Engaging Audiences with Storytelling

Running rings around Saturn. The Cassini mission explored the rings and moons of the gas giant.

Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and hear from two of JPL’s master storytellers about engaging audiences’ imagination through the wondrous possibilities of space exploration.

My inner science nerd spent the whole time doing cartwheels while the professional me took lots of photos and some notes to share with you.

The organizers – the Los Angeles chapter of IABC – made the excellent choice to include both external and internal storytelling on the agenda, which opened up the topic and the perspectives in a big way.

Our speakers were Stephen Kulczycki, deputy director of communications and education at JPL, and Teresa Bailey, information science specialist and the JPL FIOA liaison in the Library, Archives and Records section.

Connecting with Hearts, Not Just Minds – Storytelling to External Audiences

Just as you’d imagine, we needed to submit our names to JPL several days prior to the event and there were security checkpoints throughout the Pasadena campus, which has more acreage than Disneyland.

The next Mars rover (which successfully landed Aug. 6, 2012) is Curiosity, and it’s the biggest machine in space. Curiosity reminds me a bit of WALL-E!

Still, there’s a large public-facing component to this organization, including a visitor’s center housing a museum on the history of space exploration. Thousands of students come through each year, learn and discover, and are treated to a number of communications designed specifically to encourage their sense of wonder about “amazing places,” as Stephen Kulczycki says.

His office produces short films about JPL’s work that have the quality of Hollywood trailers with quick cuts, dramatic orchestral music, and lively graphics. The scientific language is pitched to “smart 8-year-olds,” which makes these mini-movies perfect as press releases, for the general public, for online platforms, and as footage in science programs, such as PBS’s “Nova.”

“Every good story takes a protagonist with a dream and a set of obstacles they need to overcome,” Kulczycki says. “We get the mechanics and explanations out of the way and get to the heart of what people feel.”

“We’re creating relationships here, person to person, house to house,” he adds.

JPL has one of the Apollo mission moon rocks. Note the giant padlock (back, left) securing this sample!

If you work in an organization with plenty of proprietary information to protect, it’s possible to give in to the restrictions on information-sharing and lose sight of how you can use communications to create those relationships. The JPL storytelling event demonstrated that even in a restricted environment, you can find innovative ways to engage, educate and enthrall your audiences.

One of the coolest ways JPL involves children is in the naming of spacecraft. Schools across the country are invited to submit names and, in the case of the latest moon orbiters (now christened “Ebb” and “Flow”), the winning school gets to take the first pictures of the moon. Brilliant!

We saw a video of the Skype transmission from the winning science classroom in Montana. All the kids were cheering while the teacher beamed and jumped up and down. The 8-year-old in me, who spent most of her Saturdays at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, knew exactly how they felt. The communications professional recognized that one day, one of those students may grow up to become an astronaut, a spacecraft designer, an astrophysicist, or a politician who makes decisions about funding space exploration.

JPL uses communications and involvement to invest its audience. “The value we put on communication is the way it enables us to connect with the human soul and heart,” Kulczycki says. “We represent hope, otherwise we’d be machine-makers instead of dream-makers.”

Storytelling that Builds Community

Meanwhile, inside JPL, there’s been another kind of storytelling, and it’s been happening at the library for the last dozen years.

“Community-building is a common thing for libraries to be involved in,” notes Teresa Bailey, who developed monthly (now every other month) hour-long speaker programs after “puzzling over how to incorporate storytelling without making it sound like something happening at a children’s library.”

“Ground Control to Major Tom.” This is mission control at JPL, where they monitor all the data sent back from spacecraft studying the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond.

But, she had a strong belief that the best way to transfer knowledge is face-to-face and launched the storyteller program in 2000. Bailey helped connect and engage her internal audience by encouraging speakers to share personal stories with insider details – “what makes your work meaningful to you? Only you have walked in your shoes.”

Scientists can discuss research from the past, current projects, even their dreams for the future.

Bailey preps the storytellers in advance, allows more than one scientist to share the stage (because research generally involves large groups of scientists and engineers), encourages the use of visuals, and handles internal publicity. The stories are filmed and made available on the intranet, as well as through the library’s archives site.

