Being stuck as a tactical order-taker is disheartening.
As an internal communicator, you’re probably familiar with conversations that start with lines like this:
I need a poster
I want you to write me a speech for this afternoon
You need to send an all-staff email about my new policy
Demanding stakeholders, aren’t they? Lots of “I want” and “You need to”. It’s not terribly polite and I don’t expect they’d burst into the Legal team’s office and make the same demands.
You can choose to react to these demands in different ways.
(a) You can say yes, add the work to your to-do list, and churn it out.
(b) Or you can get curious, ask questions about the demands and have a strategic conversation to determine if the work is worth doing or not.
(A) is easier in the short term but painful in the long run. You’ll be seen as an order-taker, the work will keep piling up and you’ll never feel rewarded or fulfilled. Internal comms will become a busy service provider for the business, taking in requests and pushing out meaningless STUFF.
(B) is harder in the short term but pays off in the long run. Conversations like this take practice and confidence, but they result in better working relationships with stakeholders and an understanding that your team works only on things that matter to the business.
If you’ve tried to become less reactive and yet you’re still viewed as the internal postman, then this newsletter is for you. Let’s talk about strategic conversations.
What the hell are strategic conversations?
These conversations are about determining what stakeholders need (and not just what they want) and why this is important for the business. These conversations are particularly useful when we are approached with a communications request.
These conversations are all about stepping back from the tactical request and looking at the bigger picture: what is the communications objective here and is it important enough for us to invest time working on?
It involves asking questions, actively listening to the answers and creating very clear agreements on what work you’ll do (and what you won’t).
This is the approach taken by consultants, who act as trusted advisors rather than passive order-takers. I’d argue that senior internal communicators should position themselves as in-house consultants. You’re there to advise, guide and counsel rather than get in the weeds and deliver endless outputs that don’t achieve anything.
Here's a short video explaining the 'want' versus the 'need'
Curiosity is central to strategic conversations
When someone approaches you to deliver a piece of work, start from a place of curiosity. Become determined to understand what they need and what problem they’re trying to solve, rather than just take a brief on what tactic they want you to deliver.
Ask questions. Lots of questions.
These are bad questions to ask:
❌ When do you need the poster?
❌ What colour were you thinking of?
❌ Have you got a design in mind?
Try these kind of questions instead:
✅ What are you trying to achieve with this poster?
✅ Who is your audience?
✅ What do you want them to think, feel or do differently as a result of this communication?
✅ How will you know if the communication was successful?
Be prepared for stakeholders to struggle to answer these questions. That's normal - don't panic. Stakeholders often have no idea of what their communications objective is or how to measure impact.
That's where you come in, as their expert advisor and strategic communicator.
You'd be amazed at how much time you'll save by investing an hour into a conversation like this. Often the stakeholder will realise that a poster won't achieve what they want at all... and they realise they need to do the work themselves, instead of you. They might need to hold townhall meetings or brief their team managers or have a conversation with leaders.
All of which they can do without you!
Be an internal consultant.
By acting as an internal consultant and embracing your curiosity to have strategic conversations, you can move from a messenger into an advisor. Try out some of these questions the next time you get a communication request from a stakeholder.
Whenever you're ready, I can help you in 3 ways:
Join my group coaching programme. The IC Accelerator waitlist is now open and our first group coaching session takes place on 12th December at 2pm Irish time. This programme is for ambitious, action-oriented communicators who want to take their skills and career to the next level with direct support from me. Click here to learn more.
Give yourself some pain relief. I have created a collection of tried-and-tested templates, how-to guides and checklists to give you step-by-step instructions on many of the processes that you need to excel in your role. These will reduce the pain of an internal comms job. You can find my Internal Comms Cheat Sheets here.
Hire me for a workshop. I run bespoke, in-house trainings and workshops for teams all over the world, delivered remotely or in-person. Some recent workshops include "How to be a trusted advisor", "How to contract effectively with stakeholders", "How to nail the basics of excellent internal communication". Email me if you'd like to discuss a workshops for your team.