Tuesday, December 05, 2006

With all due respect
I promised at the end of my last post to talk more about how surveys can provide more than just a measure of communication vehicle use. I think this topic also provides a nice link to this site's most recent comment. We'll get to that in a minute.

Understanding what messages are getting through to your audience, and through what vehicles, is powerful stuff. But it doesn't tell you much about the impact of your messages on that audience. I use another set of simple questions for that:

I found Dr. Clem’s presentation/the article about pencil safety:

  • Interesting - it was entertaining and informative
  • Credible - I believed what I heard
  • Relevant - the topic is important

Respondents rate their level of agreement with these statements from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” or “I did not attend/read this.”

I like this approach because it gets at the impact of communication that is beyond the text of the message. People make many judgments based on their personal feelings about the messenger or the credibility of the vehicle. It also provides a window into how a team may be relating to a leader over time – is that leader gaining or losing credibility? If you ask this question of each presenter, article or vehicle, you’ll have a hierarchy to examine for key strengths and weaknesses. As the communications lead, you gain powerful information that will help you recommend actions to respond to changes in audience sentiment. Even the most intractable leader will have a hard time staying the course in the face of a low credibility ranking. (Pause for laughs.) You can more effectively coach leaders based on their communications strengths and challenges.

OK, let’s return to the comment I mentioned at the top, posted by Pat May. Here’s an excerpt:

With all due respect - I find it admirable that you do an effort to measure the effect of your channels. But is it enough? …We're hired to make a difference in our organizations. That difference in essence is to influence behavior. Behavior has an effect on business measurement like employee retention, customer retention, sales, new bizz etc. What I want to find out is how far can you go with pure metrics to connect input (communication) with output (organizational results that are measured on the 'bottom line').

This is the question communicators debate at IABC meetings and late at night at the bar at Ragan conferences. Are we worth a damn? I have, at least, 10 possible responses to this.

  1. To use currently-popular cliché, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. This blog was started to address the paralysis communicators often face because metrics are both difficult and not perfect. Use metrics to understand your basics first – don’t try to solve the world’s problems until day after tomorrow. Measure what you can and see if it helps you get better at your job.
  2. Communications aren’t going to go away without you. People are told – and learn – that they have to show up in the morning for work. That’s behavior. However, they have a lot of different feelings about how they are told. That’s where you – and your metrics – come in.
  3. If you really want to move the business, focus your communication abilities on the business. If you’re doing newsletters about the latest developments in your department, and who had a birthday, stop. Instead, find out how you can use your skills to help your department do its job better. Sounds harsh, but I’m sure we can all find ways to use our skills that are more important to the bottom line. I recently did a daily newsletter tracking online buzz about a new product so we could stay on top of issues. People are now beating down my door for the same treatment for their new products.
  4. I was half-kidding above. Those little birthday notices can be valuable in a million ways. They build community and team cohesion, and may draw people to the newsletter so they are exposed to other important messaging. However, I don't know if that's true – someone should measure it!
  5. If you’ve correctly identified a behavior, you should be able to track it. Do you conduct an annual employee survey? Go increase the response percentage – that’s behavior you can measure. What behavior do you want to change? As I've written before, if it's "work harder and have a better attitude" you have not identified the behavior you want. Driving behavior change may be another blog entry, but in the meantime, go explore the SimplerWork.com site for inspiration.
  6. If you do everything you can and can’t move the needle, don't blame the metrics.
  7. Many communications teams do not drive the business. I’d even say most. I've been on communications teams that were extensions of the CEO’s ego, for good or ill. Many have other duties, such as event planning, that require some non-communication skills. (And many communications skills, too.) Many provide a sense of family and community that is extremely comforting to a sizable segment of any large employee population but of no interest to others. I’m not aware of any – there may be a few – that are revenue sources. We are cost centers. A few – these happy few – provide significant cost avoidance advantages. Anything you do of significant value to the business will be pure gravy and will blow your bosses away. Be sure to measure it. If you have metrics, you will gain influence and credibility, so you will have more opportunities to improve the business.
  8. If your problem is that you don’t know what behaviors or messages to drive, welcome to the club. Neither does your boss. Make it your job to observe and learn what your colleagues respond to and what they don’t. Metrics can help. That’s why it’s good to ask those questions about interest, credibility and relevance. People are not machines. You can’t “input (communication)” and “output (organizational results)” or even behaviors in a one-to-one manner. In our field, communications provide directional information that should improve your chances of getting through to people, with the right message, in a way that doesn’t piss them off.
  9. It takes an amazingly small amount of data to prompt well-directed change for the better. I promise that if you ask 10 good questions you'll be overwhelmed with data that drives new ideas. And, you don't need the kind of statistical certitude in communications that you need in drug manufacturing or atomic power generation. You wouldn't be satisfied with being 80 percent sure that an aspirin won't kill you, but most leaders will act quickly on communications decisions that metrics have said have an 80 percent chance of success.
  10. This job is hard. To quote Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great.” If you really want to use metrics to understand how you’re driving the business, get after it. You may be the person to crack the code.

One more thing - start anywhere! For example, this blog entry, according to the Readability Statistics built into MS Word, is at an 8th grade reading level with a Reading Ease score of 62.5 and 6 percent passive sentences. My goals are to always be below Grade 11 (I love being at Grade 9 or below!) and above 50 in Reading Ease with passive sentences below 10 percent. I really use this tool, flawed as it is, because it keeps me honest. I can show, with metrics, that my audience should be able to read my writing. Not a bad metric for a communicator.

Can someone come over and help me off my soapbox?