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How to be audience-centric

One of the 12 principles I outlined in the previous chapter is that of audience centricity. This is the art of thoroughly understanding your audience before attempting to communicate. Without this basic understanding of the people you are talking with, the danger is that you simply talk at them and fail to have any impact. Leadership communication is what you do to achieve big goals. It is all about changing behaviours. So failing to have any impact is not an option (if you want to be an effective leader).

When it comes to communication, it starts with the people you lead. You have to set out to achieve a change in how they think, feel and act, but that starts with you first knowing how they think, feel and act now.

No doubt, as a leader, you have a plan that you are trying to deliver. No doubt, also, that plan has daunting numbers in it. You need to achieve higher revenues, higher margins, lower costs, and a greater percentage market share, to win more clients, generate more donations, achieve faster innovation or an uplift in customer satisfaction. No matter what the numbers you have to deliver, whether you are in the private sector, a charity or the public sector, those improved numbers can only be achieved by changing behaviours.

That starts with defining the goals as well as the behaviours needed to achieve the goals. Which behaviours do you want to keep, or stop or start. Which do you want more people doing?

If you take the time to develop a better understanding of the people you are relying on for success, your change plan will be rooted in this better understanding and be focused on delivering the new and supportive behaviours you need from your stakeholders. Successful change can only come from understanding people’s habits and motivations. If you do that, you will be able to communicate in ways that are better targeted, more relevant and more compelling.

Monitoring how well you communicate, and how well people are responding to what you say, will provide a continuous improvement process that will improve the odds on achieving your objectives. The end result will be a better organizational performance aided by more supportive stakeholders.

Only if you think about how to inspire the right behaviours will you succeed.

The more senior you get in any organization, the more help and support you are likely to receive with your communications. But even then, the help may be focused on crafting your messages and creating channels of communication, and completely miss the point. That help may make what you want to say more articulate, but it may miss the audience completely because it doesn’t go to the heart of what they need to hear. Without thinking about this, you might even communicate exactly the wrong thing. As I demonstrated with the story that opened this chapter, I have sometimes had to prevent leaders from communicating what they instinctively would like to have done, on the basis that doing so would have had catastrophic results. It was only by using a simple process that I developed more than 20 years ago that we got to the right communication plan and therefore to the right result.

The process I use is simple but devastatingly effective.

I developed it while working as Corporate Affairs Director of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in the early 1990s. In an organization that had more PhD scientists and engineers than almost any other in the world, I was charged with leading our change programme. The leadership team, of which I was a member, had to split up the organization in preparation for floating a part of it on the stock market as a science and engineering consultancy. The organization employed many brilliant minds, people who were at the forefront of technology developments because of its nuclear research and development heritage. Most of these brilliant minds, it seemed to me, opposed the idea of privatization. Whenever I went to talk to them about our communication needs and our reputation, I was argued in circles by clever people who felt they knew more about communication and reputation management than I did.

One day, in one of the many UKAEA laboratories, talking with a group of scientists who once again were arguing with what I felt they had to do, I noticed that every wall was plastered with process charts. It dawned on me that these process charts, adorned with scientific equations, were simply a representation of a series of actions or steps needed to achieve an end. Wherever I went from then on I saw these process charts everywhere. One day it dawned on me. Why didn’t I simply design my own communication process chart to better explain what it was we were trying to do and what we had to achieve? The result was the chart I share with you now. I have used this process on countless occasions since, helping clients to avert crises, generate more sales, achieve change or even influence national debates. The beauty of the process is that it works as effectively for a one-off speech, as it does for a complex communications campaign.

In AEA Technology, using this new process chart, I was able to have much more constructive conversations, and it enabled people to co-create communication plans with me, rather than see me force my plans on unwilling, uninspired resistors. (AEA Technology was successfully floated on the stock market in 1996.)

It is a 10-step process illustrated in Figure 8.1.

Figure 8.1: Communications/behaviour planning process

1. What, exactly, are you trying to achieve?

2. Who do you most need to influence in order to achieve this objective?

3. What do you want them to do, exactly?

4. What’s in it for them to do what you would like them to do?

5. Do you need to behave differently to provide sufficient motivation?

6. What do you need to tell them? (And do you have a compelling point of view?)

7. What are the best ways of reaching them?


9. Is it getting through to them?

10. How are they reacting?

(11. If the results are not as you would like, analyse why, change what you are doing or saying, and start again.)

From here you are in a continuous improvement loop that is all about listening, responding, and the continuous dialogue that enables change.

Behind several of these steps are more tools to use to think about how to maximize communication effectiveness.

Let me take you through each step in more detail to enable you to use this process yourself.

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