How to make better communication planning a habit

Shot of a group of business colleagues meeting in the boardroom

It’s been a decade since journalist and trend-spotter Malcolm Gladwell introduced us to the idea of the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell contended that among a range of factors, practice is the most common denominator in outstanding success. While even Gladwell himself acknowledges this is an oversimplification, the principle applies to many fields, including communication management.

One challenge communicators describe is getting into the practice of effective communication planning. This topic comes up frequently in communication training that I facilitate, both at the level of emerging practitioners and for more senior communicators. “Our organization just wants the outcome, they don’t value the planning.” Or, “We have to have a plan for everything but then it goes into the drawer.” The approach for many practitioners is to find an example of a plan that has worked and to try to adopt that into their organization.champ1

The risk with this “template-led” approach to communication planning is that frequently a communication plan documents an approach but does not display the thinking that has been applied to ensure that approach is right for that environment.

A plan is a tool with multiple uses

Each organization has its own preferences for how it consumes information. You might work in an organization that is PowerPoint-crazy where people are unable to read a document in portrait mode. Or perhaps your organization relies on traditional project tools, or kanbans.

The point is, a communication plan is:

  • A tool for sharing information—communicating—the key information to others involved in the communication process.
  • A way of managing implementation.
  • Living documents that are tracked and evolve through the implementation process.

Planning templates are useful, but not as a substitute for the process of communication planning. Rather than answer the question “What’s the best template for a communication plan?” I encourage communicators to understand and practice a planning process instead.

Building the communication planning habit

It’s not just Malcolm Gladwell who encourages the idea of practice to achieve mastery. Across fields as diverse as science, the performing arts, personal fitness and writing, habit-building is an important foundation whether your goal is to achieve greatness or just pure enjoyment.

For communicators, treating every communication, regardless of scale or of how “business as usual” it might seem, as an opportunity to build the planning habit provides a number of benefits.

  • Challenging our “first thinking.” While many communication decisions are based on sound instinct and applied experience, testing our thinking each time can help challenge assumptions.
  • Building awareness of the function. While it can be rewarding to have the skills to improve communication, showing how the process works demonstrates to stakeholders that communication planning is a professional process, not just an intuitive talent.
  • Amplifying capability. By showing others how something is done, we do not diminish our own capability as communicators. Rather, we grow the skills across our organizations or client groups. In contemporary organizations, everybody is a communicator. Giving people a process to challenge their own thinking is a valuable contribution to improving communication across the board.
  • We get better. Using a consistent approach allows for communicator’s creativity to come to the fore in the way that solutions are developed in response to the needs and outcomes required.

The purple unicorn of communication planning

If there’s no magical template that solves all communication challenges, how can there be a universal process? In looking at excellence in communication planning from around the world for over a decade, I’ve identified five components that consistently ensure that communication matches the need, regardless of scale, experience or circumstance.

These five components can be used by a manager planning a one-to-one communication with a team member or by a corporate affairs leader facilitating strategic planning with her executive team. They apply as universally to a not-for-profit seeking to deepen relationships with their stakeholders as they do to a startup preparing to pitch for angel funding.

  1. Context. What is going on here?
  2. Outcomes. What needs to change as a result of communicating?
  3. Messages. What messages are needed to drive action, create engagement or convey information?
  4. Methods. Given the context, the outcomes and the messages, how will you communicate?
  5. Support. What is needed to deliver on the previous steps? Think of people, time and budget.

In this process, measurement and metrics are not a separate step, because different types of measurement, metrics, or research can apply at each step.


Practice using these five questions every time you communicate

Each of the five components has supporting tools, questionnaires and tips for use according to the type of environment and communication you are planning. But even asking yourself these five questions at the start of every communication exercise will help build your planning muscles.

  1. What is the CONTEXT of this communication?
  2. What OUTCOME am I intending by communicating?
  3. How can I create a MESSAGE that supports the outcome in that context?
  4. What METHOD is best suited to the message, the outcome and the context?
  5. What do I need to SUPPORT this communication activity?

Author’s note: This is the simplest overview of the Shorter COMMS Plan. Additional resources and tools are available. I developed the Shorter COMMS Plan and have released it under a Creative Commons license to improve communication planning capability for all professional communicators. 

Jonathan Champ

Jonathan helps organizations communicate meaningfully. He is the founder of Meaning Business and creator of the Shorter COMMS Plan. He has two decades experience delivering change communication, leadership and engagement across corporate, community and NFP sectors. He tweets about #comms as @meaningbusiness.

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