I was with a business leader the other day who was very frustrated. “Why don’t my people get this?” he exclaimed in exasperation. I was consulting for him and reported back that his executives had widely ranging definitions of one of the company’s key initiatives. Just about every company I meet with has problems with “communication.” This post helps explain the issue and gives some ways to fix it.
Sick of Your Own VoiceAny idea, plan or purpose may be placed in the mind through repetition of thought. Napoleon Hill
Sent does not mean received. Tom Sachs
“I sent out a memo. Why didn’t anyone respond?” “We had a town hall and shared the new strategy, but, when I ask someone about it, they acted like they never heard it.” “We posted our monthly focus, but no one seems to have changed their behavior.” Many leaders have had these and similar experiences, as I did early in my career. You think you have communicated an important idea, but no one seems to be listening.
Amidst this frustration, I had an “aha” moment when I read an article on human behavior. The article stated that a person has to hear or see a message seven times before taking action on it, and then the message has to be repeated every 28 days to keep the behavior going. Did you ever wonder why you hear the same ads over and over again? It is because marketers know you won’t respond if you hear it just once. There is some debate over the number of times you need to hear a message (some researchers claim as high as 20 times), but there is a consensus around the concept of effective frequency—the optimal number of times that you need to be exposed before you act.
As a leader, you need to plan to share your messages multiple times in multiple ways if you want a response. You must take every opportunity to communicate your vision, strategy and specific tactics. When you reach the point that you are sick and tired of the repetition and believe that everyone has the message, your people will just be starting to get it. This is not because they are unintelligent or apathetic—it is the nature of human behavior and brain chemistry.
The need for repetition has significant implications:
1. Your message has to be simple. When I led our diversity and inclusion efforts at Epcot, our rallying cries were to build a “Home for Diversity” and to be “Radically Inclusive.” These short phrases were easy to remember, emotionally satisfying and highly repeatable. Similarly, when I went to Hilton Grand Vacations, I told our Team Members that we wanted to create “Hilton Grand Lifetime Fans.” Contrast these phrases with the lengthy diversity statements or customer satisfaction goals presented at some companies that no one remembers or acts upon.
2. You must create a communication plan that provides constant repetition in multiple formats. Some people learn best by reading, others with pictures, audio or video. Short, funny videos are very effective. Think about television commercials that are designed to be memorable and cause an action. Your internal marketing messages should be similar.
3. You must plan to keep your message for a long time. Leaders are taught that “change is good,” and so they change visions and strategies frequently—often when they are bored with the current plan. Unfortunately, because of the repetition required to create change, the frontline is often just starting to get it and change behavior when the strategy is changed. This causes the familiar “flavor of the month” lament and disengaged Team Members. The larger the organization, the longer you need to keep a consistent message, so think about it carefully before you roll it out.
4. Leaders throughout the organization should share the script. The CEO and executive team need to lead the way, but cannot be the sole source. Team Members want to hear directly from their leaders, and see that their leaders have embraced and acted upon the message.
5. Creativity is key, and the best creations come from the frontline. Engage your employees in sharing ways to get the message across. The best way to do this is through competitions. We had a flag competition around diversity with our teams at Epcot, and then displayed the flags at our annual picnic so everyone could vote. The flags were incredibly creative, the teams had fun doing them, and the message about diversity was embraced.
When you get frustrated about the lack of response, remember that it is not due to your lack of communication skills, but rather the need to repeat the same message multiple times in multiple ways.
• Expect that you will need to repeat your message many, many times before it becomes part of the culture.
• Keep it short.
• Use multiple formats.
• Plan to keep the same message for multiple years if you want it to sink in.
• Employees want to hear the message from their direct leader.
• Leverage your employees’ creativity to get a message across.
Effective communication, desired behavior, organizational success
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