Internal communication strategies that actually work!

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Internal communication strategies matter when try to move forward together as a company. You’ve heard me talk about my content performance philosophy before, which I also discuss in my “Content Performance Culture” book. At the end of the day, it’s hard if not impossible to drive change when internal communication strategies are bad. Of course. bad can have several definitions:

  • The timing is at the wrong intervals
  • The incorrect information is shared
  • The format wasn’t the best

Good internal communication strategies include:

  • The right mix of information shared
  • Information shared on the right channels
  • Information shared at the right times
  • A feedback loop that allows questions and useful answers
  • The understanding that answers can evolve

As you might imagine it’s a two-way street. Employees and leaders have to work together to truly make this work.

Michael Brenner previously shared with us that “Mean People Suck.” It’s true. In addition to have good internal communication strategies we also need to build that two-way street of communication. Even when it’s a lot of work because people have questions that need to be answered.

The curse of knowledge

Trent Anderson of Prewrite.com shared the curse of knowledge can be a problem when it comes to internal communication strategies. We chatted on an episode of the Business Storytelling Podcast.

Basically the problem leaders and really anyone runs into here is that they know what they know. And then it’s easy to forget about what others don’t know. For example, if I’m working on a new fancy strategy I know what I’m thinking and what I’m working on. I also know the decisions made and what the directly involved decision makers know. Of course, decisions impact many – especially when they come from the leadership team to the rest of the organization.

When do we share them? The quarterly CEO update carefully written by the communications team has been one option. And there may be a place for this kind of communication that shares high-level updates. Just make sure actual updates are shared and it’s not just fluff – so to speak.

People also want to follow leaders that inspire them, so make sure your C-suite update has some of that authentic inspiration sprinkled in.

The frequency of updates

Consider providing more frequent updates as well. I’m a big fan of FriYays, for example. Every Friday, send an update sharing the latest wins, highlight people, etc.

If you use Slack or a similar tool consider short updates here and there.

Read next: When and how to use a Slack channel to communicate with people

The words we use and follow-up questions

Miscommunication also happens. A lot of it can be by accident. Communications expert James Mayhew joined me on a podcast episode and shared plenty of examples of miscommunication.

One takeaway for me from this episode was definitely that even when communication appears to be crystal clear, something might still get lost in the conversation. People can hear things incorrectly, interpret them differently and maybe even miss a subtle difference in important meaning.

At the end of the day, it comes back to sharing information correctly the first time, but then also creating a culture where follow-up and check-in is okay.

For example, don’t just set the vision or goals for the quarter on Day 1 and “bye, see you at the end of the quarter.” Keep the communication channels open throughout the time. That also helps adjust things that need to be adjusted.

That’s also a pillar of being agile, a topic I discussed with Andrea Fryrear on this episode of the podcast.

Set the strategy collaboratively, communicate correctly, implement something and then circle back. Rinse and repeat.

It’s also good to remember what certain words mean and even keep in mind other team members’ trigger words.

Read next: Is your content performance culture ready for strategic writing?

Minimize barriers

Unnecessary barriers in an organization can also be an issue and slow down good internal communications. Roger Dooley, author of “Friction,” joined me on a podcast episode to discuss that topic.

Don’t overcomplicate things internally and don’t implement processes that hinder good communication. For example, an executive once told me “The org chart isn’t the communication plan. Everyone can really talk with anyone.” I love that and the spirit of collaboration that it signals.

Try a content council

Andi Robinson of hijinxmarketing.com joined me on an episode of the podcast to share how she pulled together a content council with stakeholders from different departments and areas. That’s another idea: Find stakeholders that can help make internal communications easier.

Council members meet occasionally to brainstorm, share ideas, strategy updates and the like. This also helps with advocacy of communication and strategy throughout the organization as the members will help with that and communication doesn’t just come from one person.

It’s also good to remember that not all problems have definite answers or solutions. We joke in marketing that the answer often is that “it depends.” The council can help learn organizations move through that ambiguity at times and push toward their shared goals.

