is a specific action required?

2. Clarify your desired outcome(s)

Do you need a response in writing by a certain time or prior to a particular event? Are you seeking a list of 3-5 new ideas? How specific can you reasonably be about how you will define success? This step is essential for identifying the benchmarks and metrics you’ll use to evaluate your results.

3. Know your audience

  • Identify your target audience. Who exactly do you need to reach? Is it ‘everyone in the organization’ – or are the most important people, in fact, a few key influencers or opinion leaders (which has nothing to do with positional power, necessarily), individuals with specific skills, or one or two key decision-makers?
  • Meet them where they’re at. What do they already know, believe or feel about the issue? If you’re talking about a brand-new concept, then a little informational background will be essential. If they are aware of the issue, but highly skeptical, then your messages and framing will need to address that, not just gloss over it.

4. Develop the strategy

  • Identify pathways. What are the most effective pathways for reaching your particular target audience(s)? Is it email? Written memos (remember those?) A phone call? Face to face meeting? Intranet? Social media? Cloud platforms such as google drive? Hard copy memos inserted into payroll packages? A display board in the staff common room?
  • Consider messengers. Also ask: who’s the most effective messenger? It may not be you. It may not be the most senior executive. Does your audience instead need to hear the message from a trusted peer? Do you need internal champions to move the issue forward?

5. Develop the message

Now that you’ve identified and ‘profiled’ your audience, develop your message. It should be short, clear, compelling, and ideally, visual. It is very likely positive – focused on what the team is for, rather than what it’s against. If you deliver the message through stories, it will almost certainly be ‘sticky’ – both memorable and high-impact.

6. Deliver the message

Effective communications are really about delivering the right message, to the right audience, at the right time – often many times. So plan it out. Here are some elements to think about:

  • People power: Who needs to do what, by when? Who is the decision-maker? Who needs to be consulted? Who needs to be informed? Who’s doing the actual work? Is there a lead, or internal ‘project manager’ to ensure the work is proceeding as planned?
  • Timing: When is the optimum time to deliver the message? How often does it need to be repeated?
  • Resources: How much time will it take – and are there other resources required? How is this work reflected on internal workplans, if at all?
  • Metrics: How will you know the message is received? How will you know the desired results are being achieved? When and how are you scheduling evaluation along the way (see below)?

7. Evaluate and learn

Don’t just identify metrics for tracking progress – revisit them on a regular basis. Use what they teach you. Build evaluation into monthly and quarterly reviews, for example. And include it as a routine practice or group norm: for instance, at every staff meeting, include a standing agenda item that has the team reflect on its internal communications. Include tracking questions on annual internal organizational surveys. Questions could be as simple as: How well are we communicating our organizational vision? How well are we keeping one another abreast of one another’s work and results? How are we doing with having “courageous’ conversations” in a timely, skillful way? How are we doing with email brevity and appropriateness? How are we doing with the preparation and use of well-crafted briefing notes? Insanity has been defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Building in evaluation at every level of your communications will interrupt any bias toward activities and help teams focus on results. With routinized evaluation, your internal communications, and therefore your internal alignment and collective ability to get things done, will continually improve.

Sample Plans

Here’s a great multi-agency plan for a set of child-focused Irish agencies attempting to collaborate more effectively. There are clear, high–level messages, a broad but clear set of audiences and a list of tactics tailored somewhat for each audience, plus a broad-stroke timeline. The challenge with the plan is its lack of metrics – how will they measure success?

The ITSMF, a forum for Information Technology professionals, offers a great internal communications plan to its members. Out of respect for its chapter model, it is not overly prescriptive, but does suggest useful types of metrics that could form the basis for continual evaluation.

The global organization Civicus also offers a short, useful case study on pages 17-19 of its internal communications toolkit. Evaluation is mentioned under “next steps”, with specific reference to a follow-up survey to track results over time.

Still Feeling Triggered? This will help…

Everyone gets triggered. Effective leaders need to know how to shift from those reactive states to access their true wisdom and skills. Still, sometimes it’s good not to take it all too seriously….

