Can’t we all just get along? Building bridges for that Corporate/Division communications “healthy tension”

June 24th, 2014

If you’ve ever worked in – or for – a large organization, chances are you’ve experienced that eternal “healthy tension” between corporate communications and division or subsidiary communications.

You know what I’m talking about. That last-minute request from corporate to drop everything you’re doing and prepare something for a CEO visit. That division call telling you your corporate message won’t fly in the division because it’s at odds with their five priority messages.


Whether your communications function is centralized, decentralized or some hybrid version, the perennial question inevitably is, “How can we address a corporate and division communications agenda without bloodshed?”

I’ve often taken refuge in the phrase “healthy tension” to describe that relationship. It signals that both corporate and division agendas are important, and at the same time connotes that those agendas are not always in harmony.

But it doesn’t mean that we communicators shouldn’t stop trying to get better alignment. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t a few ideas that can help. I thought I’d offer a few ideas that have helped me — and my clients — and would invite you to share some that have worked for you.

Talk. Yes, you’re probably rolling your eyes, but it’s amazing to me how often I discover that Corporate and Division/subsidiary communicators plan and execute independently – as in, they’ve never talked about what common ground might exist between both/all camps. The first critical need is a shared set of message platforms. And the time to slog through that messaging is not in the middle of a project or crisis. Corporate and division/subsidiary teams should review a shared set of messages every year as they go through planning, and re-visit those messages at least once or twice a year. As “home base” for safe messaging, it can make drafting and approvals far more efficient, too.

Get to the common ground. When corporate and division/subsidiary communicators connect, chances are good that they’ll find common stakeholders that everybody wants to engage. Whether it’s a corporate reputation issue that enhances the needs of both, or a marketing initiative that improves everybody’s bottom line, when you map out the stakeholders and start thinking through messaging, some big things can happen. The key is to plan together.

Measure it, and it’ll get done. We’ve all heard that one, but when corporate and division communicators – and their respective executive teams — believe that a shared communication agenda can drive results for both, then there’s nothing like a measureable goal to galvanize focus and energy around a shared goal. It’s really important for both communications/functional leadership AND senior executive leadership to agree to messaging and measurement as the foundation for setting shared goals.

Start small. In organizations with no long (or strong) history of integrated communications planning and executive between corporate and division communications, even small steps can help pave the way for better future results. It can be using a few simple sentences or phrases, or using consistent anecdotes to illustrate key business priorities. But even starting with something this simple – and importantly, recognizing, rewarding and reinforcing that behavior – can help you build something much bigger for the future.

Change perspectives. Communications professionals who haven’t worked in both Corporate and Division/subsidiary roles can never fully understand the pressures on both sides until they’ve “walked a mile” in someone else’s shoes. Rotating people in and out of corporate and division roles, or providing temporary work experiences in the “other” environment, can work wonders in delivering a new perspective that helps everyone appreciate the different environmental pressures, and prompt much more flexibility for future negotiations. Try it.

Those are some starter ideas. What would you add?

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Posted in Destinations

It’s performance review season: ho-ho-HELP!

January 16th, 2014

Yeah, Happy New Year, now tell me what you did last year.  Maybe it’s not quite that abrupt, but this time of year, Communications and Marketing professionals have to launch 2014 initiatives while prepping to tell their own stories of 2013 performance for upcoming reviews.  Whether we’re reviewing our team members or gearing up for our own reviews, there are a few things that help both sides of the equation.


In managing my own teams over the years, my biggest goal was not to have any surprises for the people I managed. While I can’t say I got to 100% every year, the number of surprises decreased significantly by exercising these practices. Admittedly, most of them have everything to do with what we should have been doing all year long (versus what we’re doing to prepare now). So if they help you set up a better discussion for next year, I’ll call that a win, too.


Get Specific: I suspect most of us have heard of  S.M.A.R.T. objectives (Specific, Measureable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Specific).  Maybe you’re not a fan of mnemonics, but this one from Peter Drucker always has made sense for me, and for my teams. Easy to remember, covers the basics and puts specifics on paper.


Include insights from a range of stakeholders: Good managers will seek input from a range of stakeholders who an employees connects or collaborates with, but employees should do the very same. It helps provide perspective from someone other than – well, you. Nothing like that third party to sell a point of view, right?


Don’t wait until the end of the year: So this one’s too late for 2013, but you should be thinking about — and collecting — feedback and insights throughout the year from your clients. It can come in the form of email, a hand-written note, or even a  photo or video. They all help sell the story of your trials and triumphs.


