Are your personal insecurities screwing up your internal communications?

I do some internal comms as part of my job. Quite a lot of it involves talking to people about stuff. I’m spending the next couple of weeks talking to lots of people about internal comms itself, because we haven’t done a lot of audience/user feedback gathering, and it turns out that if you talk to people about how they feel and what they think, you get some pretty interesting insights (and an idea of what to do next that isn’t just based on guesswork and generalising from self).

Three things keep coming up from talking to people about what we suck at in terms of internal comms. And, as far as I can tell, they’re all examples where personal insecurity on the part of the person doing the communicating makes the experience much worse for the people on the receiving end.

1. Spending time telling people how you’re going to do something, not what you’re doing and why

Imagine you’ve got to give an update to a lot of people who don’t work in your area or department but do have an interest in what you’re doing (either because they want to know because they’re curious or because they need to know because it’s going to affect their work too). You don’t want to look bad at your job. You want to make them think you’ve got it covered – ideally because you do*. And you want to reassure them that there’s lots of exciting work going on in your area to make [insert thing of choice] happen to [insert thing of choice] so that [insert group of people] will be happy.

That’s great! You’re doing a good job and you want to tell people about it. This is good comms stuff right here.

However, you’re slightly afraid you might secretly be stupid or lazy or incompetent. And you’re exponentially more afraid that the people you’re talking to might think you’re stupid or lazy or incompetent. Or pointless. Or not-adding-value. Or whatever the thing that’s the worst possible thing to be in your company is.

So you open by mentioning all the stuff you’re going to do, spending five minutes or so making sure that everyone knows that you’re DOING lots of STUFF. And the you talk for the rest of the time about HOW you’re going to do the stuff, because that way everyone will know that you’ve thought about this really hard and done tons of planning and had lots of great ideas about process and that you’ve got this one down. That’s the stuff you’ve got to say, right? To prove you’re not fundamentally worthless as a human being?

Well, maybe. But probably not. See, the people who need to know how you’re going to do the stuff are the people doing the stuff. And those are the people in your area who you’ve (hopefully-please-for-the-love-of-everything-holy) already talked to in depth about how you’re going to do the thing (because else how could they help do it?). They are the only people who need to know the how**.

It’s the difference between strategy and tactics. The people outside of your bubble of stuff-doing need to know the strategy – what it is that you’re doing, why, where you’re going with it, etc. The people on the ground with you need the strategy and the tactics, because else they won’t know how to do the stuff. But the outside people don’t really need the tactics at all.

Don’t bother with the how unless your audience needs it. They probably don’t. It might make you feel better about yourself, but it’s much more likely that Bob and Jane are thinking about how long this meeting has gone on for already than how personally impressive and definitely-not-an-idiot you are for knowing how you’re going to do some work. Feeling marginally better about yourself (but, let’s face it, still insecure as heck) is not worth the cost, which in this case is the alienation of your audience.

2. Talking for too long about stuff

This is kinda the same problem as the previous problem, only much less specific, and I’ve more or less covered why it’s bad already.

Basic motivation: to make people think you’re not an idiot.

What you do: talk for a very long time about what you’re doing so as to make it sound like you know what you’re doing and lots about it.

What your audience wants: the shortest meaningful update.

Some of this is a kill your darlings problem – the stuff you’re doing that seems really nifty to you seems really nifty to you, and thus you want to share it with everyone to show that you’re a smart person who thinks up nifty things to do. The downside to this is that it’s mostly only interesting to you – if other people don’t need to know, they likely also don’t care.

Think about how you feel when someone is talking a lot to you about a lot of stuff that they’re doing which is at best tangentially interesting and/or relevant. You’re probably not thinking that they’re really smart and clearly know what they’re doing (unless they’re talking a lot and being really engaging about it, which is not the same as talking a lot). You’re probably thinking about something totally unrelated to the thing they’re talking about. Or the fact that you’re bored. You might even – and this is the opposite of what they’re hoping to achieve by talking a lot about stuff – be thinking they’re kind of an idiot.

There’s another huge advantage to paring down what you’re trying to say to the barest possible points – it clarifies your thinking. The lightning talk format, as well as other formats which limit the time and/or number of slides you have to say a thing, are really good for doing this. It’s incredibly likely that your audience in this case (the people who need to know some things about your thing but not all the things about your thing) will get everything they need to know from five minutes of you talking about it, especially if trying to condense ALL THE THINGS into a five-minute talk has helped you get clear in your own mind what you’re doing, what you’re trying to say about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

The bonus of this is that by being clear in your thoughts and in what you say, and in not taking up lots of people’s time to tell them stuff they don’t really need to know, you actually come across as much, much smarter than the person who talks for half an hour or more about things that are semi-relevant at best.

3. Waiting until you’ve got every detail sorted before announcing a big change to the people affected by it

This is the worst crime on the list. It’s also human nature. Announcing uncertainty – that something important is going to happen (big reorganisation, product getting canned, etc.) but you’re not quite sure what or when or how yet – is scary. There are risks to it. Uncertainty makes people anxious. It might even paralyse them. You can’t run a business while you’re figuring out what to do if you’ve paralysed everyone with fear over what the future might bring. And you’re scared that they might think you’re not the right person to be in charge of [thing] if you don’t even know what you’re doing with it. Best not to say anything until you know exactly what’s going to happen and you can reassure them all, right?

Nope. The people who are going to be affected by whatever it is that you don’t quite know all the details of yet aren’t stupid***. You wouldn’t have hired them if they were. They know something’s up because you’ve got your guilty face on and you keep pulling people into meeting rooms and looking vaguely worried.

Here’s the deal: it’s a lot less stressful for everyone (including you) if you’re up front from the beginning. We took this approach during a recent company-wide reorganisation and got really positive feedback. People would much, much rather be told that something is going to happen but you’re not entirely sure what it is yet than have you wait until it’s all fixed up and then fait accompli the heck out of them. They will tell you this themselves if you ask them.

And here’s why: by waiting until you know exactly what’s going on to communicate, you remove any agency that the people that the thing is going to happen to might otherwise have had. I know you’re scared that they might get scared – and that’s natural and kind of admirable – but it’s also patronising and infantilising. Ask someone whether they’d rather work on a project which has an openly uncertain future from the beginning, or one where everything’s great until it gets shut down with no forewarning, and very few people are going to tell you they’d prefer the latter.

Uncertainty is humanising. It’s you admitting that you don’t have all the answers, which is great, because no one does. It allows you to be consultative – you can actually ask other people what they think and how they feel and what they’d like to do and what they think you should do, and they’ll thank you for it and feel listened to and respected as people and colleagues. Which is a really good reason to start talking to them about what’s going on as soon as you know something’s going on yourself.

All of the above assumes you actually care about talking to the people who work with you and for you, and that you’d like to do the right thing by them. If that’s not the case, you can cheerfully disregard the advice here, but if it is, you might want to think about the ways above – and the inevitable countless other ways – that making internal communication about you and not about your audience could actually be doing the people you’re trying to communicate with a huge disservice.

So take a deep breath and talk. For five minutes or so. About the important things. Not the other things. As soon as you possibly can. And you’ll be fine.

*Of course you do. You’re good at your job. Don’t worry.

**This might not always be true, but it is most of the time. Other people who need to know the how will either be people who you’ve already identified as needing-to-know and thus part of the same set as the people in you’re area you’ve already discussed this with, or else they’ll ask you. But don’t bring this stuff up unless someone asks for it, because most of the people in the audience really don’t care and you’re wasting their time.

***I mean, they might be. But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re not.