Everyone gets triggered. Effective leaders need to know how to shift from those reactive states to access their true wisdom and skills. Still, sometimes it’s good not to take it all too seriously….  

‘Interpersonal Leadership Styles’ Assessment for High Functioning, Collaborative Teams

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ILS teaches how to ‘flex’ for different styles

“Wow,” said Robert, looking over at me with a big smile. “They are REALLY loving this!”  Robert Gass, master facilitator and co-founder of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, sat beside co-trainer Gibran Rivera and I in the sunlit meeting room at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, high in the mountains of Colorado. The three of us were watching our hilarious, brilliant colleague, Jose Acevedo, exuberantly leading a group of 24 leaders through a half-day training on Interpersonal Leadership Styles. It is one of the most popular modules in Rockwood’s year-long Leading from the Inside Out program for national non-profit leaders.  Four groups of participants were clustered around flipcharts in in each corner of the room. The energy of each group was remarkably different: some were laughing and punching one another on the shoulders, others were fiercely debating, some pondering silently and gently offering suggestions to one another, as they reflected on their different working styles.  And they were, indeed, loving it.

In fact, I have heard back now from dozens of leaders about the power and impact of having gone through a team-wide training in Interpersonal Leadership styles. Why? People walk away with a keener sense of their blind spots and their strengths as leaders – and of their team-mates’. Rather than feeling judged for those differences, or limited by narrow definitions (something I had feared), it turns out that participants become vastly more appreciative, not just tolerant, of one another’s differences.

The ability to work across difference and to harvest the gifts those differences bring is an essential skill for today’s leaders.  Leaders simply must become adept at recognizing and working with not only differences of power and rank as expressed through race, sexual orientation, class, and ability, but differences in style.  Interpersonal Leadership Styles, or ILS, is an accessible tool that supports this kind of learning. And it offers immediate take-aways in terms of how to flex, even in periods of stress, to make the most of one anothers’ unique perspectives.

Interpersonal Leadership Styles is one of several typologies over the past several decades based on the work of Jung and others, to help map out the different leadership styles individuals tend to bring to their teams. Other typologies you may have heard of include Myers-Briggs, Colby, or DISC. It turns out they are all based on largely the same body of Jungian-based social science research – just packaged differently. But the concept isn’t new. In fact, the Chinese first invented work-related typologies over 4,000 years ago, to help assign civil servants to appropriate roles based on their unique styles and aptitudes.

I and most of my other fellow leadership trainers at Rockwood chose to get certified in ILS because, compared to other systems, we found it simpler to grasp and apply immediately. Most of the sessions I facilitate are between 2.5 and 3 hours, although full-day versions are also offered by many of Stratton Consultants’ licensees.  And while at first I resisted pursuing certification in any such system, I became convinced after repeatedly observing the power of teams who embrace their stylistic differences.

For more information about ILS, contact Stratton Consulting.

Your brain on stories

Why are some stories are stickier than others? Much of the answer lies in our neurological wiring. Studies show that stories engaging the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate the same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers.

brain-iStock_000004321955XSmallWhy are some stories ‘stickier’ than others?  I pondered the question while I sat at my desk, sipping the steaming hot Nicaraguan coffee we brought back from holiday a few weeks ago. My puppy’s fuzzy black head rested heavily on my bare foot, and I was getting ready for a conference call, when my colleague Nina forwarded this wonderful post about story-telling and the senses.  Serendipity!  When communications strategist and writer Nina Winham and I taught a session on communicating sustainability last year, I pushed our participants to tell stories that didn’t just have a ‘beginning, middle and an end’, but more importantly, activated the senses. “Describe the setting”, I urged; “the light, the temperature, the atmosphere. Who was there?  What did they look like? What were they doing?  How did it feel, to be there?  Were there any scents in the air? Sounds”?

