5 Fail-proof ways to improve change communications
Updated: May 2
Effective communication is a critical component of leading and managing organizational change, and a majority of it tends to be written. Despite the wide range of forms written communication can take and the myriad of purposes it can serve, there are some universal success factors that make your written communication more effective, immediately and with little effort.
#1 Don't confuse program/project communication with change communication
It’s important to draw a clear distinction between communications from program/project managers and change managers, since they have different target audiences, as well as different objectives, for their written messages.
The mandate of change management is to prepare, facilitate, influence, and enable behavioral change among a defined set of stakeholders who are affected by a change the organization is making. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to adopt a future state. They don’t need standard release notes or status reports; they need to feel informed, prepared, enabled, and accepting of the behavior changes the company expects of them. In contrast, program/project communications are intended to track, control, and monitor while anticipating risk and resolving issues that might derail a program/project. Different audience, different objectives.
Tip: Ask someone with no involvement in the program/project that is affected by the change (get as far away as you can from the program/project team) if your messaging feels relevant to them and if they understand its intent and purpose.
#2 Check your assumptions and go into detail; your audience deserves it
Because change managers tend to liaise with the program/project team and are familiar with their plans, it’s easy for them to forget that most people and teams that will be affected by an organizational change may not have any context or details about the initiative. Thus, change managers can fall into the trap of making too many assumptions.
Your audience doesn’t know everything you do, so they need you to connect the dots for them, even if it feels obvious to you. The fact that we tend to be blind to our own assumptions is a big reason why perspective-taking is so difficult to do. It is worth developing this critical change skill and making the effort to write change communications for your stakeholders, not for other program/project team members. If the latter think your messages are too detailed or state the obvious, stand your ground; they are not your audience.
Tip: Use the common exercise of asking five whys to help identify your assumptions and better serve your change stakeholders. Keep asking why regarding each core point in your message to surface assumptions. Your audience is counting on you to prepare and enable them.
#3 Layer your messages, adding more detail at the lowest layers
There are people who won’t read anything, perhaps only skimming headlines, and there are voracious readers that read almost everything, and who will seek out additional information. If you put these people at each end of a spectrum, your readers are at these two extremes and everywhere in between. Our third critical success factor is to layer written communications that accommodate the broad spectrum of reader preferences.
Layer your written change communications so that your title provides the gist of the core message. Start the body of the message with a brief, executive summary that sits ‘above the fold’ (i.e., it can be read in full without scrolling on a standard, laptop-sized email messaging pane). At this point, your reader should have all the information they need to grasp the purpose and intent of your message. Also, at this point your message should be in text-only format to accommodate mobile-device readers. Include a link where people can go for more details in a “long layer” and save the fancy formatting for the latter.
Tip: Be clear on your audience and objectives for the message, and have these handy while you are writing. Start with the most detailed layer (the long layer) and work your way up to the title.
#4 Do your channel research; it is worth the time spent
Just as there is a spectrum of behaviors and preferences for how much people read, there is a similarly broad spectrum for where people choose to consume messaging. Furthermore, these consumption behaviors and preferences differ widely based on the organizational context, or on what channels are available and widely used among a defined population pf readers. Take the time to learn what these channels are, both in terms of their existence and usage.
It is fine if email is your default channel; there is really no getting away from email. But don’t stop there. Look at other options your audience uses, such enterprise social media, intranets, SharePoint groups, collaboration software such as Slack and Teams, enterprise wiki tools, and so on. Every company, even departments and groups within a company, have a variety of channels to choose from, some being more used than others.
Tip: Survey your stakeholders to discover how they prefer to consume messaging. Often the best and easiest way to find something out is simply to ask.
#5 Use multiple channels to better meet your audience where they are
Related to the success factor, the fifth success factor is to always utilize multiple channels for disseminating your written communications. This one is so critical and effective that it should be your default way of operating.
Using multiple channels for every single message is a simple but powerful tactic because it blends together a number of benefits:
It meets your audience where they are, as opposed to expecting them to come to you, instantly expanding your message's overall reach.
It leverages the power of repetition, increasing the likelihood your message is heard.
It also leverages the power of reinforcement, increasing the likelihood that your message is retained.
It minimizes the noise in today's digital world that results from trying to keep up with so many available channels. If a stakeholder didn't catch the email, they may see message in another another channel.
Tip: Send the entirety of a layered message chunked out in either a single email or a short introduction paragraph with a link to the long layer on an intranet page. Then go a step further by using your longest layer of detail as a blog post, use your short layer (e.g., executive summary) as a social media post, and use your title as a news announcement. Don't forget to provide links to the other channels when publishing, making it easy as possible to find more detail for those individuals inclined to do so, cross posting across your multiple channels.
Written communication is highly contextual, just as the practice of leading and managing change in organizations is highly contextual. Applying these five success factors is a quick and easy way to increase the effectiveness of your written change communications.