Present the big picture: No one is perfect, and the tone and intent of your self-reported progress takes a much more authentic tone if you include what you rocked with, along with what you’ve learned. This may sound counterintuitive to some, but  learning from failures or disappointments can show your manager your commitment to growth and your transparency in reporting. If there are one or two goals that you came close to achieving, and you know the boss is aware of them, focus on the learnings and what you’ve done to adjust for next time. You’ll at least buy yourself some authenticity points.


Don’t write the novel: Many organizations have forms that limit how much data you can input to show what you’ve done towards an established goal.  Still others have seemingly unending space.  You think your boss wants to read a novel? You’re a communicator or marketer, so communicate like one. Get to the point, and ensure they actually line up with the stated goal.  PS – If you don’ t have clearly articulated goals, guess who will end up being hurt most by it at the end of the year? Yes, it rhymes with ewe.


Get clarity around “meeting” versus “exceeding” the goal: Getting 1.4 million impressions versus 1.3 million on the goal is a technical win, but likely won’t buy you many points for “exceeding” a goal. Smart managers are looking for impact of your work, so if the extra 100,000 impressions reached a new stakeholder group that generated a real business impact, THAT’s where exceeding a goal starts coming into focus. You should be thinking about how your accomplishments exceeded not just the number goals, but how they contributed to real business results, created a new capability, saved money, accelerated performance and launched new opportunities for business growth. In other words – as I always like to say – what’s the REAL outCOME? Not the output. Here again, getting clarity with your manager can help – up front. “Manager, what might exceeding this goal look like to you?”  My wife likes to tell the story of asking a great question to a potential boss during a job interview. She was so impressed with herself for asking the question that she forgot to listen to his response!  Ah, the power of a question, and its answer.


Most of us have been at this a while, so it’s all about stepping back from time to time, and reminding ourselves what real performance looks like to us, our managers and the businesses we serve. But there’s also real power in talking with our teammates about these kinds of specifics. It helps align expectation and really reduces the potential for those unpleasant “surprises” at review time. And  let’s face it — we can all use more of that.


Posted in Destinations

Six things a communications pro should never say

December 5th, 2013

One thing every communicator knows is that the words we choose matter. We sometimes agonize over a single word or phrase that captures the essence of our message for our clients, products or services. We obsess over how that “overarching message” works across a range of stakeholders.

But when it comes to our own work, we sometimes overlook or forget that the way we communicate about our own work can help or really hinder our own professional growth. That’s especially true when the words are tied to actions or behaviors we should be showing our managers, customers and other leaders who can impact our careers.

When I talk with people managers of communicators who need coaching, I’ve noted a number of comments that no communicator should ever utter, and no manager of a communications professional ever wants to hear.

Of course the list could be much larger, and there are always circumstances that can influence our choices, but in the spirit of working smarter and managing our own reputations, here are the top six that no communicator should ever speak.

I didn’t think it would matter externally. There’s no such thing as an internal message that doesn’t move into the realm of external stakeholders. Assume anything created for internal distribution will be read by media, customers, suppliers, competitors and any other external constituent. Better response: We’ve considered both internal and external stakeholders.

I didn’t think it would matter internally. If it’s important enough to put in a press release and share externally, you can bet your employees want to know about it, too. Every communications plan or event that’s teed up for external distribution should have an internal component as well. Better response (this looks familiar): We’ve considered both internal and external stakeholders.

There isn’t a way to measure that. Maybe you don’t have the budget to do research polling, or media measurement, but there’s something in EVERY communication plan that can be measured. From the basics of on-time, on-budget and executed-to-plan to more specific metrics around message delivery, placement and reach, every plan needs a metrics component. Better response: We can cover basics on measurement for on-time, on-budget and execution-to-plan, but we’ll need additional resources to get more specifics on other metrics.

I think (insert name) is handling that piece: The best plans in the world won’t matter much if there isn’t clear accountability for who does what, when, and with what tools. It’s about the specific details on execution. Expressions like “I think” send a message that you haven’t cemented the details and thus, there’s risk in executing the plan. Better response: “There’s a detailed work plan with who has what accountabilities, sequencing and what tools they’ll be using at the back of this planning document.”

