How to be more strategic: Messaging

Post by Lee Smith, Director of internal comms agency Gatehouse

Friday 19 October 2018

For a series of blog posts about strategic internal communication, the subject of messaging is decidedly tactical. Or is it? The answer, of course, depends on how we go about it.

Many of us come into the IC profession because we enjoy writing and maybe have a modicum of talent in this area. We relish in the art of ‘crafting and drafting’, of tinkering with words, playing with positioning and landing our messages. As a former PR practitioner, it’s where I started and, 27 years on, it remains one of the joys of my career.

But, if we want to be seen as trusted advisors and strategic enablers, we need to elevate the art of messaging beyond mere wordsmithing and ensure we’re really adding value. In this post we’ll explore one way to do that.


Start with strategy

The starting point in this journey, once again, has to be the organisation’s strategy. I make no apologies for being a stuck record on this point.

With my Gatehouse colleagues, we have completed more than 100 IC audits in the past 12 years and in many of these we have found that the direction in which the organisation is going is often unclear or fuzzy –  even to the most senior leaders! This then trickles down through layers of management to create confusion on the front line.

The result is employees who cannot see how they contribute to the success of the organisation and are unsure what the business is trying to achieve over the longer term.

We know from Macleod and others that having a clear and compelling strategic narrative is a vital and key driver of employee engagement. If employees don’t have a good understanding of why the organisation exists, what it is trying to achieve and where it is heading, they cannot have that all important ‘line of sight’ and they will not give us the gift of discretionary effort.

Crafting a clear, compelling narrative is then arguably the single most important thing we can do in the messaging arena. It’s certainly an area where you can add enormous value as an internal communicator and it will require you to get up close and personal with senior leaders – ideal for building trust at the top!


Building a strategic narrative

Your narrative will need to cover why the organisation exists (its purpose), where it is heading and what will be different when you get there (its vision) and how it plans to get there (its strategy). It should also capture the big strategic priorities that guide the day-to-day activity teams and departments are focused on.

To create one you’ll need to talk to the executive team and, possibly, external advisors, review existing strategies, look back in history to the roots of the organisation and project yourself into the future. You’ll want to understand the competitive landscape and the macro environment. And once the big goals are identified, you’ll want to understand what employees need to think, feel and do to make it all happen. It will take time, energy and patience to capture the insight you need to do it well.

If you’re lucky, as you talk to leaders, you’ll find there is consensus at the top and, if so, your role is clearly focused on articulating that story and bringing it to life.

But it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, when we interview senior leaders, we discover that there is no strategy or, if there is, the executive team aren’t remotely aligned on it. This becomes a slightly different challenge for the communicator – and one that will test your mettle. Here, it can really help to have an external perspective – you need to hold a mirror up to the top team and share some home truths and that can be difficult if you’re internal. But that’s a topic for another day.

A good strategic narrative will be clear, easy to remember and repeat, visual, emotive and inspiring. It should come to life through stories, anecdotes and metaphor.

In their book Made to Stick, US academics Chip and Dan Heath share their SUCCESs formula for creating sticky messages and this advice can be applied brilliantly to strategic narratives:

  • Simple – you’ll need to find the core or essence of the message and capture it in clear, impactful language that everyone can understand, avoiding corporate jargon. Why do you exist, where are you heading and how will you get there – you’ll need to distil this down into a punchy elevator pitch.
  • Unexpected – you’ll need to cut through the noise by using the element of surprise to grab your audience’s attention, avoiding the dull and predictable. How you package your strategy and what you call it will be important. When we did this for Virgin Trains recently we developed a document called Our Amazing Journey.
  • Concrete – you’ll need to make your narrative as solid, tangible and sensory as possible – you want people to be able to imagine the future, see themselves there, feel what’s different and perhaps even smell it!
  • Credible – you need to make it believable, providing evidence and proof points to back up your rationale. What are the numbers that underpin your strategy? What’s happening in the marketplace? How are competitors performing? You’ll need statistics to convince the sceptics.
  • Emotional – to motivate people you’ll want to engage the hearts as well as the heads. Why should people care? What’s in it for them? How does it relate to their personal wishes, desires, hopes and fears?
  • Stories – finally, you’ll want to wrap it all up in a story that everyone can share, add to and make their own.

The best strategic narratives will feature all six ingredients.


It’s not just the words

But it’s not just about the words – a good strategic narrative will paint a clear and compelling picture of the future, sometimes quite literally. In our work in this area, we make heavy use of imagery to create a supporting visual narrative, overarching strategic map or rich picture to sit alongside the words. You can convey a message through design too and this is every bit as important to the internal communicator as the words themselves. The colours you use, icons, layout and graphics create a powerful visual short-hand for your strategy.

The very best strategic narratives have both elements covered – expertly crafted words coupled with fantastic design.



About Lee

Lee Smith is co-founder of London-based internal communication agency Gatehouse, a Gallagher company. As part of a Fortune 500 business with offices in 33 countries, he advises some of the world’s biggest and most complex organisations on how to engage, motivate and inspire their employees.

He has spent more than half his life in the communication business – a career that has spanned nearly three decades, covered both internal and external communication disciplines and in-house and agency roles.

He is a Fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Institute of Internal Communication.


More in this series by Lee:

Hardwiring internal comms to organisational goals

How to be more strategic

The power of insight