Bailey sees storytelling contributing to a knowledge-sharing culture. Storytelling, she says, supports:

  • mentoring
  • socialization of new employees
  • building relationships and bonding
  • learning lessons from past or present projects
  • organizational identity
  • community

“It’s very contagious being here because there’s always something new,” she adds. Storytelling spreads that “contagion,” enabling employees to learn, ask questions, get involved, be inspired, and reach for the stars.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, speakers and tour guides at NASA JPL. You can check out the stunning videos and learn more on the JPL website.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Space. The final frontier.”
~ Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek”

Corp Comm Needs Some Sympathy for the Devil

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer. What I’m convinced of is that every Corporate Communications unit needs a kind of sacred space to challenge the messaging, communications approaches and accepted wisdom created by the department.

If what’s puzzling you is the nature of my assertion, let’s be clear, I’m not a gadfly, contrarian or naysayer.

Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m what’s known as the Devil’s Advocate.

So, if you meet me, have some sympathy, these days I often find myself surrounded by cheerleaders. And, unless you’re one of the teams going to the Superbowl, cheerleading rarely does a profession like corporate communications any good.

But, I hear you saying, it’s our job to enhance the company’s reputation and support leadership with effective communications. It’s our job to develop the best communications strategies, plans and messages to promote and share news with our audiences. It’s our job to help employees understand changes in business direction, policies, procedures, and ways of working by being clear about what’s expected of them.

You’re absolutely right. But, we don’t accomplish this by cheerleading or telling audiences how they’re supposed to feel about the information we deliver, especially when the news may be met with differing opinions. We do it by presenting the facts clearly and by being open, honest and timely in our communications.

Devil’s in the Details

There’s nothing wrong with genuine pride in the company we work for, the way it conducts itself in the world, treats its employees, and rewards its shareholders. But, if “school spirit” interferes with communicating effectively, that’s another story, especially when the news isn’t so cheery.

Remember BP leadership’s repeated insensitivity following the explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig that cost 11 workers their lives and caused an environmental disaster across five states? How about Philip Morris’ spin on smoking deaths? Or when the Big 3 automakers flew private jets to Washington, D.C., to ask the taxpayers for bailout money (an unspoken message that was heard loud and clear)?

It’s Corp Comm’s job to prepare executives and spokespeople and manage reputational issues. How do we protect them from tone deaf talking points that become PR nightmares?

Corp Comm, meet the Devil’s Advocate.

It’s time to shine a sharp, bright light on your communications plans and messages and see whether they hold up to scrutiny. This is an important exercise for any communications plan – whether you’ve got positive or difficult information to share.

Reporters – and many employees – are seasoned skeptics. Journalists are trained to ask the kinds of probing questions that can dismantle messaging if it hasn’t been pressure-tested.

Would you rather have your CEO’s messages fall flat in the privacy of a company conference room or publicly at a press conference?

The Nature of My Game

Here’s how it’s played:

  • You’ll need two teams. The first created the communications plan and messaging; the second is given a situational overview and reads the plan and messaging in advance.
  • Team 2 plays Devil’s Advocate and prepares questions for Team 1 from the point of view of key audiences: media, critical advocacy groups, employees.
  • Set up a physical space, like a conference room, that can serve as the setting for a press conference, a meeting with constituents, and an employee meeting.
  • Role play the scenarios, pressing hard on both sensitive issues and areas that Team 1 might think were unimportant. Make sure Team 2 stays in character; after all, it’s their job to bedevil Team 1 to help them create a better plan and stronger messaging.

The Rules of Devil’s Advocacy

When it’s not so much a crisis, but an annual plan or approach, it’s just as important to do some pressure-testing. Rules apply:

  • Set clear boundaries for the team who’s written the plan and the group playing Devil’s Advocate. You probably can’t rewrite a company policy or the 2012 goals, so don’t solve for world hunger. Focus on pressure-testing the communications at hand (not the new company policy).
  • Agree to keep everything said in the session confidential. After all, these are drafts; the work you do together may change the language, tone or direction significantly in the final, approved version.
  • A good rule of thumb is to focus first on what works in the plan, then on what can be improved. Comments and suggestions should always relate to the plan and its improvements, rather than at individuals.
  • Everyone in the room agrees to participate, providing both positive feedback and recommendations for improvement. Everyone must play Devil’s Advocate at some point. You can’t allow just a few brave souls to put their feet to the fire.