I didn’t think I needed to run this by (insert name/function). Every communication plan needs to be reviewed by a specific group of people and/or functions. It’s about compliance/disclosure in many organizations, and simple alignment in all of them. Discussing specifics with your manager or function head – as you begin the planning process – is the critical first step to mapping out various approvals required from leaders and key functions, like HR and Legal. Better response: “We mapped out approvals when we began, and have secured all necessary reviews and approvals to this point in the planning process.”

I wasn’t aware of . . .There are always events, conditions and circumstances that we can never know because they’re confidential inside our organization, but I’m talking about the news that came today, last week, or a month ago from a competitor, customer, legislator, regulator or other stakeholder: the stuff we should know. Ideally, we never say this because our Google alerts tip us off in real time. But it never hurts to do one additional search – a double check on issues surrounding our plan — before a plan or draft document gets routed or presented for review. It’s all about doing our homework. Better response: “I was aware of that, and have made the following adjustments to our plan/messaging:…”

These communication no-nos are most relevant when the communicator has had advanced planning time to pull together a communications initiative. But even under tight deadlines, they represent a strong discipline that make all of us better at what we do.




Posted in Destinations

Test your crisis plan – before it tests you: 6 tips to ensure readiness

October 17th, 2013

A few years ago, I’d taken a leadership role with a new communications team. After a month or so on the job, I asked the senior team members to participate in a table-top crisis drill, just so I could understand the processes and protocols built into the team’s crisis response plan.

I introduced the first “event” for this crisis drill – which essentially indicated we did not have access to the corporate headquarters building to which we reported each day. My first question: where/how do we convene this team?

It wasn’t just a dead silence that followed. It was that – plus a bit of embarrass-ment – and a dash of humiliation. I didn’t create a crisis drill with any of this in mind – especially this fast. I figured it would be three or four “events” into the process before we hit a snag around who to engage or how to reach a set of stakeholders.

I’m often perplexed by how seldom communications teams test their crisis response capabilities. Usually, I hear rationales like, “We work crises every day. We know how to handle crises.” I infer from those kinds of comments that comms professionals have dissected more common kinds of issues that – if not addressed – would damage reputation and harm the business in material ways. This is a good thing.

But I never walk away with the feeling that they’ve anticipated some of the other — really basic – things that show a communications team humming in synch.  It’s the stuff – when overlooked – that makes a team look like it never thought about crisis response.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that no team can prepare for every potential crisis, and that every real crisis is different. But I do think every team should have a core set of capabilities in place. So, with that in mind, here’s a list of ‘must-haves’ that every communications teams should test — long before the spit hits the fan, so to speak.


  • Say it together: redundancies are good: Murphy’s law says that no one is ever sitting at his or her desk when a real crisis hits. Crisis communications response roles need to be clear, but every member needs more than one role so that there are backfills in place for the most critical jobs. Go three-deep and build redundancies into your role planning. And while you’re at it, apply the redundancy factor to key processes and protocols, too. Cell phones won’t be working, emails won’t go through and text messages will be lost
  • Inside and outside together: Mr. or Ms. Internal Communicator, this is for you, too. It doesn’t matter if you do benefits communications, org comms or any other type of communications designed for internal stakeholders. The fact is that crisis response often is driven by external communications professionals. Sometimes the internal stakeholder is overlooked or downplayed. Both are equally important, and crisis response plans should be built – AND TESTED – by an integrated team of professionals.
  • Test often: Anytime a communications pro hears “often,” it’s usually met with rolled eyes and a response like “sure, right.”  But an investment in building crisis response is one of the most important a team can make. The full team should do two to three table top drills a year (no more than an hour in duration), and a full-scale, real-time drill should be part of the department plan every 12-18 months. In between, sub functions should test their own capabilities (command center set up; notification systems,  internal communications etc).  I also found that rotational assignments to develop and execute the crisis drills keeps key players engaged in a more positive way.
  • Anticipate big issues – With all due respect to my colleagues who view themselves as daily masters of crises, I’d suggest that team leaders really think through some of the more potentially dangerous crises that are specific to the business – things like corporate malfeasance, physical/high visibility problems (explosions, power-related issues); technology driven problems (cyber attacks) and risks around diversity related to employees, contractors etc. This, by no means, is a complete list, but it’s a good start to thinking through the big ones that can wreak havoc on businesses and brands.
  • Oh, don’t forget locations (and tools): Technology certainly helps teams manage crises more effectively from remote locations, but don’t forget to build tests that include locations being closed and tools not being available (eg no power/internet access at home = no access to critical tools); building in redundancies for these issues will help address some of the most overlooked capabilities that comms teams need.
  • Attitude adjustment, please – this is about making us all look better: Perhaps the biggest challenge with testing ourselves on crisis response capabilities is shifting attitudes away from fear (discovering we suck at something) and toward building something better.  I’ve discovered the more a team works at testing and building, the less crisis testing becomes about fear of being exposed.  Conversely, the less time and energy a team spends on self testing, the more fearful it becomes with drills – and justifiably so. And the embarrassment goes much further than a table top drill with peers, if you catch my drift.