According to an emerging body of research in the neurosciences, stories that activate the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate those same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers.  That’s why, in advocacy communications, there’s such a vast difference between communicating the meaning of something (“our aging communities deserve  better access to health care”) versus leading with stories that paint pictures in the listener’s minds (“yesterday my 83 year old mother clutched her throbbing, broken right wrist for six hours as we waited for a doctor’s care in the jam-packed emergency room at St. Vince’s hospital…”).   Check out this powerful infographic that shows how specific regions of the brain ‘light up’ when presented with sensory-loaded story-telling. By activating the senses through our words, we are putting the listener in the picture – almost literally putting them in the center of their own story. When it comes to effective stories, whether it’s a quick aside or mention of just one sensory quality (“it was a sunny Spring morning”) or a more complex narrative, every sense counts.

“Formula” for writing a compelling speech (or Op-Ed)

Here’s a simple but powerful “formula” for writing a solid speech or op-ed. I’ve adapted it from the framework taught to me by veteran editor David Beers in the context of writing op-eds. It works: in my years supporting non-profits in their media and marketing work, every op-ed I wrote using this basic formula was placed successfully.

The AnnoucementA few months ago my teenaged son was struggling with getting started on a speech for his English class. He had a stack of research notes and a ton of ideas (who knew that a tree sloth can hold its breath underwater for up to 40 minutes?), but was at a loss as to how pull it all together. I explained that early in my communications career, my friend and mentor, veteran journalist David Beers, laid out a simple but brilliant formula for writing op-eds. Over several years helping non-profit leaders create and place op-eds, I found it to be nearly foolproof. Happily, I discovered that the formula is also fantastic for getting started on a compelling speech. And while a beautifully crafted speech defies any pat formula, a simple framework can help get those creative and intellectual juices flowing. So, here’s the basic idea, starting with my own addition: beginning with a story. For the rest of it – apologies to David, as I’ve almost certainly mangled his original sage advice!

Here’s the overview, followed by some detail:

  1. Start with a story
  2. Provoke with a compelling hypotheses or main argument
  3. Back it up with 3-5 supporting points or ‘validators’
  4. Describe the solution or call to action
  5. Circle back to the opening hypotheses (or story)

1. Start with a story…

As virtually every communicator should know by now: start with a story. It could be anything: a personal experience, or one recounted to you; a current news story; a hypothetical or fictional story. As the authors of “Made to Stick” describe so well, stories are “sticky” because they engage an audience’s imagination. When we hear a ‘vivid’ story, we literally see pictures in our minds, and in some ways experience the emotions and physical embodiment of the described experience. This dynamic can transform the audience-speaker relationships. As master communicator and brand strategist, Bill Baker, explains, “starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defenses and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you.”

Typically, I encourage speakers to think about a few basic elements: setting and characters (it’s ‘stickier’ to see actual pictures in our minds, not just hear about concepts), some sort of tension or ‘quest’, action, and resolution. There are probably a dozen frameworks or elements taught to help create stories; that’s just one approach. I tend to push the visual. At public speaking trainings for the Center for Progressive Leadership and Simon Fraser University I would ask participants to pair up and tell stories that were so vivid their partners could actually draw something to capture the tale.

Your initial audience engagement doesn’t have to be as rigid as a classic story, however. You could:

  • start with a brief visualization (“picture this: you’re driving along Highway 99, when suddenly…”)
  • ask a question that invites the audience to ponder their own perspective before sharing yours (“How do you discern between a genuine and token apology?”)
  • ask for a show of hands to demonstrate some particular common experience (“how many here arrived by public transit?”)
  • share a powerful quote, or poem
  • read out a topical news headline
  • … or something else

2. Launch into your big compelling hypotheses, position or argument

This is fairly straightforward. What’s your main argument or hypotheses? It should be provocative and compelling in some way. It could just be one statement, like, “When it comes to green tech innovation, Canada is teetering on the cusp of become either a global superstar or an industry laughing stock. Here’s why…”

3. Back it up with supporting points

Next, follow with three to five supporting points or ‘validators’ that back up your main argument. You could transition from the opening position statement above with, “consider this”… then follow with your ‘evidence.’ These supporting points could include statistics, facts, even another story – anything to “back up”, prove or make the case for your key position.

