ADVICE: Strategic communication: you can often get what you want
Joanna Piros, BJ
Strategic communication, be it on an individual physician level or health care organization wide, is key to getting what you want. Fundamentally, strategic communication takes account of objectives, target audiences, and understanding how human beings process information and make decisions TODAY, before determining tactics or simply winging it.
Strategy before tactics
All important communications should be strategic. Whether you are tasked with speaking to media on reactive or proactive issues in health care, medicine, or research; engaging communities and stakeholders; or attempting to influence and persuade in the workplace, strategy must come before tactics. After all, you don’t operate, treat, or prescribe before you diagnose.
The basic structure of strategic communications is knowing your outcome, understanding your target audience and what they need from you, and choosing the best who, what, where, when, why, and how to make it happen. Top
As physicians, you do a great deal of acquiring knowledge and information, sorting and contemplating that information, and then sharing it with your patients, staff, and colleagues. The volume of that information precludes giving it all so, given time constraints, you curate, thereby managing meaning for others.
As physician leaders, you are also called upon to manage meaning on a larger stage: political advocacy, research defence, health care initiatives, capital funding, and so on.
You may do that through interviews with media or through presentations to groups of people, from small to very large. The strategic underpinning of your communications is applicable across all those platforms, although the tactics will change based on the situation and the audience.
Successful information transfer today persuades people of your approach or initiative and it relies on content, carefully curated for the audience and married to performance.
Start thinking of your presentations, even your conversations, as performances and not just information dumps. We are a generation raised by television to expect content in digestible bites, massaged and made appealing, with most of the thinking done for us. A colleague of mine calls today’s humans “cognitive misers,” forced to make increasingly complex decisions based largely on emotional grounds. We do this because it’s all we have time for. Top
And now, the news
When I was first hired as a “girl reporter,” and that’s what they called us, at a Vancouver radio station in the late 70s, I worked a variety of beats, traversing the city with my large tape recorder, attending news conferences, business speeches, union halls, court registries, and the police station, collecting interviews and information which would be quickly written up as field reports. To file my stories, I had to use a telephone booth as there were no cell phones then. I would call the station desk (10 cents), read my copy into the telephone while it was recorded by the person on the news desk, then I would unscrew the mouthpiece on the public phone (imagine), attach my alligator clips to the wires, insert the jack into the tape recorder, and push play, sending the recorded interview down the line to be added to my story.
Needless to say, the technology of news gathering has changed dramatically and so has the news product. Similarly, the technology we all rely on to communicate with one another has changed, as has the quality of our communication and the way we make decisions.
In those early newsroom days in radio, and subsequently television, we had many mantras: “never let the facts stand in the way of a good story,” “integrity — a word frequently misspelled,” and “information is power.” My contention is, in today’s environment, information is not power: it is noise and we are drowning in it. Every day we attempt to drink from a fire hose, struggling not to choke. Power today belongs to those who can manage all that data, curate it for a specific objective and audience, and make it immediately useful, understandable, and relevant.
The “new” news is no longer your only channel to reach a broad audience. You have your own websites, entirely capable of “broadcasting” your own video content, your own social media platforms, and digital and hard copy publications.
When you do interact with traditional media, strategy is even more important than ever; timeliness is critical; and your comments have to be shorter, faster and smarter than ever. We want our spokespeople and leaders to be more personal and simultaneously more public. We want to participate more in the stories we follow and we want to know what we want to know when we want to know it. Top
When planning to interact with reporters, you must know what you want out of the exchange at the same time as you anticipate what the reporter wants. Reporters are assigned to come back with stories so the more you can address that need, while keeping your eye on your desired outcome, the more likely you will be to get the coverage you desire.
There are no guarantees, however. One of the axioms of journalism is to always give the “other perspective.” Sometimes the other perspective comes from someone with nothing more than an axe to grind, but, in the interests of objectivity, we rarely take your word on any subject, no matter your expertise. If you announce a medical breakthrough, I will inevitably have to find someone to question its cost, efficacy, or ethical context. That’s not unlike the naysayers you come across while communicating in the workplace so you must plan ahead.