The Deadly Sins (Things to Avoid)

  • Despite the focus on playing Devil’s Advocate, this is not a bashing session. You’re not there to rip the plan apart or shout, “King me!,” at every mistake. One of your colleagues developed these strategies and messages. Someday your communications plan may be center stage. Even devils can play nice.
  • If the rules are followed, there can be no repercussions for Devil’s Advocacy. Remember, the purpose is to ensure the company and its representatives don’t seal their fate in some awful way in front of important audiences. Speaking up to improve communications and protect the company’s reputation can’t burn anyone later. (If it shows up on a review, for example, you’ll never get any productive feedback from that employee again.)

Good leaders will recognize a sub-rule to the last rule, which is that people who step up to help challenge and make messaging better and strategies and plans more successful deserve to be thanked for their forthrightness. This sends its own message to the department about the value of open and honest communication.

Pleased to meet you, Corp Comm. Hope you guessed my name. Feel free to tell me what’s puzzling you in the Comments.

Messaging Layoffs

Since I’ve been discussing messaging and talking points over the last couple of weeks, I wanted to share this chilling story from Marketplace Radio on the jargonizing of layoff language.

A reporter from Financial Times noted that Nokia, when putting 17,000 employees out of work, described the act as “managing them for value.”

Companies have downsized, rightsized, outsourced, delayered, OPEX’ed, and RIF’ed their way through the Great Recession as lawyers, HR and finance tried to spin the news for Wall Street. If communications professionals were involved in the creation of this sort of messaging, then, quite frankly, shame on them. Doublespeak always backfires.

I’ve had the mixed blessing of working for companies faced with the difficult position of laying off employees, yet they had the compassion to insist that the process – and the communications around it – be done with integrity and respect.

All told, I’ve communicated layoffs that affected the lives of more than 25,000 individuals and their families and communities. And I’ve had the job of rallying internal audiences and keeping them focused and productive once layoffs and facility closures were through.

The reason telling Wall Street that managing 17,000 people “for value” always backfires is that Wall Street isn’t the only audience. There are employees. They’re listening and, trust me, they are not impressed with “Up in the Air” glibness. That goes double if two separate departments are handling messaging, one spouting “managing for value” externally, and the other trying to ward off plummeting internal morale with compassion or simply by providing economic facts around a struggling business.

One of the most basic tenets of corporate communications is synching internal and external messages. No amount of compassion and respect in internal communications can combat hearing “managing for value” on TV.

If you do this right, you are hyper-aware throughout that layoffs are about human beings, not numbers. Compassion rules your heart and nothing blurs your vision of how this is done with integrity. Your credibility and your company’s rests on messaging – external and internal – that is respectful and, above all, consistent.

Clearing the Air around Firing

A side note about the misuse of language regarding layoffs: Isn’t it time we all – corporate communicators, reporters and HR people – stopped confusing layoffs with firing?

Firing is something that happens for cause, because an individual violates a policy, rules of conduct, or simply doesn’t perform appropriately in a job. Layoffs typically involve groups of employees and, while one or two might have made the list for cause, no one (especially not HR) will ever admit that.

Confusing or, worse, conflating “layoff” with “firing” does an enormous disservice to those who’ve just lost their jobs (and don’t particularly want to hear on the news that they’ve been “fired”) and the job-seekers who are trying to position themselves for new work (and don’t need the added pressure of having to answer an interview question like, “Why were you fired from your last job?” when in actuality they were laid off).

Getting Along with Your Gatekeeper: How to Work with Communications Reviewers

A satirical article about working with reviewers of the Legal and HR ilk apparently hit home for a lot of communications pros, judging by the comments.

Let’s face it: anyone who serves as a gate rather than a conduit for communications is going to conjure up some ire from time to time. But, are reviewers such easy targets? Are they entirely to blame for uncomfortable review sessions? Do they always turn prosaic prose into tangled turns of lawyerly phrases?

I’ll be honest: my immediate inclination was to add a “Me, too!” kind of comment to that article. But, in all fairness, I’d answer each of those three questions above with a resounding “No.”

I’ve worked with reviewers for three decades in this industry – from the Legal, HR, Marketing, Regulatory, and Employee Assistance departments, to outside legal counsel and senior business unit leaders. While it’s true that communications reviews are more detailed and onerous than ever before, I find them invaluable, not simply for ensuring accuracy, but in improving my writing.

