Communication is hard. Cascading communication – getting a clear and consistent message shared – is harder. Doing it remotely? That brings another level of complication. The good news is that, while hard, there are things you can do to improve the chances that everyone hears and understands your messages, no matter how many layers or how many total people there are in your organization
Consider the telephone game you played as a kid – the one you played without phones. One person started by whispering something to someone, who whispered it to someone else, who whispered it again. Then the last person shared what they heard… and everyone laughed since it (mostly) wasn’t what they heard, and thought they told. This is the corollary to what happens (without the whispering) when leaders are cascading communication. Unfortunately, organizationally, it isn’t always a game and miscommunication can be more costly than humorous.
Here are four steps you can take to improve the chances that the message sent by the first person are preserved and understood by the last receiver.
Start with the Big Idea
Recently a spontaneous game of telephone happened at a family gathering. A message survived almost perfectly intact through seven people. The key?
A five-word message.
There is no chance people are going to remember everything in your 22 (or 122) slide presentation deck. Most organizations will have fewer cascades than seven, but nearly always a far more complex message.
If you are initiating the message, make sure you can write the big idea and key points on an envelope. If you can’t, chances that any of it survives several telling’s are low. Know that big idea before you start creating those PowerPoint slides, and only include what is needed to support the big idea.
If you are in the middle of the communication cascade and you aren’t clear, ask for some clarification before you retell it and inadvertently make the message further muddled.
Put the Communication in Context
I know, your message is more than five words, and the details matter. When the big idea is clear, and it is connected to your goals, and objectives, people have something to hold on to and it allows them to understand and remember the details far better. Help people see the big picture in connection with everything else that is happening in the organization.
Make sure you answer the question are thinking even if they don’t ask – why are we doing this?
In short – when cascading communications always make sure you are connecting the dots between this new communication and people realities, projects, and interests.
Create Feedback Loops
In the telephone game, there is no chance to ask questions to clarify what you heard before you passed on the message – that is part of the game. Too often organizational communication is treated the same way, even though it isn’t a game at all. Check for understanding at each level. If you are initiating the communication, make sure those who will share it first are crystal clear on that message, and encourage them to create similar feedback loops.
In addition, create ways for information to flow back upward towards the original communicators to improve alignment of the intended message.
Use Multiple Mediums
If one telling always worked our lives (and cascading communication) would be much simpler. Communication is too important to be left to one pronouncement. Yet to get communication to be received effectively – especially through several layers, and even more so when doing it remotely – it must be repeated.
Repetition supports understanding and memory.
Yet as communicators, we don’t want to be repetitious.
This conundrum can be overcome in a remote workplace by sharing the message in different ways using different communication mediums. We can’t rely on face-to-face communication, but we can share slide decks (after the big idea is clear), send emails, shoot videos, discuss in team meetings.
Same message, different mediums.
Your goal? To create repetition (and therefore understanding and memory) without being repetitious.
Putting it Together
Cascading communication is hard, but when you plan and apply using these four ideas, your chance for success will rise rapidly. Be patient with the message and the recipients because what you are communicating is too important to leave to chance.
Kevin Eikenberry, Chief Potential Officer, The Kevin Eikenberry Group