A powerful leadership moment

We were scheduled to video Ernst & Young’s Global Vice Chair, Beth Brooke, for a video the firm wanted to submit to the Trevor Project in support of LGBT youth at risk.  Beth had been asked to appear in her role as global leader for diversity and inclusiveness, and we’d submitted a draft script of her remarks for her review.

The morning of the shoot, I sat at breakfast in my hotel in DC, thumbing my Blackberry, and I came across an email from Beth.  Attached was the script as she had revised it.  In her version, she was choosing to come out as a lesbian.  I think I said “Whoa!” out loud.

We spent time with Beth before the shoot that day, talking about what this would mean for her, not only as a leader at Ernst & Young but also as a prominent advocate for women’s leadership globally.  Ultimately, we were all confident it was the right thing to do.  But it was a very dramatic day.

If I’d been impressed with Beth before, I grew to be even more so, as I watched her step forward and exhibit a type of leadership many corporate executives rarely need to exercise: merging her business profile with her deeply personal experience.

What happened as a result?  Watch the video.  And here’s a link to the original Trevor Project video, featuring not only Beth but a number of other remarkable professionals who stepped forward in the same spirit of leadership.  In my years in corporate communications, this was one of my most deeply meaningful projects.


6 principles for managing info overload

Continued from last post . . . So here are those six principles for helping employees feel less overloaded with information.

  • Intrigue readers by being both understandable but also “pleasantly surprising”: Familiar Surprise.
  • Start out with an overview that tells employees what they’re receiving in the communication and its value to them, with “pointers” to what’s inside: a Detailed Overview.
  • “A high degree of novelty of message format and content” can cause overload, but use standard formats that can be flexible personalized: Flexible Stability.
  • Quantity overloads, so “reduce messages to their essential elements” and provide an easy way to navigate complex facts: Simple Complexity.
  • People absorb information in different ways, so use multiple formats; but aim to stay crisp and consistent:  Concise Redundancy.
  • “Although the provided information should be complete, it should still leave opportunities for recipients to elaborate on it”: Unfinished Completeness. 

These feel a little sterile as stated, but they really work when you’re up late pulling together the next round of routine communications.

Again, all from “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments,” by Martin Eppler and Jeanne Mengis, available here from the IABC.

The surprise factor

Continued from previous post . . . Sometimes all it takes for a message to cut through the clutter is to be surprising (and raising the bar as you go along).  TRANSFORM messages by:

     CONTEXTUALIZING . . . embed information where it’s needed and relate it to previous information

     PERSONALIZING . . . develop various versions with various levels of detail for targeted groups

     ELABORATING . . . create value-added information (action items, ratings and rankings by the community on information usefulness, stories, metaphors, etc.)   [Ed. note: Sparingly.]

     STANDARDIZING . . . set guidelines for communication and information formats, such as e-mail and reporting etiquette.  (Heard of the “Bill Gates format” at Microsoft?)

     VISUALIZING . . . graphs and diagrams, but also qualitative methods like visual metaphors or sketches

I’m a big fan of visualizing.  Note how the White House has picked up on this.

Five mechanisms for transforming messaging, from Eppler and Mingis.

Final post on this topic: their six RECOMMENDATIONS for communicating in an “overload environment.”

Putting comms on a diet

Continued from previous post . . . Eppler and Mingis have six RECOMMENDATIONS for reducing communication overload; and additionally they describe MECHANISMS that help comms get attention, enable quick comprehension and create info easy to remember and act upon.

The MECHANISMS fall into two categories: reducing and transforming.  Give them a try, and model your behavior to others (ask your team members to give them a try as well).

Mechanisms that REDUCE

Compress . . . limit e-mail to one topic per message; adjust intranet content to avoid scrolling; provide an executive summary with every report; at meetings, keep statements short and iterate contributions.

Aggregate . . . provide digests of group discussions via e-mail; provide a discussion group (newsgroup) instead of e-mail conversations; provide intranet site map/portal and tag clouds, if applicable; build reports with the main implication, key findings and underlying facts as a summary; pull together live summaries of meeting content using graphic facilitation (tools like lets-focus.com).

Sequence / bundle . . . e-mail digests that summarize; RSS feeds; fixed meeting dates and times.

Next post: mechanisms that TRANSFORM.  Then on to those recommendations.

Info overload? Take action

In my view, information overload is at the heart of stressful corporate cultures.  It can be both a symptom of chaos and the disease itself.  I can almost guarantee that no one you talk to has a clue what to do about it.  It seems embedded, enterprise-wide . . . and everyone’s too stressed to tackle it.

I’m going to run a series of posts that hone in on specific solutions, from an outstanding IABC publication, “Preparing Messages for Information Overload Environments,” by Martin Eppler and Jeanne Mengis.

To start off, I thought this breakdown of what makes up overload was pretty cool.  It’s more than just quantity.

How much?  Intensity: number of messages per time unit
                     Quantity: number of messages and amount of information per message

What kind?   Uncertainty of information . . . sources are unclear, evidence is contradictory
                     Ambiguity of information . . . multiple interpretations are possible and equally likely
                     Diversity of information . . . similar information is in different styles and formats
                     Novelty of information . . . new and unknown insights in unusual style or format
                     Complexity of information . . . number of info items and interrelations are high

It would seem the solution is just “simplification.”  But stay tuned.

I’m available to consult with you or your business if you’d like to do a specific analysis of your own communication environment and pilot some solutions.

Telling a customer they’re the "axis of evil" ??

Heard a remarkable story from a web broadcast panel from Social Media Week.  Adobe had encouraged some of their knowledge experts to blog externally as a way of extending the company brand.  And at one point, the CEO had to personally make an apology call to a customer because one of their employees had written a blog entry calling that customer “the axis of evil.”


Rather than fire the employee, they worked with him instead to bring him along, show him the reach of their brand and what issues could emerge, and wound up with someone with a deeper understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of community communications.

This is the way of business use of social media: you’ve got to be committed to continuous learning.

Happy Social Media Week!

Feb 13-17, in case you missed it.  Just watched a great archived webcast from the SAP Conference for Social Media Week.  Mark Yolton of SAP, Rachel Happe of The Community Roundtable, and Maggie Fox of the Social Media Group delivered a lot of insights about the new ways employee engagement and marketing work in the social media environment.  Some of my favorite bits, with implications for internal communications:

  • When you’re dealing with truly engaged social communities, you need to be prepared and willing to embrace the quirks of human behavior.  (Mark Y.)  Meaning you need to basically like people and who they are, and not basically fear what “they” will do to “your” social media.  
  • As you build online communities, have the sponsorship and executive coverage to allow you to “fail forward fast.” (Mark Y.)  Being completely careful will likely mean you will be passed up in the emerging marketplace.  Correct quickly and move on.
  • In a business world where every conceivable process has been optimized, relationships and culture are the only sustainable advantage.  (Rachel H.)  My own take on this is that professional communicators can really help sustain that advantage by saving people from drowning in social options: streamlining.
  • Present state of marketing: no filters + low barriers to entry = high noise-to-signal ratio.  (Maggie F.)  Contrast that to the day when TV advertising ruled.  Not news for consumer marketing, but now the true description of what it feels like in the internal comms environment as well.  

Over 90 minutes, but many “aha” moments make it well worth the time for your communications team.