Social and digital media have given leaders and institutions more ways to communicate with their important audiences than at any other point in history. Yet, ironically, these tools have made communication less effective in many respects.
The reason is twofold. First, the volume of information coming at people creates “noise,” which means any individual communication is less likely to break through and be heard. (Unless, of course, your tweet, photo or video goes “viral” and is seen and heard by the entire universe. While viral communications can be positive, often for education and nonprofit leaders they are not.)
Second, the ease and prevalence of tools like email, websites, and Facebook mean that our communications are increasingly passive. It’s easy to send a message to employees or post a story on your website. It’s much harder to meet with a group of student activists or schedule coffee with someone whose support is critical to your initiative. And as leaders rise in the hierarchy, their busy schedules tend to isolate them and their circle of contact shrinks.
In this environment, face-to-face communication is more important—and more effective—than ever before. Obviously it’s not going to replace mass communications, but it is a critical addition to your tool kit.
Humans build trust by proximity: looking each other in the eye, shaking hands, finding commonalities, listening, and—most of all—feeling heard and understood. We find it easier to act out in large groups and even easier to behave badly when shielded with the anonymity of social media. In one-on-one conversations or small-group settings, we are more likely to listen and to regard one another as human beings worthy of empathy and respect.
Here are a few thoughts about how leaders can adopt a more personal approach to communication:
- Be visible with your organization’s most important audiences: employees, faculty, students, funders, alumni, parents, board members, partners, etc. Are you regularly seen in person at meetings and events? If not, look for high-impact opportunities to circulate. This is why some college presidents, for example, spend a night in a campus dorm or eat in the dining hall. You need to be seen in person on a regular basis at events and activities your stakeholders care about.
- Meet one-on-one with important individuals. In each audience group, who are the influencers—the people who are active communicators and whom others tend to listen to? Map out a manageable number of these important people and make plans to meet with each of them individually over the course of a year. You don’t need an agenda, and you should listen more than you talk. One effective president I worked with met regularly with key faculty members for coffee or lunch just to ask them what they were working on.
- Write a lot of thank-you notes. However many you are writing, double it, and then double it again. (If you are writing zero then you should be reading a different column!) Have your staff help you by teeing up opportunities to email, call, or send a handwritten note to people who have worked on an important project or achieved some measure of success. Write each person individually, even if you are thanking the members of a group. In my last job I wrote thank-you notes to the IT people and I was told by the team leader that no one ever thanked them and that they would “walk on hot coals” for me.
- Extend your reach. Clearly you cannot be everywhere, and the larger your organization the less you can be meeting regularly with everyone. But you need to do it often enough to be symbolic of access and you can strategically select those people, groups, and activities that have the highest impact. And then get other members of your senior team to do the same. Create a culture of personal engagement by encouraging and rewarding this behavior throughout your leadership team.