Posted in Destinations

Wild West Days of Social Media Are Over: Time For Some Discipline, Communicators

September 16th, 2013

Within the last year, I’ve attended dozens of meetings with communicators in which a single, consistent order is dispatched: “We’ve got to incorporate social media in ALL our strategies.”

To the casual observer, it sounds like a slam dunk. Right? After all, we know how to create a Facebook page or Twitter handle, and we’ve honed the craft of writing in 140 characters or less.

Then there are those thoughtful thinkers who pause for a moment to go deeper in understanding what it means to be strategic with social media.

And to others, anything social media falls in what they believe is the age of experimentation: the “Wild West” of the Internet. While I’m a big proponent of innovating with social media strategies, the days of the Wild West are – in a word — over.

What all these communicators have in common is the need for consistent definitions of social media competencies. Let’s face it; we’ve had enough experience with this stuff to put some discipline behind the skills that work in this space. Social media teams – agency and corporate alike – are seeing their ability to add headcounts slow.  They’ve hired professionals who had deep capabilities in one or a few areas, but need to let more out of them now.

The new reality for communicators at all levels is that we have to develop deeper, broader and more integrated social media skill sets — for ourselves, our teams and our businesses.

That’s where my journey began in January of this year – when Shel Holtz and Richard Binhammer joined me in identifying social media competencies, and articulating what it looks like to progress through them (basic, mid-level, advanced).

It was a fascinating journey that yielded – count ‘em – 34 different competencies that fell into four broad categories:

  • Content production; think blogging, podcasting and graphics-type skills here.
  • Project management skills particular to social media; such as search engine optimization (SEO), blogger influencer outreach, media buying and more.
  • Social-specific skills; like community management, social customer service and monitoring and a bunch more.
  • Social media center of excellence leadership skills; including cross-functional team coordination, policy development and management, and governance, among others.

Based on what we’ve seen and learned, our assertion is that while some organizations have basic social media development efforts in place for broad-based employee groups, there is limited discipline around competencies. The need for high-functioning social media teams is increasingly important as use of social media by business grows and integration of social media into business processes becomes more common.


  • 79% of companies use, or are imminently planning to use, social media. Nearly half of the companies who were rated as “effective” in social media said it was integral to the company strategy. – Harvard Business Review Analytics Services
  • 52% of executives say that social business is important to their companies today. 86% say it will be vital in three years. 28% of CEOs say social business is vital to their organizations. – MIT Sloan Management Review 2012 Social Business Global
  • During the next five years, CEOs expect social media to rise to the second-most important way businesses connect with customers. – IBM 2012 CEO study
  • Many executives also cite overall organization shortcomings, which include acquiring the skills necessary to carry out a digital business agenda. They need to be resourceful in developing homegrown skills. – McKinsey 2012, Digital and Executive challenges

Let’s be honest. Developing skills in this rapidly developing era of social/digital business is a challenge, especially when we’re still trying to develop some of the more traditional skill sets. But like anything worth doing or developing, we’ve got to start with a road map to get us there. For sample competencies, feel free to read our white paper at


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Posted in Destinations

New 2013 Communicators Career Growth Survey shows how, and where, skills are growing:

August 14th, 2013

With three years of data from more than 500 professional communicators, North Star Communications Consulting today shared results of its 2013 Communications Competency Study, and three-year trends the consultancy has collected.

2013 Communications Competency Study

Approximately 200 professional communicators participated in the 2013 survey in June and July of this year. The vast majority of them (82%) report their employers have identified specific communications competencies that professionals should continuously develop. As in previous years survey results, the detail that goes into those competency descriptions is far less disciplined. Only 58% of communicators this year report that they understand how to progress through their competencies – meaning the details in the definitions don’t give them clear guidance on how to move from basic proficiency to more advanced capabilities.

