The Communication Disconnect

Talking to your rank and file.

The Changing Demographic

How old is your latest employee? I don’t mean a manager or executive, but a line worker. 18-24? How (not what) was his education? How does he spend his free time? What are his interests? These are not questions we usually interest ourselves with. But those same questions describe the essence of the demographic of the latest group of the employed.

You might remember your education as involving writing term papers, after long hours of research at the library. That you were graded on the efficiency of the content. By contrast your newer recruits handle this assignment though googling, copy-pasting and beautifying the result with rich media. Your education was geared towards accumulating knowledge. Hers is geared towards learning how to find information and knowledge when required. The difference might look subtle but profound.

What do you do when you go home, tired, after a day of hard work? Turn on the TV to the latest episode of “How I met your mother”? But does your latest recruit do the same? Or does he prefer hunting through youtube or engage in an online game? Or is he an anime fan? Maybe he prefers being creative, playing a musical instrument in a band or creating machinima.

There are range of emotions & thoughts that could have gone through your head as you read the above paragraphs. Maybe the notion that the current educational system is failing or that the tastes of the new generation could be called decadent. Or maybe you felt both connected and disconnected at the same time, feeling at home with the googling & youtube and feeling distanced by anime or even wondering what machinima is.

The truth is this is the reality of your latest recruits. And of your customers. We’re living at an age where learning is no longer required, it is a keyboard – even a smartphone – away. Processing data into knowledge that used to take so much effort is now almost instantaneous. The superficiality of knowledge and even more the interest in gaining it might be shocking. But it’s also the means how the newer generation deals with information overload – by discarding everything until it’s needed and knowing where and how to find it when it is required. Relaxation and entertainment have changed forms and especially entertainment is expected to be active, engaging, bilateral and it is consumed at an incredible pace.

Why is this change important for us? Because these realities are what we are faced with when we need to address our workforce – these determine how much of what we say gets across.

Communicating & Motivating your Workforce

While the established methods of training your workforce for the job still continue to work well, when it comes to introducing the new, creating motivation, deploying the latest strategic plan, the communication that we’re used to is falling on different ears.

While your established workforce may listen attentively long enough to at least capture the headlines of your latest presentation at the company gathering, your new audience will be lost to you before you’ve gotten to the end of your mission statement. They will think your presentation, any presentation, boring, knowing that the information will be available on the company intranet and that the important parts will be conveyed to him by his superiors and if he really missed out something important, he knows somebody he can ask. It might sound callous but it is in fact, the new reality  and it is efficient, and it works.

How do you communicate your strategic plan, your mission, the latest initiative to a group of people who find the content boring before you’ve even started speaking? How can you transmit the hours, days, months of effort that went into creating that all-important document detailing your strategic plan, the very thing that will make sure those bored faces will continue to be employed even though your audience is bored?

The latest fashion is to make it into a show. Something entertaining so your audience doesn’t start out biased towards lethargy. It works. To new minds that consume entertainment with frightening speed and start looking for new venues, finding source of entertainment at the office is a very pleasant surprise. The fly in the soup is that you, the manager, the executive, are not a showman. You were hired to be efficient, to manage business, not to entertain. You could hire the best professionals to design your presentation for you but as it’s not your speciality, it will look like an ill-fitting suit. Besides, you cant really go making shows every time you want to hold a staff meeting. You might do a Ballmer dance and yes, it will greatly entertain your audience for the moment, but will it make them interested enough to listen to the rest? Would making yourself look ridiculous interest them in the plan that will guide their fate?

Simplicty and Directness

My personal finding has been that extreme simplicity and a directness almost unexpected joined with the smallness of the timeframe in which it was delivered produces the best retention.

Simplicty is getting rid of all the nuances, the explanations, the detailed methods, numbers, charts, etc. To convey the message in short a time as possible, there’s no space for what cannot be remembered. The take-away from an hour long speech or presentation will never be a number or chart that can be easily looked up later when needed. The all-important nuances that set your strategic plan from all the other similar ones are for the care of your management team – your rank & file will not remember them and in fact, does not need to remember them. What they need is the essence of it, explained in as few words and as directly as possible.

My personal goal is to reduce the content of any presentation I make to three simple sentences. I call it the Three Commandments – the ideas that form the essence of all I want to say, in easily quotable form. Two is usually too simple, too generalizing to be of significance and four leads to “and what was the fourth?”

Directness is using words that are fit more for the pub than the board meeting. Maximizing profits or deployment of the strategic plan, satisfying customer needs, improvements to the process and workflows, empowering stakeholders, dedication to continuous improvement are all automatic turn-offs for your new recruits. A presentation starting with “We’re here to make truckloads of money – this is how” is a more direct route to starting your strategic deployment plan. If you can throw in an answer to “What’s in it for you?” is even better.

These ideas are nothing new. Humans have been humans for ages after all. What is different is how much more effective – and almost required – these small tips are becoming.

Whenever I’m faced with communicating an idea or plan to a group that will be responsible for carrying it out, I bring forth the image of two people and think how they’d do it.

First is a man I hated passionately, both him and his company, but still admire for the genius of his marketing and the clarity of his presentations – the late Steve Jobs. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to his MacWorld keynote speech live. The whole thing was a master class on simplicity, directness and effectiveness. He spoke very little but showed a lot. He quoted numbers in passing but worked very hard to make sure everybody was in love with the product he was demonstrating. The words he chose, the manner in which he said them and the time he took on any one subject were all designed and executed with a perfection aimed at making sure the audience remembered almost every word.

Scene from the movie PattonThe second image is from a film, Patton. The famous starting speech by Patton has all the elements I outlined above – it’s simple, it’s direct to the point of vulgarness and it’s very very effective. I’m sure Patton had a lot more detailed plan for defeating the German Army than “hold on to him by the nose and kick him in the ass.” (The real speech to the 3rd Army is even more interesting) His soldiers did not need to know the detailed attack plan. They needed an assurance that they’d win, that their commanding officer had  a sound plan for it and that he was capable of pulling it off. The speech is marked in several places with “I want you to remember…”, clearly stating what he expected to be taken away from the meeting.   What won his battles wasn’t just his brilliance in strategy and tactics but also the ability and determination of his soldiers to carry out what he asked of them. His simple directness gave them what they needed, the rest lay with his staff anyway.

Those two images have guided me in any motivational or informational meeting I have done and I’ve been rewarded by seeing my audience remembering and responding to the Three Commandments long after the meetings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>