If you must use reply all

Email is good to share some information but it can also be terrible to innovate together. Nonetheless, email is likely not going away today so let’s share some ideas on creating better communications there.

“Why people need to stop hating on reply all emails.” I was dictating that sentence to my phone  in the car with my wife driving who without hesitation groaned and said “oh I hate reply all emails.”

And I do agree with her to an extent. I’ve been part of many crappy and annoying reply all emails. People instead of having a conversation or trying to work with each other are really just sharing political office statements or are trying to position themselves.  How things often go with the written communication – if you have 15 people on an email you probably have 15 different interpretations of what a person actually said or meant.

But when done right reply all emails actually have a place and useful purpose in digital communications. Let me give you an example: every once in a while I’m on an email that was sent to a bunch of people and then somebody along the way decided to remove people on the email string from the next email reply. What happened? It’s like somebody kicked you out of the conversation.

Maybe it’s the journalist in me to an extent. If your mother says she loves you get two sources to confirm. LOL. But seriously if a piece of communication is not usually accessible than what makes you think it was taken care of? It doesn’t have anything to do with trust either. It has something to do with knowledge.

Tips to better text-based conversations

Of course some conversations are not best  to be had on reply all emails and they’re much better off in face-to-face or phone  conversation. I get it. And sometimes depending on who is on an email some of us are not as comfortable sharing some of the things that we would share when it’s a meeting in person – even with the same group of people.

So what tips come to mind when it comes to reply all emails? Here are some guidelines that I try to follow:

  • Why are some of these people on the email to begin with? Be aware of who you’re adding to an email when you’re starting the festivities.
  • Would any of them feel hurt or left out or whatever it might be if they were taking off at this point?
  • What is our relationship to them? Do we have relational power over them or how do they see us in an organizational setting?
  • What was the initial person’s intent with sending the email? Did they even mean to have a discussion or were they just sharing information? The  kind of reply all emails that can  get a little out of hand is when 14 people reply that they got it or that they’re thankful for the email or something that doesn’t further the discussion.

Group text messages can be very similar.  For example, I know that my wife does not like them. However, our 12-year-old who has her own iPhone messages us in our family group frequently and I do appreciate that she does that.

With all that being said, sometimes it’s just better to stop the emails altogether and hop on a call for a meeting to discuss the situation and collaborate that way.

Make the most of meeting time and be understanding

Another way to communicate better internally is to make the most of the time available. Some thinking time is necessary as we discussed in this article on how to be creative featuring Seth Godin, Adam Morgan and Sam Horn. Also, Adam shared how to structure collaborations better.

Also, remember that you might not always be aware of what else is going on in other people’s lives.

You have something that needs to be handled, discussed, decided on by somebody other than you. So you bring that to the right person’s attention. Could be your boss, your boss’s boss, etc.

The topic is highly important to you, maybe more important than it is to them. They promise to discuss it, or try to – though you likely didn’t hear the try.

Then the meeting happens and you follow up and their response: “I only had five minutes to talk to them and we didn’t get to this.”

Possible translations:

  • I forgot
  • It wasn’t that important to me (could be subconsciously)
  • I prioritized other things

But really, you can get a lot done in 5 minutes or other short time periods. I’ve interviewed people on death row in under 15 minutes, I’ve won a deal in 2 minutes and lost one in 1.

The importance of follow-up

Following up for leaders is ever more important. It builds trust with team members and shows you care. This scenario may sound familiar too:

You send a request through management and it goes into this black hole of never hearing back. No follow up at all. Neither good nor bad.

So here’s what I would recommend to get the most out of our five minutes – or whatever time period:

  • Really think about what needs to be discussed.
  • What’s the impact on others when certain things aren’t resolved?
  • Cut to the chase!
  • Go over an agenda first quickly and prioritize together

Especially the last one can be helpful when both sides bring their own priorities. I’ve been in meetings before where an agenda item unexpected to one party took over the whole meeting.

Communication can be quick and certainly it depends on our priorities. But having just five minutes isn’t the reason something wasn’t done. The priorities or agenda were usually the reason. Those of course are valid reasons, but I would encourage all of us communicators to think about the impact.