“Again we see that corporate, agency and other employers of professional communicators are doing a solid job of putting some big-picture headlines out there for employees,” said Mark Dollins, president – North Star Communications Consulting. “The heavy lifting in talent development really comes in applying those competencies to individuals, and only 41% report their employers have tools that help apply the competencies to individual performance. And only 57% say they actually talk with their managers about how they’re doing with those skill sets.”

New to this year’s survey, North Star asked respondents to specify which competencies had been identified for them by their employers.  Writing and Editing (75%) and Internal/Employee Communications (74%) were identified most often as competencies identified by communicators’ employers.  The next-most-often-mentioned competencies included media relations (54%), stakeholder engagement (49%) and social/digital media (49%). (See attached infographic for full list of specified competencies.)  Communications Career Skills Infographic


When asked to identify the training and development area where they needed the most support, survey respondents identified social and digital media as the number-one need, followed by strategic planning and leadership.


Size matters

The smaller the enterprise, chances are communicators will have fewer tools and fewer specifics on how to progress in their careers, the 2013 study shows. Those working for companies with annual revenues below $5B reported having fewer tools to assess their competencies, less detail on how to progress through their competencies and fewer discussions with their managers on where they are in their proficiencies.

Specifically, those working for companies with revenues between $500 million and $1 billion report the lowest scores for having specifics on progression through competencies and having tools to assess themselves.  Conversely, communicators who work for companies with annual revenues between $10-$20 billion and $20 billion + report higher instances of having tools to assess their progress, and more often have discussions with their managers on their career growth.

Three-year trends


North Star began studying communications competency development with its first study in 2011, and now has two additional years of data to illustrate trends over time.


Versus the 2013 survey results, the three-year averages on several core questions are strikingly consistent. For example, 80% of communicators reported having competencies identified over the 3 years of data (vs 82% in 2013); and 54% of survey takers said their employers had articulated progression through those skill sets (versus 48% in 2013).


Where there is a larger variance is in the availability of tools to assess communications talent against stated competencies. The 2013 data shows only 41% of communicators having access to these tools, versus the three-year-average of 48%.  However, more communicators report talking to their managers about their progression with skills development (57%) this year, versus the three-year average of 51%.


The largest variance is in the area of training tied to established competencies within the last three years. Communicators this year report more training (65%) versus the three-year-average of 54%.


About the 2013 survey

North Star Communications’ 2013 competency survey was administered from June 23 through July 30 to about 200 professional communicators from North America, South America, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The vast majority of survey respondents completed the survey at the 2013 IABC World Conference in New York City, June 24-June 26, 2013.  For more information about the survey, contact



Posted in Destinations

Boxed in a communications job? 6 tips to break free

July 18th, 2013

We’ve all been there: that point in our careers where we feel “stuck” in a role, or pigeon-holed as a specialist who is destined for more-of-the-same until the end of time. I once had a boss who described it as being in a “home for the terminally inert.”

Communications and marketing professionals increasingly see the need to grow deeper, broader and more integrated skill sets as a “must have” if they’re going to have long-term, successful careers.

But what if the prevailing conditions around them either don’t provide opportunities for growth, or decision makers don’t view them as having potential to grow? Or view them as a one-trick pony whose specialty defines – and limits — them?

I’ve counseled many professionals on how to break through this glass box — yes, not with just a ceiling, but with four walls, too. It happens more than many of us realize, and can be as complex a problem to solve as any corporate reputation or brand identity dilemma.

Breaking through these road blocks requires insights, action and strategy, and I thought I’d share a set of thought starters to help anyone get a hall pass out of that home for the terminally inert.

PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF – We’ve all heard this expression before, but the first step in unlocking our path to growth is knowing if we’re stuck to begin with. It’s tough to put a time description on what stagnation looks like, but I like to ask communications and marketing professionals if they’re doing anything new — or differently — within the last two years with their current role. If the answer is no to either or both of those questions, chances are it’s a good time to look deeper into what the current job is teaching us.

KNOW THE PLAYING FIELD – It’s hard to define where you want to go – and why – if there are no standards in place for the communications skills that the function values; in other words, if you don’t have map. Research shows about 83% of communicators say their employers have headlined competencies that are important for professionals to grow. But far fewer get into specifics on what success looks like as professionals develop greater proficiencies. If you have them, use them. If you don’t have those specifics, start pushing to get them. Also, I think many professionals get fixated on a specific next-role or next-level-up-job, versus the skill sets that position them well for any number of opportunities, so a word of advice is to flex as you prepare yourself with new skills. Think about going deeper, broader and more integrated, and have some concrete thoughts in mind before you talk with your manager.