Strategy and the brain
We are always concerned about security breaches and hacks of our servers and computer systems, but the most sophisticated processors in the world are also the most vulnerable to hacks — our brains! We know so much about how people process information, through the use of functional MRIs and ongoing behavioural research, and what we know is that our mental hard wiring, combined with our emotional software, makes it relatively simple to take advantage of the vulnerabilities.1 The good news is we can take advantage of those vulnerabilities to ethically influence people by the way we structure the information we give them.2
Another colleague often says, “Emotion blocks cognition.” I’m sure most of you have firsthand experience with that. When you give someone an unwelcome diagnosis, they likely don’t hear anything else you say after. I believe that’s why patients are often asked to bring someone along who can actually listen to what comes after the bad news.
For me, the idea that emotion blocks cognition is not necessarily a bad thing. If we want people to be open to our “facts,” we must first set the emotional table to help them want to hear more. Top
One of the first steps in planning a strategy is to identify the target of your persuasive attempts and gather as much information about them as possible. What are they struggling with right now? Has something major recently occurred to affect their equilibrium or is something looming? Yes, this kind of field research takes time but it pays off in results. Often you can get the lay of the land by talking to the one perfect source.
In most large organizations, persuasive communications occur at various levels and stages and are rarely a single shot over the bow. You want to be clear on who specifically you are trying to influence at each stage. Sometimes you will recruit an influencer who will support and promote your cause to others; sometimes it will be someone who will give you resources you don’t possess or introductions you require.
Once you have identified the target, it‘s important to understand what you have in common and what separates you. The critical thing is to know how you can help them in the process of helping yourself. It’s hard to be persuasive when the goal is entirely self-serving.
How much does the target know about you and your initiative, and which aspects of it might be important to them?
And finally, so many great persuasive presentations fail because the ask is not sufficiently overt. You must be clear on what you want people to do once your conversation is over.
There is a tremendous amount of research that tells us how we interpret, understand, and store information. We now have proof that engaging the limbic brain before inviting the neocortex to get involved is the most successful avenue to persuasion. We also know that story and metaphor are a direct hardwire to the limbic brain and that we all interpret information through a lens of self-interest. Top
You can take a page from the structure of news stories, asking yourself what the headline of your pitch would be if it were directed to the specific audience. In other words, what is the most important who to them? Most often it is the audience itself, whether that’s a group or an individual. Often people are concerned about timing so when is significant. People have to be clear about the what and, the more technical and complex the concept, the harder you must work to ensure they understand. Location is addressed by the where, the all important aspect of what’s in it for them is generally the why, and the process itself is the how.
In a news story the most important WWWWH and sometimes why appear in the headline and the first sentence. In other words, the punchline is at the beginning of the joke. The number of competing sources of information, and constant demands for our time, mean that structuring your information like news ensures the most important information comes first before distraction and disinterest threatens. Even your emails will be more persuasive if you signal the headline in the subject line, and structure the body of the text with the most important information at the top.
Well curated content must be married with performance or it’s simply not engaging. If you’re not engaging, you won’t be successful because we’re too easily distracted by everything else clamoring for our attention.
To become an engaging performer takes time and practice. It’s an interplay of how you look, how you sound, and what you say, in varying degrees. In my work coaching and training literally thousands of people to be better performers of their own story, I am convinced that wherever your bar currently sits, it can be raised. It’s the most lucrative competitive advantage available to you, if you’re willing to put in the work. If it were easy, every fool could do it, and the competitive advantage would be lost. Top
Our top story
No matter who you have to persuade, inform, or motivate, the tools are the same along a continuum of strategic communication. At the very basic level you must know your audience and what you can do for them, before you ask them to do something for you. Learn how to assess that audience and curate your content for them specifically. Create a plan to ensure communication supports larger goals, and spend some time learning about how we are hard wired to make snap decisions in an increasingly noisy world. Get comfortable being a performer because, as the Bard observed, all the world is a stage and we are the players.
1.Kahneman D. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2011.
2.Denning S. The secret language of leadership. San Francisco: Josey-Bass; 2007.
Joanna Piros, BJ, is principal, Piros Productions, and a senior consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications. She uses her background in broadcast journalism to help people become larger characters in their own life and work. Her intuitive approach to strategic communications helps her clients clarify what they want to achieve and make them more persuasive, engaging, and successful.
Editor’s note: Joanna Piros (www.joannapiros.com) presented a workshop on “Strategic communications: how to talk to media and everyone else” at the 2018 Canadian Conference on Physician Leadership in Vancouver. Top