Thursday, May 09, 2013

And Improve Our Communications Skills...

'The main problem here is communication.' I have often heard this said in church meetings, groups and organisations. And when it is said it is often greeted by nodding heads from some (who agree but have never said so) and surprised looks by others (who had no idea it was a problem and even having heard it expressed still can't believe it).

So you carry out a communications review maybe? You discover that people value things that are relatively unimportant and don't want to think about them being changed. When they hear 'communications review' they imagine their favourite thing (organisation's notice board or special place on a shelf full of leaflets) is under threat.

And the review ends up with a huge reporting bias because people will find a way to include that one thing, the single occasion, where they didn't know something they should have known and missed an appointment or responsibility.

And they will weigh in with a critique of that so strongly that they don't recall all the times communication was good. Because no-one ever leaves a meeting or hall and says, 'You know that was exactly the right length.' Or 'The temperature in that room was perfect today.' The one bad experience casts a long shadow over the good ones.

And of course, because this always happens, in a church that has abandoned their Parish Magazine as an effective tool (and I have worked in three) there will be a call for its return.

Three of the parishes I work in currently have A4 folded magazines on white paper (with cardboard, A4 folded covers in a pastel shade) containing predictable vicars' letters, filler 'funnies', cartoons, rotas, adverts from undertakers and information only the members of a small group (who already have it) need to know. But those people get very upset if their group is omitted.

There is an organisation at a local church called After Eights. I have said for some time that the advert for its meeting gives no indication whatsoever as to who might be able to attend. Is it a men's group? Ladies? Adults? Older people? For the first time ever I saw, in the text describing a future meeting, a sentence that addressed 'Ladies'. I had no idea. Shouldn't that be the headline?

Here's the trouble. Initiates easily forget that communication is not only internal. And if you forget that you end up with a notice board containing seventeen different sheets of closely-typed A4 and an organisation that is proud of its communication because, 'Everything is there for you to see.' See? You mean 'read' - with a magnifying glass and a strong constitution.

The trouble in this day and age is not too little communication but too much. And too much poor communication at that. A notice sheet with a notice of the week underlined verbally and any extra local notices that people need to do for an individual congregation. Notice boards in obscure places where no-one stops. Weekly emails (to some congregations, not all). A four times a year parish mailshot. A web-site. Some Facebook and Twitter presence but not consistent. A few leaders have blogs but not all are updated regularly. Extra emails and of course, phone calls, for urgent matters.

We don't have too little communication, we have too much. It is so constant and repetitious it is like missing all the signs in a big store because there are too many. Oh, baskets only. Sorry I never noticed.

And a final problem. Not all those who communicate in writing or up-front are trained at it. But they all seem to think they are good. (Pause to chase cat out of garden.) I hear Dick Lucas say, 'Brother can you summarise your message in a sentence or two?' It means that he thinks you are waffling and should pay more attention to deciding on your main point before speaking. You have to give feedback to the bad notice-givers.

You could appoint a communications officer but unless that person turns out to be passionate about communicating and not put off at the first sign of people being unreceptive (which they are and have every right to be) it will fail. And in a large and growing parish that is almost a part-time job. It is probably beyond the scope of a volunteer with any other responsibilities.

You could strip down communications to a bare minimum. Rely on word-of-mouth more because everyone is talking about what we are doing. And add in new layers only when it becomes absolutely obvious that we can't do without them.

I am not a good editor. I have too few completer/finisher genes. But I can write, a bit. If asked to 'wordsmith' a piece of writing I will normally shorten sentences and take out three syllable words. I don't muck around with the sense of a piece but simply try to make its current intention more readable.

And I have tried, over the years, to capture a certain amount of precision in my spoken contributions which I restrict, if possible, to those occasions when I have something to say. It is a lifetime's learning and I may peak soon as old-age and forgetfulness start to take their cut. If you have never listened to yourself it is a good exercise to record a meeting you are involved in and then listen back to your contributions. How many words did you use before there was something people could grab onto to know what the subject was? Did you know what you wanted to say before you started speaking. Did you change the subject? Was everyone ready for that? How did the length of your contributions compare to everyone else's?

And for those who chair or co-ordinate. My bugbear. Is this the sort of meeting where you need to indicate to the chair that you want to speak? Some guidance from the front at the beginning please.

A few years back I helped interview some people for a communications job. One of the questions was 'How will you make internal communications in the organisation more effective?' The answer from one person, which surprised me but gave me a sense of the applicant's big vision for the work, was that he would make the organisation so famous around the country by telling everyone what we were up to that everyone internally would be sure to be aware. Internal comms would be solved by external. I think he scared everyone and didn't get appointed.

But I loved the vision.

So my closing question in all communication problems is this: Will you want to know what's going on so much that you will make sure you find out even if the communication is poor? Because if you do, perversely, the communication will be good.


Anonymous said...

Good writer? Any evidence of that (I've not seen any)?

St said...

Sorry? Where did anyone claim to be a good writer?

Tim Sudworth said...

Great post steve - once at a pcc evening training where a person from a christian organisation (nameless) did a structure review for the evening. Perosn did intro as to what was happening in evening. The person to my left handed me a sheet of paper on it he had put - 'Conclusion - we need to work on our communications more' He was 100% correct sadly - the church this happened in had got a brilliant communications person - best magazine i have seen outside of HTB circuit - excellent web site etc