GET REAL – AND PERSONAL – Even when there are competencies defined, research shows that almost half of communications professionals don’t ever have conversations with their managers about how they rate against those communications or marketing skill sets.  It requires both manager and employee to be transparent about how they view the employee’s strengths and opportunities for growth. What if the function has no competencies identified, or doesn’t have specifics for growth articulated? Take the initiative and volunteer to lead an effort that will deliver those specifics with the function leadership team and HR.  Just because it’s not there doesn’t mean you should throw in the white flag. In fact, taking it on will send a great message about your interest in growing.

PERCEPTION PARALYSIS – “You’re not strategic enough,” or “You need to influence better” are the kinds of vague feedback that don’t help managers guide employees to better performance, and frustrate employees beyond belief. And they rarely lead to action that helps.

That kind of perception – and the paralysis it often causes —  needs to be challenged, but with finesse and openness to learning. Employees need to learn how to ask for specifics from the manager, and from a range of other stakeholders who the manager believes may share that perception. Whether it’s an official 360-survey process or using a third party to solicit honest and open feedback, the point is to get specifics that allow the employee to learn, and to develop a plan of action to acquire the needed skills and to demonstrate growth.

OWN IT – Far too often, employees depend solely on their employers to tell them where they see growth opportunities. They wait for the boss to tell them what new, or improved, skill sets they need to develop. The reality is it’s a two-way street, and lots of managers aren’t necessarily wired to place talent development on the top of their to-do lists. So marketing and communications professionals need to put some serious thought into what kinds of skills they need, and why, and how to get them. And they need to remember that it’s not always about formal training. It can be a mix of training, coaching, cross-functional assignments and other development opportunities.

OWN IT AGAIN – Getting unstuck from a career bottleneck can take a fair amount of work. But without care and feeding, it’s a cycle that can recur easily – and quickly. Once we’ve got specifics and have developed an action plan, it’s critical we go back to our managers or other career influencers every 6-9 months to report progress, demonstrate news skills and get new feedback. Growth is a constant requirement for the communicator and marketer, and that means learning how to gather insights on strengths, and drive regular interaction with our managers on how we’re doing.

If you’re getting the idea that career management is something that increasingly will demand more of your active participation, you’re getting the right idea.  Some employers will create environments that make it more turnkey than others, but regardless of where you work, the onus remains with each of us to do our own career thinking for ourselves, then find ways to connect it with our employers’ agendas.




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Posted in Destinations

Who’s got game? Gamification is the communicator’s next frontier for learning, collaboration & engagement

June 11th, 2013

If you’ve ever seen anyone other than Alec Baldwin playing Words with Friends on an iPhone, you’re seeing the new frontier that every communicator needs to understand: gamification.

Now, before I lose all the Monopoly haters and Xbox intolerants, let me say that gamification simply is the use of game thinking and mechanics to engage users and solve problems. Earning points, carving out a space on a “leader board” or achieving a certain status by completing tasks or answering questions correctly all represent some form of gamification.

Why do communicators need to understand this frontier? For starters, it’s one of the skills of the future workplace. My partner Jeanne Meister, in her book, Workplace 2020, says that social media skills are among the most critical core skill sets that will shape the future of the labor force of the next decade. Those social media skills will be embedded in how employees learn and collaborate, and chief learning officers across the globe are adding gamification to their repertoires now – in a very big way.

Second, businesses are learning that this gamification thing can work well beyond corporate learning. If it will work for employee learning, why wouldn’t it work for engaging employees in key work processes and strategic initiatives? Or help NGOs better understand sustainability efforts? Or aid government staffers in digesting company updates? Or reel in consumers to spend more time with the next product launch?

Sound far–fetched? Just watch what savvy communicators are developing in the next 12 months. It’s very real. So says Karl Kapp, a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University. He recently spoke at a Future Workplace network meeting, and is an author and teacher on gamification. He recently told The Engaging Leader that – contrary to what many believe — it’s not just a young person’s game.  “We tend to think about gamers as being young.  Of course we know the average age of a person who plays games is in their late thirties and it’s actually getting older all the time.  The fastest demographic is women over the age of 40 playing games.  So, actually, game education works —if done correctly just like anything else — it works on almost every single level.”