We can make the time for the communications that must happen. There’s never enough time for anything – really. Let’s make it!

Why debate matters

Another thing that should be considered is the place of debate in internal communications. Leo Morejon of proveitmatters.com joined me on this livestream of the podcast to discuss the importance of debate. We do agree that there’s not enough debate in companies.

To even get started with debate, we need a culture that encourages it. Healthy debate is also not about attacks. It’s about bringing up ideas, discussing them, active listening and then moving forward together.

How we talk to each other

Interestingly, though, when groups of people innovate together, try to solve a problem or even just try to figure out what the problem might be at some time, it’s almost a requirement that somebody will say:

I’m thinking out loud, and…. (INSERT IDEA)

OR

This is an incomplete idea ….

Really, these two can just be struck from our book of phrases that we use. I think we use them to make sure that the people we are talking to know that this might not be a great thought.

Hey, if you don’t like it, no worries, I wasn’t done thinking about it anyway. Let’s collaborate together.

But presenting incomplete ideas actually is one way to come up with great ideas. And others can help us with that. Of course, that only works if we present that incomplete idea.

The best and most collaborative groups of people don’t need these phrases at all. They don’t use them. They don’t even think about them. They just share ideas worth – or potentially worth – sharing. So how do you do that? Here are some guiding principles leaders and their teams can follow:

  • Every idea is good enough to be at least heard.
  • Bad ideas can lead to great ones.
  • Better ideas come out of half-baked ones.
  • At the least, people appreciate being heard.
  • Ideas shared verbally now can bring out even better ideas way later.
  • Listen first and second.
  • Evaluate some.
  • Judge later.
  • Try to improve ideas vs. declining them – especially as a leader

Recommended reading for you: Authentic storytelling isn’t about being right or wrong

Shorter communications can help

Once, I was working with an executive who was leading a huge change initiative. Most of our ideas were exchanged in short texts or in passing in the hallway or parking lot. Some ideas didn’t go anywhere. Some were implemented. Some of those months later.

The key was that despite the very informal system, ideas didn’t die. We moved ideas forward when they appeared to help our shared goals. When we could see a slimmer of a hope it might be worth trying… especially when nobody else hadn’t tried it. What happened after we shared ideas informally, we kept thinking about them here and there. Since we were open to new ideas, some started bubbling up again and others went on the back burner. But it helped the organization be successful and seen as an innovative leader. Not dismissing ideas and sharing them openly and without fear worked.

Working together

It’s also helpful when teams are aligned and work toward the same goals. Carrie Hane, author of “Designing Connected Content,” and I discussed that topic on an episode of the livestream as well.

Connecting experiences also come down to internal communication excellence and alignment. It’s nearly impossible to build good customer experiences when teams that should be connected row in different directions.

Read next: Can content intelligence take the chaos out of content creation?

Measure and try

I would also recommend that your internal communication strategies encourage testing, testing and some more testing. Things change all the time.

I talked with Chris Dayley a conversion optimization executive with of www.smart-cro.com about this on this podcast episode. One thing that stood out to me in this discussion was the importance of optimizing, testing and trying things constantly.

Chris shared the example of when he increased organic traffic to a site a decade ago or so. One would think that conversions would go up at the same rate. But they didn’t. The conversion paths weren’t as optimized as the SEO strategy. With that, the SEO worked, but the conversions didn’t follow.

Also, keep in mind that even with a perfect conversion path, it might still not work if the calls to action happen at the wrong time, or to the wrong people or maybe the product is terrible. There are many variables to conversion, communication and really anything in business transformation that the collaborate and open and forgiving communication can help us row better together as teams.

The same holds true to internal communications. Use some best practices and communicate often with your teams and allow the appropriate and useful feedback loop.

Measure what can get you fired

Data analytics expert Christopher Penn put it this way on the podcast: Measure what can get you fired if it goes to zero.

For internal communications this could include execution and results, of course, but also understanding and employee wellness. Make sure you have a mechanism in place to understand how employees are doing, how they are feeling about the company and how you can help them succeed.