February 3, 2020
Strategic Communications: Our most popular workshop and how it can make for better decisions and less deadly meetings
If you’ve attended a meeting in the past 20 years, you know the pain of PowerPoint-driven communication: too many pages, too many words, too hard to find the message. Exasperated executives know that colleagues are well intended when they march through the data they’ve worked so hard to assemble. But leaders can’t help wish for the answer to a fundamental question: so what? Sure, this information is nice, but what’s the point?
Kenning partners Cathy Boeckmann and Jerry Stauduhar have been facilitating Kenning’s Strategic Communications workshop for more than a decade. In this interview, they explain how the workshop offers not only the elusive cure for death by PowerPoint but also improves most any other form of written or oral communication.
The workshop is called Strategic Communications. What does that mean? What does the workshop cover?
We show participants how to take an intentional, disciplined approach to creating a document. By default, most teams assemble a bunch of slides on a topic and then add, delete, and reorder them, usually resulting in a bloated presentation that lacks a clear logical flow.
Instead, this workshop gives participants the skills to follow a better process: synthesize insights from raw information, create a storyline that answers the audience’s most pressing question, and then assemble visually effective slides to tell that story. We believe that if a presentation curates the right information to answer the right question, it serves a strategic purpose. At their best, strategic communications provide fact-based arguments to support actionable recommendations, resulting in focused debate and better business decisions.
In addition, I think choosing to communicate using the top-down or “pyramid” approach advocated in the program is also a strategic move for the communicator. It has to do with a mindset shift: moving from merely putting a lot of information or data together in a semi-organized format and letting the audience decide what it all means, to putting forward a point of view about what it all means, based on your expertise on the topic, and supporting it with only the data that really matters. We often ask, is it your job as a leader to just push information about this topic, or is it your job to bring a well-reasoned perspective about it to your audience? As Cathy said, this approach does not stifle discussion and input from an audience, but rather helps frame the issues at a high level and focus valuable discussion time on key questions, rather than wasting it lost in the weeds.
Why do you think Strategic Communications is Kenning’s most popular workshop? What makes it a desirable investment for clients?
We have offered this workshop a lot – probably in the range of a dozen times a year since 2002 – overwhelmingly at the request of our clients. One company has sent 250 employees through the session in the past 3 years, and they are expecting to train another 50 this year. So yes, we get a lot of pull for this workshop.
I think the simple explanation for the popularity is that it delivers clear value that leaders see and feel immediately and on a daily basis. When workshop participants shift their approach to lead with insights rather than information, it starts conversations in a different place. Leaders waste less time asking for their teams to clarify their thinking. Decision making happens faster. I also think that the skills that make this possible are fairly easy to learn and apply. It’s just that most people have never been exposed to them.
I think we are really filling a need in the business world. Since many Kenning partners once worked for large professional services firms, the alumni of these firms are a core part of our client base. Many of them now hold leadership positions at major companies across sectors and they want their teams to be able to communicate with them, and other executives, in the clear, concise, well-reasoned way they were trained to do when they were management consultants. So, we’ve taken the tried-and-true principles that are well-known in that world and updated and combined them to fit the realities of how business works today. It’s a big challenge to cut through the clutter and noise of all the media and messaging available to everyone today, and it turns out one of the best ways to do that is to take the time to synthesize what you know into meaningful insights, and then organize them into a compelling, easy to understand story.
Along with that, we make the workshop as interactive, hands-on, and practice-based as possible – short lectures followed by application. Whenever possible, we incorporate examples from the client team’s real work into our presentation and practice materials, which increases the immediacy, relevance, and impact for the participants.
We all know that a workshop experience is just a-day-in-the-life, and that lasting change requires practice and reinforcement. How have your clients made that happen?
One of my clients gets great value out of this workshop because they have established a clear learning journey both before and after. First, participants must be nominated to attend because they are in a role that requires them to share insights with leaders. Then, before the workshop, attendees are asked to meet with their managers to discuss their communications and what the opportunity is. They also select an example of their writing to bring to the course. During the workshop, like Jerry mentioned, participants apply the skills directly to their work by rethinking and reordering that writing sample, so they can see immediately how using the skills would result in a different way of communicating.
On the day after the workshop, I meet one-on-one with each participant for a coaching conversation to help consolidate the learning and put together a plan for how they are going to use the skills. And the HR training team really backs this up! Participants are required to create a 30-day action plan and submit their original writing sample and a re-written version to verify that the skills are taking root. After a few weeks, the HR team sends participants an article to read and a video to watch. After a few weeks more, HR sends a short online quiz to check for retention of skills and concepts. It’s a well thought out sequence.
Thinking about this as a journey is so important. How people communicate is so closely tied to their own internal operating systems – developed and ingrained over the course of their lives. It’s unreasonable to think they can change everything in one day. The workshop serves to introduce critical concepts and initiate some practice, but skills need to be reinforced over time for them to take hold and for people to make positive changes to their mindset and practices longer term.
Follow-up coaching is one form of reinforcement that has worked well for my clients. I sometimes hold one-on-one coaching sessions with workshop participants, but I’m also a big fan of group coaching sessions so that multiple participants have the chance to learn from each other’s experiences. Either way, the goal of the coaching is for people to get guidance and input as they make their first attempts at applying the new concepts to their real, live work. This helps seal the learning for the coachee, and has the added benefit of producing better, clearer, more on-point documents for the organization immediately.
Does it have to be a workshop? What about clients who need a different format?
While we have talked about Strategic Communications as a workshop, I actually think about it more broadly as a set of important principles that can be shared with clients in a wide variety of formats. A full-day introductory workshop followed by reinforcing coaching is ideal, but we recognize that is not practical or cost effective for all clients. So we’ve adapted the content and exercises for a variety of formats, media, and learning goals. We’ve done shorter, high-level introductory sessions for groups of 100 or more, and we often cover this material with individuals one-on-one in coaching engagements when convening a larger group doesn’t make sense. We’re pretty flexible in working with clients to develop the solution that works best for their needs, and we’re always honest about the pros and cons of one approach versus another.
To build on that, if adding a workshop isn’t feasible, the content can also be incorporated into the training that the company is already invested in. For example, a client of mine is experimenting with baking Strategic Communications skills into its core leadership development programs. Like many companies, this client selects cohorts of rising stars to go through a multi-month leadership development experience; as part of the experience, teams are given business problems to dig into, with the expectation that they will present solutions to the senior leadership team at the end of the program. I offer the Strategic Communications workshop at the midpoint of program. This gives participants defined expectations for how they will go about constructing their final presentation. It ensures that they will tell a story with a clear “so what” and a tight, logical storyline. And it starts to establish a norm for how communications to senior leaders should look and feel, which eventually will get baked into the company culture. All this offers the potential for broad and lasting impact.