Remember it’s not playing games for the sake of playing games. It’s integrating games into learning, problem solving and collaborating. It’s about getting your message(s) heard in ways that really engage targets who yearn for something more than just text, and abhor being messaged.  They want to have fun, they want to engage, and take pride in their performance. Gamification can deliver on all those fronts….and more.

As with any emerging trend, there isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. But others are learning a great deal, and they’re sharing what they’ve learned. How do you get on the gamification train? Here are a few quick resources to guide your immersion into the world of engaging stakeholders through gamification.

  • Read all about it: Kapp has one book already published, and it’s a great primer on what he’s learned about gaming and learning. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction is his handy work. There’s also a quick primer on Slideshare you might like:
  • Experience it: There’s a Wiki on gamification and it offers lots of examples with videos, including a few from game designers on how they think. While you can’t necessary play the games, you can get some added dimension surfing the examples on this Wiki:
  • Ask, and participate: You’ve got to play to win, as the saying goes, so ask your stakeholders where they’re spending their time on games, and why. Then download the app(s) to see what’s engaging players/learners. Chances are you’ll identify some specific triggers you can use to integrate your messaging with your game.

I must admit that I’ve missed the gamification boat with my first venture into the world of mobile apps. Grammar Guru by North Star ( is launching this week with 60 rules of grammar, punctuation and style, but I’m already at work to ensure the next release has gamification included. Lesson learned. I hope the same for you.


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Posted in Destinations

Have I got a story for you: Communicators and the (lost) art of story telling

May 14th, 2013


No matter what path we’ve taken to become communicators or marketers, I’d argue that the most fundamental skill we’ve all worked to develop is that of a storyteller.  What I’ve seen in recent years — working with clients  –is that storytelling is re-emerging as the most central of core competencies. CCOs and CMOs want more of it – a lot more.

The problem: we’re getting so focused on volume – getting stuff out the door – that we’re often forgetting what it is about storytelling that makes people remember our stories, and  — better yet – tell them again.  And in the age of social media, isn’t that the very definition of being viral?


There’s a lot of science that goes into message development and testing, but it’s the packaging of the story – the art of storytelling– that makes it memorable and worthy of re-telling. Perhaps we never fully learned what makes a good story.  Maybe we’ve become so wrapped in corporate/client deadlines and preferences that it’s become more about “getting it done.”  But at the end of the day, our storytelling skills are compromised. Come on; admit it. Is your story telling the stuff that gets shared?

There’s no shame in admitting that you may not be as sharp as you need to be, or once were. The question is: What can you do about it? Here are a few things to help you rekindle your storytelling prowess.

  • Create a storytelling world: It’s about a mindset. With everything you write, review and/or approve, remind yourself that it needs a real story in it. It should have a clear, compelling point, and –even better — an actionable response connected to it. Just as important, remember that your audience is pre-wired for a great story. Science shows our brains are wired to re-engage when they hear/see the words, “I have a story for you.” Is there even a story IN your work that can engage your target?
  • Apply some discipline: Yes it’s an art form, but you can still put some discipline around storytelling. There are a lot of different “models” for what constitutes a story. But most will say that there’s a hero, a catalyst (character or event), conflict or juxtaposition, resolution and a moral to the story. Ask yourself, “Is there a story here? Does it have these elements in it? Do I care?” And these don’t have to be lengthy novels. Whether we know it or not, we’ve seen viral videos that deliver on all these fronts. Take a look at this one (no spoken words) and see if you can apply those elements. Dancing Boy
  • Build it for the bigger world: Social media, in particular, requires not just one story, but an ongoing story. The same principles that apply to one story apply to “chapters” of many stories online. And, storytellers really need to think about how one story can be re-told, or re-purposed in lots of different on- and off-line forums. And for digital communications, in particular, we have to think visually – photos and videos — and apply the concepts of storytelling in those forums as well. Ask yourself – and your team –“Where else is this story going?”
  • Play: That’s right, play. I realize this may be anathema to some of the more financially driven in the world of business, but unless you play with storytelling, you can’t get any better at getting your audience to engage with your communications. Play by learning; there are lots of great workshops to re-ignite your creative senses and storytelling prowess. Play by reading a story you’ve written out loud, or sharing with a colleague. Ask them for feedback : What’s missing? What didn’t make sense? What was out of order? And play by using tools to help you tell your story (see digitizing tips and resources below).
  • Digitize it: There are a number of free resources on-line that let you take your story and play with it digitally. True, you need to set up an account (and provide your email), but these are easy tools that let you test new ways of digital story telling in creative ways. A few that I’ve found to be easy to use: Powtoon (; Prezi (; GoAnimate  (; Tellagami (; and Storify ( All of them have increased capabilities with paid membership, but their free versions give you plenty of opportunities to see if they work for you. You’d be surprised how easy they are to use, and how easily shared your creations can be.