In my last job, especially, where the content was incredibly technical (yet needed to be explained in every day English) and highly regulated, our R&D, Legal and Regulatory reviewers kept each description and sentence honed to the core of its meaning. There is no wiggle room in the increasingly regulated health-care industry for language that isn’t exact. If I’m honest about what I try to do every day as a writer, I couldn’t describe it any better. And our reviewers helped me achieve that goal of being a clearer, more specific writer, even as they red-lined words and whole paragraphs.

In short, they’ve made me a better writer, one who demands more of my own skills. That’s a definite upside.

There are edit sessions that lean more to the downside. We’ve all been there (as the many comments attached to that article testify). But, in today’s – and tomorrow’s – communications environment, I don’t expect we’ll ever be without reviewers. How do we make these partnerships work so that we communicators don’t feel like we’re constantly bashing our heads against an immovable obstacle?

Here are a few thoughts on maintaining a good relationship with gatekeepers:

Have a known review process
Whether you’re just starting to work with reviewers or have had a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach for years because you all know each other, take the time together to establish a process and put it in writing. Having a known route for review and approval is crucial – even if the process differs slightly each time based on content and new subject matter experts. When things are running smoothly, this doesn’t seem as important; when an error occurs, it can be the only thing that guides your team to a solution and a way to prevent the same problem in the future.

A slightly different interpretation of the same topic: Let each reviewer know who else will provide reviews and, if you’ve got a new player in the mix, what area each person is responsible for, so that no one assumes that certain fact-checking areas are covered when they’re not.

Schedule enough time for reviews
Whether your review cycle involves concurrent reviews (with everyone providing feedback to you, the writer, to collate) or sequential, build a schedule that is fair and respectful of everyone’s workload. This includes yours, if you need time for a final polish before the communication goes live.

Five business days is common courtesy, though unlikely in today’s corporate world. Two-to-three days is fair (if the reviewers agree that’s enough time), however, if you find yourself continually sending out review requests with High Priority exclamation points on them, it’s time to revisit the review process and talk with the team about adjusting the timeline so that everyone has enough time to cover the content they’re responsible for.

Meet your deadline – and help everyone on your review team meet theirs
Showing respect for your colleagues means not shortchanging their review time because you deliver late. If one of your reviewers is consistently missing her or his deadline, bring the team together and show them the review cycle in the form of an MS Project plan, with each person as a linked dependency to the other people in the review process. Note how one weak link in the chain can create havoc for everyone downstream. More to the point, link the seniors leaders or company initiatives that are dependent on this communication and explain what delay means in business terms.

Create understanding for the role of Communications
Surprisingly, this can create tremendous confusion in the review process. Legal and HR reviewers typically see themselves as the safekeepers of corporate reputation and information. If you find yourself repeatedly frustrated by disagreements over what cannot and what can be shared in corporate communications, what you may have is a misunderstanding about the role of Communications. (Or your reviewing departments may have mandates that you’re unaware of because you never explicitly asked.)

It’s worth at least a process check to help your reviewer colleagues understand that communicators have the exact same mandate to protect the company’s reputation and proprietary information and that you follow this mandate to the letter. Getting agreement on a shared set of values can go a long way toward cementing understanding of and team spirit around the work.

Share the purpose of the communication
You don’t need to go to great lengths here, simply include in your cover email the corporate goal, initiative or business unit that the communication supports; list the key messages you want to get across to the audience; note whether the audience is internal, external or both; and itemize key facts that you and your sources feel are vital to making the communication substantive. Be up-front about your goals, and you’ll create a clear sense of why certain information is included.

Find compromises
If an especially descriptive section or paragraph that you feel absolutely must be included – in fact, if it’s the heart of your piece – is causing consternation among your reviewers, and they won’t budge, ask them to be as specific as possible about what can’t go in. Sometimes it will be a single word that’s causing alarm or a turn of phrase that’s setting their teeth on edge. In these cases, your willingness to remove the cause for concern and finesse the language will enable your reviewers to see how the section contributes to the goals for the communication and greenlight what used to be a sea of red ink with only a minor change.