4. Clarify the ‘call to action’

For any kind of social change argument, this is where you lay out the solution: what’s your “call to action”? For whom – who is responsible, and what should they do, exactly? If it’s appropriate, you might also describe the next step. And if there’s a role for the audience to play – even better.

5. Circle back to your opening

Here’s where you wrap it all up with your closing paragraph or statement, circling back to the beginning. Basically, this is where you figuratively say: “Snap! See, that’s why I stand by my argument or position”. It could be a sentence or two related back to your opening story (maybe this is where you roll out the story’s ‘ending’), or your main position, or both.

Beyond the Formula

And again – truly transformational speeches are like works of art – there is no definitive recipe for their creation. For some of the deepest, most powerful resources in the field, check out veteran public speaking trainer Gail Larsen’s Real Speaking site and blog. Gail offers both executive coaching and small-group intensive trainings out of both the US and western Canada (I’ve taken two of her workshops), and her book, Transformational Speaking, is invaluable.

Communicating with your Virtual Team, Part 2: Facilitating Conference Calls

Some of us feel like we spend half our lives in meetings – mostly by conference call. Here are a few tips to make the time snappy and productive.

Last week I facilitated a short planning session by phone for a virtual team. In the brief post-meeting evaluation, I was struck with how happy the group was about such commonplace meeting format. It got me reflecting on a couple of best practices I use as a facilitator to make the most of conference calls:

1. Do a POP: as with any meeting, clarify the Purpose, Outcome and THEN the Process before calling the meeting, and at the beginning of the call. For example:

  • Is the PURPOSE of the call to plan an upcoming strategy session with the whole board – or just to share information?
  • Is the desired OUTCOME to make a clear decision, or simply some shared context across a group that will be planning together in the future?  

Then clarify the PROCESS, especially:

  • What prep is needed? Is there any pre-reading that needs to be circulated in advance? 
  • How long do you have for the total call?
  • What are the priority agenda items?
  • How much time will each topic need?
  • Who is facilitating? Presenting?
  • Who’s taking notes, and how will these be distributed
  • Who’s on the call?

2. Practice “Conocimiento: Always start with a brief check-in.  As my Rockwood co-trainer Michael Bell continually reminds me, “go slow to go fast.”  It’s not just a lovely thing to do: at the end of the day, teams that have taken the time to build trusting human relationships tend to function more efficiently and creatively,  especially during times of crisis, stress or when rapid-response is called for.  So take just a few minutes, even on a conference call, to share appreciations and see how everyone’s doing. One great simple question to ask is, “where are you right now – what are you looking at?”  When we engage our mind’s eye in seeing our fellow callers, it brings us that much closer together, even as disembodied beings.

3. Use frequent “rounds”, and call people out. In a face-to-face meeting, facilitators are trained to do the opposite – we avoid calling on people by name, because it could force some to participate in a large group when they’re not ready or willing; it can be pushy or disrespectful. But on conference calls, I can’t read the body language of people wanting to speak. If I simply ask “what does everyone think”, we risk:

  • Vast, excruciatingly long silences
  • Only hearing from the same 2 brave and hasty souls who happen to jump in really fast each time a question is called
  • Repeatedly having two or more people tripping over one another as they jump in at the same time.

So I keep the list of participants in front of me and simply do ‘rounds’ – calling the name of each person on the call in order.  This is especially important when we’re capturing decisions.

