From Cigarette Papers To Chasms
Updated: Nov 19, 2021
The first time I heard the words, “We’re going to give you some time to make sense of what you’ve just heard”, in a business briefing, I giggled a little inside my head.
“What are we, kids? They’ve given us the message, it seems pretty clear to me, can we just get on with it?”, I thought. What followed next was one of the biggest lessons I learned as a leader and communicator and I feel a little embarrassed sharing it with you.
What I learned was that not everybody thinks like me. I know! weird, right?
Joking aside, in just 30 seconds sat around a table with other colleagues, it was evident that we’d all heard the same message, but taken quite different things from it. Whilst I’d say we weren’t diametrically opposed in our views, we clearly did not have a common understanding of something I thought was simple.
If we’d all walked out of the room directly after the message had been delivered, I now shudder to think what would have happened as we went back to our teams to cascade the “common message” and the actions required. Alignment is not something that would have been achieved, that's for sure.
Having tiny differences at the start can lead to much bigger differences down the line. If you don’t start off walking exactly in the same direction as your colleagues, every step you take takes you further apart as you progress. What starts off looking like gaps in commonality the width of a cigarette paper, can eventually turn into cultural chasms which are much harder and trickier to bridge.
But fortunately, in this instance, we were encouraged to openly discuss it together, formulate questions or points of clarification to put back to the leader. These were answered publicly, so we all heard the same answer at the same time, and forged a common understanding. As a result this particular leadership team successfully moved forward as one, on this piece of change.
This intervention helped shaped my own belief and approach to getting better understanding, engagement, and implementation of change, where giving people time to make sense of it before acting is the best thing you can do. So, I thought I’d share a few top tips on maximising the impact and alignment of that first, initial message delivery, so you can avoid creating chasms out of cigarette papers.
1. Don’t forget you’re so much closer to the message than the audience
Speaking to many people who’ve got up and delivered that key message needed to launch an initiative or piece of change over the years, more than a few have been frustrated that people don’t just get it.
The thing these guys often have in common is that they’ve forgotten how long it’s taken to get to the point of delivery.
Writers have been living with the message all the time they’ve been pulling it together. Working it through. Pulling it apart. So they understand all the nuances because they’ve done the work with it. However, the audience hasn’t been afforded the same. They’re seeing it for the first time.
How long did it take for you to get clarity, honestly? So just bear in mind that they may need to kick it around a bit, to understand it too.
2. Be specific and clear or risk differences in interpretation.
What you mean vs. how someone interprets what they think you mean is a major pitfall to be aware of.
I remember, in multiple situations, when good leaders, looking to get the audience on side with the message, often to the Operators who take on the mantle of delivery, have made what they think are clear, motivating statements.
Statements like, “You’re all the CEOs of your own business.” Meaning that you are responsible for managing the numbers and the experience you deliver and looking after your people.
The interpretation of that same message by the audience though ranged from, “So I can do what I like now,” to “I’m going to get my own suppliers, then,” and “At least I don’t have to implement any of that rubbish from marketing now.” (please note, not everything I sent them was rubbish, honest.)
Clearing up the wreckage that came from this misinterpretation was very costly indeed. So take the time to say exactly what you mean and check that's understood. Avoid leaving it open to interpretation wherever possible.
3. Kick the CEO/MD out of the room (just for a bit anyway)
Wherever possible, as a leader, when launching these messages, do it face-to-face. But when you’ve finished, designate some specific time to give the audience a chance to think about it, talk about it, ask questions, get clarification (all parties) and agreement and be able to move forward collectively and individually.
But here’s the trick. Allow that audience to do that with you out of the room.
You’ll probably find that the discussion is more open and honest, that way. Have someone who understands the message as well as you do, facilitate the discussion. They don’t need to fill in any blanks, just guide the debate, capture the sticking points, examine the contradictions or differences of opinion and formulate the outstanding questions that the group need answering, if they are to move forward as one.
Then, get the CEO back in the room and go through the questions. Be sure to give as much specific clarity as possible. Where more thought is required, say so, but commit to coming back with a definitive answer in a short timescale.
Time for sense-making like this could be the most valuable time spent on the entire project, when considering the potential impact it will have.
4. Allow time to personalise and practice telling the message
You have to create a personal connection to the message in order to transfer ownership of the change required. This is so important when it comes to properly equipping your audience and giving them the best chance of successfully doing the same with their people when they are briefing them.
The most effective way of doing this is to enable them to put your message, in their own words, without changing the narrative. The best way to achieve that is to allow them time to practice it.
When you have clarity of the message in the room, run an exercise that encourages them to relay that message to their colleagues in their own words. Have them role-play telling the message to a strong employee, or a difficult employee, and such like.
This will give them the confidence to tell a nuanced story in different scenarios, without losing the core essence of the message and result in better understanding and transfer of ownership back at the ranch.
5. Check-in. Discuss. Don’t walk-on by
Finally, the messaging doesn’t end with the initial address. It’s just the start. The biggest impact on the quality of your implementation will be the commitment to the message you and your team of leaders show on a daily basis afterward. The actions will say far more than the words alone.
Get out and about in the business. Talk about the change. Ask how it is going and affecting people. Importantly, pick up on any misinterpretations in the moment and turn them around. Don’t ignore them or walk past them. Allowing any little cracks to remain, increases your chance of creating huge gaps come the end.
So, the next time you step up in front of your people to instigate another brilliantly thought-through, well-planned opportunity to drive successful, profitable change into the business, just remember to give them some space to make sense of it all, work out how it affects them, and a chance to personalise the way they tell the same message to their teams. That way, you’ll move forward in glorious alignment with a chance of nailing the change the first time and reaping the rewards of doing so.
Andy Goram & Glenda Bailye Bray are a pair of energetic, committed partners focused on helping you plot a clear and simple path to successfully delivering the change you seek. They’ll be with you all the way (it will be them too, not some juniors you’ve never met before), or at least as long as you need them. Get in touch here.