Be prepared to double-check facts
As part of the team, it’s important to share the work and worth the effort to re-check something, especially if it comes back with a red line through it. That senior business leader may, on second viewing, be glad his 10-year outlook on the company’s stock price was removed or revised to something a little less crystal ball-like.

Acknowledge reviewer contributions – before publishing and after
Thank reviewers for their help and their time and include a bulleted list of the agreed-upon changes you’ve made to the piece. Wait a week after publishing and consolidate all of the audience feedback and share it with reviewers.

Never respond to public comments by blaming an error on a reviewer. Ever noticed author acknowledgements in books? Paraphrased, this is what most of them say: “The things that make this book helpful and easy to read were contributed by my reviewers; all errors are mine.”

Follow up on errors offline, one-on-one. It’s a generous and team-spirited approach and one that goes a long way toward creating a conducive long-term working relationship with your gatekeepers.What about your department? How have you created effective partnerships with your reviewers? What tips would you share with fellow communicators?

The “Busy” Brand

There’s a lot of discussion in business journals about the importance of establishing and managing “your personal brand.” Today, I want to explore one specific aspect of the personal brand that unfortunately has become ubiquitous in the corporate environment: the “busy” brand.

Whichever attributes you’d like to be known for, it’s best to avoid the appearance of “busy-ness,” especially for corporate communicators.

This may seem contrary to your best interests when the economy continues to struggle and companies remain vigilant about cutting costs and headcount. But, take a moment to consider: There is a difference between being productive (an attribute your company values) and simply being busy.

There are distinct risks to branding yourself as busy (or “super busy” or, even worse, “too busy”):

Colleagues forget to include you – if you’ve been skipping collegial lunches for emails or eschewing after-work drinks or the softball game to log more desk time, that informal network which used to be invaluable to informing your work may evaporate. Over time, you’ll find work friends become less open to sharing information with you.

Direct reports avoid you – sending out signals that you’re swamped can impair your formal network, as well. Direct reports have a strong tendency to assume that the work their managers do is more important than the work they do and, in an effort to be helpful, they avoid interrupting that work. This means you lose opportunities to hear what’s going on in the department, to mentor and to help your employees prioritize their work.

Senior leaders don’t bring you new projects – let’s face it, the whole reason people adopt the “busy” brand is to have an impact on senior leaders. Either they’re trying to prove their value to the company or they’re trying to avoid being assigned too much work. The problem with the former is that senior leaders are pretty savvy about “busy-ness.” They know what their and your priorities are and, with hundreds of emails and voicemails of their own to respond to, the bar is mighty high when it comes to impressing them with “busy-ness.” The problem with branding yourself with “busy-ness” to avoid an even more onerous workload is that you may lose out on the chance to lead a key project or achieve an important stretch goal that a senior leader wanted to assign to you.

Clients in the business stop relying on you  communications as a function has spent years building its credibility in order to get a seat at the senior leaders’ table. Don’t lose that hard-won opportunity with your client groups in the business by portraying yourself as “too busy.” Take a hard look at your company: as busy as the communications function may be, the business functions are busier. You’ve worked hard to build a strong, trusting relationship with your clients; you want them to pick up the phone when they need help communicating (heck, you want them to pick up the phone and call you for advice about whether something requires communicating); don’t give clients a reason to avoid looping in communications.

You risk looking disorganized  communicators who over-promote their “busy-ness” by citing the deluge of emails and voicemails and meetings risk looking inefficient, and even ineffective, at something that’s supposed to be a key skill set: information management. Project management is also a required skill for the job. A communicator who spends too much time talking about their “busy-ness” just may set a boss (and HR) to thinking: “Why did we hire someone who doesn’t have these skills in the first place?”

You become suspect  when all this busy-ness fails to produce tangible results, more serious questions will be asked. “What have you been doing with your time?” “Where have you and your people been focused?” If there’s no strategic purpose to “busy-ness,” then there’s little benefit to your team, the communications department or the company.

For those who work in a function skilled at brand-building and message creation, the “busy” brand is one to skip. This isn’t a case of trying to establish a brand attribute in hopes it will impress others. You can be too good at branding yourself and, as a result, you might just get what you asked for.

P.S. In today’s Harvard Business Review blog, there’s an excellent post, titled “The Busyness Trap,” with helpful hints about information management.