To be honest, some professionals are just plain wired to be better storytellers than the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean we all can’t get better by re-framing our approach to the craft, applying discipline, exploring ways to tap into our creative capabilities and – yes – playing.  I know when I teach storytelling modules, participants change their body language immediately when I say the words, “I want to tell you a story” (try it the next time you have a presentation, and you’ll see the human brain – and body – react).

That’s a story worth sharing.


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Posted in Destinations

I think you stink, but can’t articulate why: communicators need specifics, too

April 24th, 2013

A number of years ago, I had the unenviable task of telling a communications employee at an annual review that – despite previous years of relatively strong performance ratings with other mangers — that year fell below expectations. I walked through the specifics, then asked for feedback. The employee sat stunned for a moment, then uttered the words, “But (long pause)… I’m a superstar.”

Clearly, there was a big disconnect. I had always taken pride in never having surprises in performance reviews, yet that year I’d failed.  I hadn’t fully understood that the change in managers exposed a big consistency gap. This employee’s managers did not apply the same performance standards.

I knew that scenario likely was playing out in annual reviews for communicators all over the world. Picture yourself sitting at a desk at review time and being told by your manager that you’re not that good at something you think you’re great at doing. Or perhaps you’ve been that manager having to  “ground” a direct report on the realities of what good work really is all about.

Both scenarios share the same issue and demand the same solution: a lack of performance calibration and a set of clearly defined expectations.

I’m spending lots of time these days talking with communications leaders who often say the same thing: “We know we have weaknesses in some skill sets with our people, but struggle with knowing how to get into the specifics.”

They need common ground – specifics that define the standards of performance that communicators need to follow. And that comes in the form of clearly articulated competencies, tied to specific objectives assigned to individuals and teams.  Employees who don’t agree they’ve failed — or failed and want to avoid a repeat – want, and deserve, answers to simple questions that require hard specifics. Why did I fail?  What does better/good performance look like?  Don’t you think I already do that? What do you mean I need to do it more consistently?

Identifying standards works for everybody. Individuals get better skill sets, managers have more effective conversations and reviews, and the communications function moves forward faster through better team performance.

Identifying and applying those standards is tough work, but pays dividends over the long term – even as new competencies emerge and the bar is raised higher on existing competencies. Consider how social media – once a “specialty” communication activity – now is being folded into jobs across the communications spectrum. Some skill sets for communicators never change, while others are constantly evolving, The point here is that communication managers need to pay attention to them – all the time.

So how do you lay the foundation for managing performance – for yourself and/or your communications function?  Here are a few fail-safes to get things humming.

Get specific and get aligned: Every communication and marketing function should have a set of clearly articulated competencies that are endorsed and applied by ALL people managers. That starts the calibration process from the chief communications officer’s desk and drives alignment from senior leaders in the function to entry-level hires. And make sure your HR partners are part of the process and that specific competencies are mapped to specific roles. When it’s personal, it gets a lot more attention.

Apply it through conversation. When it comes to managing performance, words on paper are a great anchor, but their effectiveness is about as helpful as a snow cone in a sauna when it comes to driving change. Managers and their employees should talk at least a couple times yearly about where the employee is on the continuum of growth. Those can be hard conversations, but it’s always better to have them before there’s an opportunity missed or an assignment botched.

Connect competencies to performance wins, and misses. When there are performance problems, chances are they can be tied to specific skills that the employee hasn’t developed. And when the employee hits one out of the park, chances are that competency mastery has emerged. Here again, it’s important either to course correct or reinforce the positives of competency growth by tying the performance to skills that are defined and endorsed by the function.

Whether it’s for annual performance reviews, mid-year check-ins or people processes such as succession planning, communications professionals need to apply the same discipline to managing their performance and career growth as they do to the programs they create and execute. It’s not just about one employee. It’s about entire teams, and it’s about creating a next-generation of superstars that make everybody look good.


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Posted in Destinations