4. Stay abreast of the tech: Technology to facilitate interaction for remote groups is quickly becoming effective and affordable. More groups and trainers I know are now experimenting with Maestro or similar systems aimed at maximizing group participation in a strictly auditory environment (i.e., you can do small group breakouts AND still wear your pajamas!).  They not only allow up to dozens of participants to call in to one central line from anywhere in the world, but people can ‘raise their hands’ to ask questions or offer comments, with the moderator tracking it all on a web-based dashboard. Participants can also be broken out into small groups for more intimate discussion, with auditory facilitators supporting the conversations or ‘lurking’ until needed.  Of course, people can be looking at shared documents at the same time, even using simple web-based collaborative platforms like Google Drive, that allow multiple viewers to edit the same document in real time, with colour-coding or other visual cues indicating who is making what changes.

5. Commit to continual learning:  Even if you don’t have time to do a brief evaluation at the end of every meeting, commit to doing it after every two to three calls.  Honest, direct, kind feedback is the only way individuals and teams can learn about what to keep doing or do more of, and what to avoid, in order to maximize their future performance.  At the end of the day, social change leaders are aiming for results – and a continual practice of giving and receiving skillful feedback can help us achieve more powerful results with less effort in the long run.

For other great tips on virtual teams, see:  http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/04/how_to_avoid_virtual_miscommun.html  and

http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/03/how_to_conduct_a_virtual_meeti.html

Communicating with your Virtual Team, Part 1

Here are a few of my best tips and practices for communicating across virtual teams: when to use email, phone, videoconference and precious face-time to maximize relationships, power and results.

Last week I was in New York co-facilitating a training session on communications in the context of teams, partnership and collaboration. One of our participants raised a familiar question: what do you do when your team is “virtual”?  In fact, either due to budget constraints or concern about their carbon footprint, non-profits are increasingly communicating remotely – and some tips and best practices are floating to the top. Here are just a few:

Face to face: This is still the gold standard of all communication. And, until we’re all sporting our own personalized holoprojectors, this isn’t likely to change. Research shows that more than half of all human communication is conveyed through body language; another third is conveyed through tone. The key for virtual teams is to carefully maximize precious face-time: make it count.  Choose face-to-face meetings for building relationships and  anything requiring creativity, synergy, complex decision-making, any sort of visual planning or strategizing and especially for ‘courageous conversations’ (a ‘courageous conversation’ is one where “opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong”).  For things like basic information-sharing, use well-crafted, pre-circulated briefing notes, webinars, written communication, conference calls – but save your costly face to face time for the high-octane, high priority work that can’t get done well through any other format.

Phone: I confess: when a conversation could get a bit complicated, sometimes my Inner Coward would rather hit the keyboard than risk the more intimate, two-way and possibly lengthier mode of communicating in real-time. Sadly, that ‘safety’ is an illusion. Courageous or complicated conversations often get messier – which gets MORE time-consuming and complicated, not less – due to the sheer limitations of text-only communications. So pick up the damned phone, already!

Better yet: use Skype video or Facetime.  At least then you can benefit from at least choppy and partly pixelated facial expressions to go along with the full range of vocal tone.  In fact, all of my current coaching clients live in other cities – so all of our sessions are by skype video or phone.  This honestly feels almost as impactful as face-to-face – as long as I use the following practices:

  • Make sure I’m in a comfortable, quiet place
  • Turn off all unnecessary devices and monitors. Let’s face it, most of us are completely ADHD now with our devices – so I chooseto get rid of the temptation altogether.
  • If I need my laptop for note-taking, I at least turn off all other programs and close all tabs – again, removing the temptation to get distracted by the endless flow of incoming messages
  • Minimize all visual stimulation (no TV in the background or staring out my window at the unfolding dramas of the street below…)
  • Stay present. Of course, this is really what it’s all about. I strive to practice using the ‘muscle of my attention’, over and over, to come back to the present moment and make the most of our time together as disembodied beings. It makes a MASSIVE difference.

Email: Email is the main way more people over 20 years old communicate. It’s super-efficient, easy to copy and forward to others, easy to include links to further information…  It’s also tricky,  especially for more complex or ‘difficult’ conversations. Did that exclamation mark convey happy tail-wagging enthusiasm – or is the writer shouting at me? Was that period at the end of the sentence a calm, gentle downtone – or an abrupt, sardonic hiss? For any complicated conversations, avoid email. It’s really a last resort, with the greatest potential to create misunderstandings and time-consuming messes that then have to be cleaned up.

