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Messaging and Communication

I listened to a webinar last week called Deciding the Key Things to Explain to Stakeholders During Transformation. It was delivered by Jo Ann Sweeney who I met when co-editing the Handbook of People in Project Management a few years ago.
Jo Ann specialises in communications in business and change projects and I thought this would be a good session to gain some insights for PMO practitioners. Insights not just for the programmes and projects they support and the change professionals they might work with – also their own communications from the PMO to their own stakeholders.
There were three key things worth sharing – the concept of the elephant and the rider; overarching themes and how to structure messages.
You can watch the session here – and read on for more insights:

Overarching Themes

If we think about communications within a project or programme – or even from your PMO, an overarching theme is the topic area you’re communicating about – and there will be many layers that branch from this.
Overarching themes are often used in essay writing and research – it’s about having a clear theme – a central point to the essay, with many different strands and links that contribute or provide further evidence or insights to support the central theme.
An example in a project communication would be – an overarching theme that the local community will be affected by the building of a new bypass. Different layers or strands of communication could be based on the geographical location of those members of the public nearest to the bypass – or who those members of the community are – i.e., store owners, families etc
A PMO example of an overarching theme would be “the need to improve the organisation’s approach to risk management”. Different layers of strands could be – communications to different types of stakeholders based on role or different messaging around the level of education or training that would be needed.

The Elephant and the Rider

SwitchThis analogy is initially taken from Jonathan Haidt in the book – The Happiness Hypothesis and later by Heath and Heath in their popular change management book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.

It’s all about how we respond to messages and make decisions – we have an emotional side (the elephant)and there is a rational side too (the rider). We tend to act quicker when our emotional buttons are pressed, often it’s about instant gratification. With the rational side, we’re thinking more logically, thinking more about the long-term.

The Elephant

For example, with the emotional side we want to provide different types of messages that would appeal the most, examples include:

  • Provide messages that show how you will help someone
  • Provide messages that show how easy it is to move or change from one thing or place to another – it’s called shrinking, making it easier to make the jump with a smaller gap.
  • Provide messages that show the change is all about them, how it will them be or feel better.
  • Provide messages that encourage learning – learning helps people to overcome fear, so it’s about taking lots of small steps.

The Rider

With the rider, it’s about the rational messages, for example:

  • Provide messages that highlight the successes – especially successes that mean something to them
  • Provide messages that reduce the choices available – just to one or two
  • Provide messages that include scripts or forms of rules and boundaries  – this helps to guide them
  • Provide a clear destination in messages so people know when they’re there.

The analogy is all about the rider being able to keep the elephant on a clear path to the final destination – this is why messaging and communications often fail, the rider can’t control that elephant. Due to the emotional and rational side being far apart – instant gratification and over analysing – we need to be able to direct the rider, motivate the elephant and then shape the path.
The message examples above for the elephant and the rider are joined by examples that help shape the path – or in other words – help people see where they are going:

  • Provide messages that tweak the environment – for example, helping dieters by using smaller plates
  • Messages that help create new habits  – encourage easy habit changes, give alternatives.
  • Provide role models – change champions are needed – do it early and throughout
  • Celebrate every step that is taken
  • Reinforce and reward so people feel good.

Ultimately we have to know and understand our audiences in order to use the right messaging at the right time – that is of course what makes working in projects so interesting and often frustrating.
To read a great overview in a little more detail, check out the Rock N’ Change article here about the elephant and the rider.

Structuring Messages

The PMO is always structuring communications and sending messages but do you ever stop to think about the science behind messages?
There are four parts to it.
First, there are three different types of messages – rational, emotional and moral (a statement for example). We have to understand our audience to choose the type of message we want to convey.
Second, there is the structure to that message – we want it to make sense logically, we want to order it correctly so it makes sense and we need a conclusion.
There’s a simple approach that marketeers use the world over:

  1. Introduction – why are you writing today
  2. Details – give information/instructions
  3. Response or Action – what action or response the reader should take
  4. Close – keep it simple, just a one-liner

Third, we have to think about how we will convey the message symbolically – for example, what design will we choose; what type of imagery, will it be in audio or video, what about the non-verbal aspects to that and physically packaging?
Fourth, who should deliver that message – or who should say it? There’s a neat equation. Credibility = expertise + trustworthiness + likeability.
How about for your next communication coming from the PMO, why don’t you think about the type of message – rational or emotional – you could experiment with? Why not alternate and try different types of messages (referred to as A/B testing in marketing)? Why not think about adding an audio clip to a report – or trialling a different colour theme or formatting?
There’s so much the PMO can learn from different professions and hopefully, this article might inspire you to check out different techniques used in the marketing department.


Here are some alternative resources to check out:

If you used any tools or techniques that have helped you to create messages – why not share them in the comments below?

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