Some Thoughts on Internal Communications (and why PowerPoint is not used for big decisions)
My role is to discuss the foundation of internal communication. That can be peer-to-peer, department-to-department, senior management, and the board of directors. I am providing three thoughts on internal communications as part of these opening remarks. And I'll also note that I love the Confluence 2023 conference theme of “No PowerPoints.”
1. Communication is not part of the game. Communication is the game.
We are being asked to join a conversation because we have something to add. The assumption is that you are competent and know what you are talking about. How well we get our message across distinguishes us from others with similar knowledge or experience.
I serve on a couple of boards. For example, on the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission, we have a commissioner everyone turns to when we cannot understand an air quality issue from the complexities of long-staff PowerPoint presentations. Love him or hate him, this guy adds value by being able to communicate his expertise in concise, understandable terms.
The same holds true with every local government board that I consult with. There usually is one board member who understands and can explain financial issues in matters everyone else can understand. Sure, the staff knows. But they also feel obligated somehow to show all of the gory details. The board member, or occasionally the CFO, adds value above all others by explaining their expertise in concise, understandable terms.
2. No great decision is made with a PowerPoint.
When someone comes to you and says they are thinking about leaving your organization, do you break out the PowerPoint to try to save them? Or how about the last time you joined a new organization or recruited someone? Was the PowerPoint the tipping point? Of course not.
The same is true everywhere. My 84-year-old father recently had some cancer surgery. The doctor did not explain it to me with a PowerPoint. Neither did the vet when my favorite beagle was recently diagnosed as diabetic. And if you have ever been in legal or accounting trouble, they didn’t use a PowerPoint. If you followed the recent Murdoch murder trial in Walterboro, SC, I did not see a PowerPoint.
I share this with you, and you may want to draw up your toes because I may step on a few.
If you are giving a PowerPoint, you are not the decision maker.
For example, when we debate at the EMC, the Commissioners do not use PowerPoints in their deliberations. As a former Town Manager and someone who works with some of your boards, neither do your elected officials or utility board members.
So, if you are giving a PowerPoint, remind yourself that you are there to provide information. If this were a game of chess, you are a pawn and not a king, queen, or bishop. That’s ok because it puts you on realistic ground for internal communication. You are there to provide information, and PowerPoint is just one way – and maybe not the best.
3. The burden of effective communication is on the sender, not the receiver.
For communication to be interactive, two things must be present – compatible knowledge and a viable feedback loop. As a facilitator, those are the two most important things that I work to create among the participants. By way of example, I see several participants of the statewide water master plan framework and the Pee Dee River Basin Council here today.
I believe most of your internal communication is not that way. First, there is no compatible knowledge, or you would not be asked to present your knowledge in the first place. Second, if you are being asked to share your thoughts, the person doing the asking controls whether there is a feedback loop.
In working with a lot of project managers and young professionals (some old professionals, too), I am continually surprised when people say, "The board or the senior management just doesn’t understand.” Of course, they didn’t – that is why you were asked to present.