For everyday email, please, here are a few basic practices to minimize digital clutter and spare your colleagues the torture of endless unnecessary email threads:

  1. Don’t squander the CC field. Make sure anyone who MUST be copied is – and not one person more
  2. Pause before blithely pounding on the “reply all” key: Really. Does EVERYONE need to know that yes, you liked the article or no, you can’t make the meeting?
  3. POP it: clarify your desired purpose and outcome in the subject line. Is your email for information only? Urgent action? Calendarizing? Feedback? Decision? Start doing this – and better yet, get your whole team to adopt the practice – and you will be an Email Efficiency hero, I promise. It’s smart, helps others focus on what’s important and yields faster results for everyone.
  4. Use “priority flags’ sparingly. Otherwise, you risk sounding endlessly hysterical. Just as bad, you’ll be seen as the kid who ‘cried wolf’ once too often, and everyone will start ignoring your flags anyways.

The power of Testimonials

Testimonials are one of the most powerful tools in an organization or consultant’s promotional toolbox. Knowing this, I’ve gladly written many short endorsements for others over the years. Yet so many of us feel too shy, too busy or just never get around to ensuring we have a steady supply of these first-person endorsements of our own work…

When your organization is searching for consultant, where’s the first place you look? For most of us, we turn first to our trusted colleagues and peers for ‘inside’ stories and perspectives of people we may be considering. But what if a potential recruit doesn’t overlap with our professional networks? In addition to reviewing that recruit’s own CV and bio, many of us then turn to testimonials from past clients or employees who may have similar needs to our own.

That’s why testimonials are one of the most powerful tools in an organization or consultant’s promotional toolbox. Knowing this, I’ve gladly written many short endorsements for others over the years.  Yet so many of us feel too shy, too busy or just never get around to ensuring we have a steady supply of these first-person endorsements of our own work. And I was one of the worst offenders!  Finally, shamed into action when a close colleague recently pointed out that I have no client testimonials on either my website or my blog, I got into gear.  Over the course of a couple of weeks, I asked a number of past and current clients if they’d be willing to write a few sentences about their experience of my work. To my astonishment, every single person I asked readily agreed.  So, finally, I’ve taken the minimal step of posting those testimonials on a separate page on my blog, and put together a few tips for others to consider:

  1. Just ask.  Ask nicely, of course. Clarify that there’s “no pressure” and that you won’t be offended if they don’t respond, don’t have time or don’t feel comfortable – and be sure you mean it!
  2. Make it easy. I took the liberty of dashing a few short bullets to each client outlining the work I’ve done for them (I have a number of long term repeat clients, so it can be easy to lose track). Several used those points as a springboard to their own short paragraphs.
  3. Develop a system. Make it easy for yourself, as well, by ensuring that, once you’ve determined that a client is pleased with the work, you follow your final invoice and/or client evaluation with a request for a short testimonial – while it’s fresh on their minds and yours. Some consultants offer short on-line evaluation surveys, using tools like SurveyMonkey, and include a request for a short endorsement right in the survey.
  4. Share your testimonials! Make sure you publish and use them well. For now, I’ve simply added a single page with all the testimonials I’ve gathered so far in one place.  But the fact is, this is a bare minimum. It’s far more effective to ‘scatter’ your testimonials throughout your site, blog or through other promotional material so that prospective clients, donors or allies have ready access to the good things others have said about your work.

So gather up those testimonials, people!  And check this out: I just stumbled across another fantastic and far more thorough article on using testimonials for marketing, by John Sternal. It’s full of tips on how to gather and use testimonials for small businesses, but just as applicable for many not-for-profits and other organizations.

Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

The Power of the “Message Box”

The classic “message box” is both dead simple and incredibly powerful – which is why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. The concept is also invaluable for developing messages in not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. This short article describes how to create your own message box.

I’m on my way to Halifax getting ready to give a communications workshop at the ALLIES conference on supporting skilled immigrants. There, my colleague Marco Campana and I are focusing on message development and social media. One tool I’ll offer is the classic “message box”. It’s a simple tool to help map out the messaging landscape on an issue, including the clear contrasts between your own core messages, plan and positioning, and that of your opponents.

The concept is both powerful and dead simple – that’s why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. In fact, I was first exposed to it in more detail at the 1999 Campaigns and Elections conference in Washington, D.C. But the message box is also invaluable for not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. Even where there do not appear to be clear “opponents” to a policy solution, there are often unspoken positions that stand in the way of success. Crafting a smart, thoughtful message box will help bring those barriers to the surface, while clarifying the core messages your team seeks to drive home.

Creating your message box
Here’s how to create your message box: draw a square, and divide it into quadrants. Label the upper-left quadrant “Us on Us”; the upper right, “Them on Them”; lower-left “Us on Them”, and lower-right “Them on Us”. That’s the basic framework. It will look like the image on the left. The next step is to then fill it in. To do so, an effective communications campaign will draw on a combination of your campaign team’s values and vision, combined with its deep understanding of the target audiences’ values, beliefs and attitudes (based on thorough research), and a thorough scan of the opposing arguments, plans or positions that may stand in the way. The end result: a message box filled with just a few very short, clear phrases or ideas – usually in the form of 1-5 bullet points for each quadrant.

Us on Us
Let’s start with the first quadrant. What are we saying about ourselves, our issue, or our plan? This is where we distill the core theme and positioning of the campaign –where we describe what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. Sounds simple, right? The irony is that many social change advocates, as well as political folks with a strong history of serving as Official Opposition, are so steeped in what I call a “culture of opposition” that they can find this step surprisingly challenging! But this is the place where we paint a brief but compelling picture about the vision we stand for – a picture our audiences can vividly imagine being part of.

Them on Them
Now turn to the upper right quadrant. What is the “other side” saying about themselves and their position and plan? What is their call to action or solution? Complete the upper right quadrant with 1-5 bullet points, again using the best research available (e.g., based on mainstream and social media scans, or interviews with key opinion leaders). This is another place where I’ve seen some advocacy groups get tripped up: sometimes, because they don’t feel the opponents’ arguments are legitimate, they don’t take the time to deeply understand them. Their counter-arguments then ring hollow, and fail to reach or convince those all-important ‘persuadable’ target audiences.

Them on Us
The next two quadrants are relatively easy. What are our opponents saying about us and our arguments? How will they seek to frame our issues and position us overall? They will almost certainly be seeking to highlight our weaknesses, and to then contrast those with their own strengths and the merits of their positions. In a political or highly contentious advocacy campaign, they will seek to dominate the debate here – to put our team on the defensive. Anticipating those aspects of the message box will help your campaign team prepare to inoculate or mitigate against those message elements.

Us on Them
The final quadrant is where your team prepares to pre-empt the messages of your opponents. What are we saying about the other side and their plan or position? What are their weakest positions and arguments – and how do they contrast with our strengths most starkly? It is from this quadrant, along with “Us on Us”, that a campaign team will seek to dominate the debate through strong, effective messages.

Overall, a campaign will always seek to control the message; in other words, to dominate the debate from the left-hand column. And while you may craft a message box at the beginning of a campaign, it is unlikely to remain static. The communications landscape is dynamic; peoples’ views change, the tenor and intensity of media stories shift, and new players enter the debate. This means that messaging needs to change over time. In a political campaign, while the core messaging themes may remain consistent, some elements of a message box may change from week to week.

Case study: Obama versus McCain, 2008
For a case study of a powerful (and obviously highly successful) message box that changes over time, see this article by communications consultant Kathy McShea. McShea does a fantastic job of laying out the basic message box used by the Obama campaign in the 2008 US election race. And it changed at key points along the way; scroll down to the message box and click on the large arrow on the right to see how.