Archives for April 5, 2010

Tips for Communicating Change

Excerpted from Complete Guide to Integrated Change Communication: Best Practices for Major Announcements, available from the IABC Knowledge Centre.

Initial material (open letter, speaking notes) should address the following points:
• Explain why the change is necessary and what will happen if there is no change.
• Include the external/competitive reasons for the change—how does it fit into the overall business strategy and the organization’s priorities?
• Describe the future state from the perspective of the target audience—what is changing for each group, what role does technology play, any changes in decision-making process, etc.
• Identify what is not changing at this time.
• Explain the process, including what will be done to help each affected audience through the process.
• Outline timing and when they will get more details.

Updates during the change (regular meetings, written updates) should:
• Repeat the messages over and over again. (Research shows that most people have to hear something five times before they really understand it.)
• Create ways to ask questions, provide feedback and express resistance.
• Provide information and answers in a variety of ways, using a variety of media.
• Identify and acknowledge the obstacles to change.

Note: Change management studies indicate that once a week is the minimum frequency for ongoing communication updates during a major change.

As you approach the end state:
• Acknowledge the distance people have come.
• Remind them why they had to change.
• Identify any future changes.
• Thank them for their efforts and the result.
• Hold periodic celebrations.

Working Words

How to Write in Someone Else’s Voice
by Natalie Canavor

When I chose this subject for “Working Words,” I wanted to know whether communicators who frequently ghostwrite material for someone else’s byline could share some tricks of the trade. Like most writers, I am sometimes called on to draft this kind of material—“From the Publisher’s Desk” pieces for magazines, articles published under specialists’ names, and lately, other people’s blogs.

I thought it would be good to learn from the experts and pass their advice on to other “generalists” like myself. So I talked to two of the best experts I know and quickly learned two things:

  1. More than ever before, it’s crucial for leaders to project a credible, individual and authentic-seeming presence. So the ability to speak with the voice of the CEO (or other executive) is a major 21st century skill for communicators.
  2. Conversations about taking the CEO’s voice for print or digital pieces quickly segued into talking about speechwriting. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, since the line is hard to draw, especially because business writing should be more like spoken language than is usually the case. Today, readers don’t have the patience to glean ideas and information from meandering, complex written materials. As this column often maintains, what we write should be clear, to the point and conversational in tone. My own favorite trick to improve writing, in fact, is to check its say-ability.

My conclusions are to take the subject seriously, and not distinguish much between techniques for written messages and speechwriting, particularly because I grew more and more convinced that learning to write good speeches really matters to in-house communicators who want job security, and freelancers who want an always-selllable skill.

So here are some ideas for writing in another person’s voice.

Arik Ben-Zvi, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based strategic communication firm Glover Park Group, writes frequently for corporate executives, heads of foundations and associations, CEOs and politicians. The work includes op-eds, letters to the editor, shareholder letters, annual reports and speeches.

“My role is to capture their ideas and communicate them in as persuasive a way as I can,” he says. “Typically they have a set point of view and are trying to advocate for positions important to them.”

Where to Start?
Ben-Zvi begins the process by eliciting a general sense of what the client wants to communicate. “I try—and sometimes this is difficult—to get them to tell me the central idea that they want the audience to take away from the piece. Sometimes they’re ready to do this, while at other times the question makes them think, which is valuable in itself. In parallel, I ask them to provide me with the substance behind the point of view—the data, the studies, the fact points.”

The more information the better, he observes. If clients need this kind of assistance, they may lack the time or skill set, or may not be the best judges of the strongest proof points. “So it takes more time,” Ben-Zvi says, “but it’s useful to get more information than less so we can find the nuggets that make the case in the most compelling way.”

Joan Detz, well-known to IABCers as a master coach on speechwriting and author of books, including How to Write and Give a Speech, agrees that information gathering is the place to start. For speechwriting, she recommends getting as much personal information as possible.

“It sounds basic, but have a complete biography of every person you write for,” says Detz. “And flesh out what might not appear on a corporate bio, using a client information sheet. Find out the person’s favorite sport. Does he coach the Little League team? Is she a weekend hiker and does she participate in extreme hiking events? If you know he loves golf, why not make it a golf example?”

Knowing what college the executive attended can lead to good angles. So can information about his or her family, Detz says. “Who is the CEO married to? What is her occupation? How does she volunteer her time—with something she is passionate about? Are the kids in private or public school? You may never mention this, but it’s important to know. And you’ll only find out if you ask.”

Ghosting for “Strangers”
What if you have to write for a person you don’t know and may never have spoken to?

“It happens all the time,” Ben-Zvi says. The relationship might be a new one, and/or the CEO might not have time to engage with the writer. “You work through a filter. The staff interacts with the principal and takes feedback, which goes back and forth. You can look at earlier writing and speeches and try to be consistent. You can use your knowledge of the organization. But then you have to make educated guesses about their voice. Mainly you try to do good writing and for a speech, depend on fundamentals like short, clipped sentences, built-in pauses, very smooth transitions.”

Joan Detz, too, says she typically works through staff. “I never take a CEO’s time when I can get that information elsewhere. I often work, usually by phone, with a trusted communicator on staff who really knows him. Then I may e-mail him directly for a few details.”

Detz poses questions such as, What’s the most interesting volunteer work you did this year? In your family, what are you most proud of?

“CEOs are often enormously pleased at this question,” she says. “I’ll get answers like, ‘For 15 years we’ve been taking in puppies to train as seeing eye dogs and we’re so proud.’ You can do an awful lot with a thing like that to add life and individuality.” And from the speaker’s standpoint, telling stories that are close to the heart makes for comfort and better delivery. “She doesn’t need notes on that, she knows it—so for those three minutes she can look at the audience, build rapport—it becomes a wonderful force for making the speech succeed on many levels.”

When You Get a Little Phone Time
When Detz gets a chance to talk with a CEO by phone, she makes the most of the five or 10 minutes by letting him carry the conversation and picking up on key words, repeated phrases, and the order in which he puts things, as well as cadence and speaking style. She suggests asking questions that follow up on what is said, such as, Why is the statistic you mentioned important? Is this a change in strategy? “That gives you what you can’t get from others, and he’ll see it as a good use of his time.”

Both Detz and Ben-Zvi say it’s important to remember that ghosted material must be seen from a big-picture perspective. “You can’t lose sight of overall strategy,” Ben-Zvi points out. “It’s meant to be in the service of a broader objective.”

“You want a benefit,” Detz says. “You want the speaker to feel good delivering a speech, and you want the organization to communicate its key messages. This is their prime time—there’s no filter like when they do an interview or a print piece that’s edited.”

And never before has such high value been given to helping CEOs and other leaders speak in their best voices. “I’m seeing increased demand,” Joan Detz reports. “There’s nothing more credible than a CEO or president speaking with real clout, clarity and compassion and having an audience feel he’s really connecting with them. That’s as powerful as it gets.”

Ben-Zvi finds that demand for communication services is growing generally and that there’s greater pressure than ever on corporate leaders to “go out and speak in their own voices rather than corporatespeak. A corporation can build a web site,” he says, “but only a CEO can give a speech or place an op-ed piece.

“Personalizing the message this way, putting corporate officers out there to humanize the organization, reveals that they are not faceless untrustworthy robber barons, but people who understand the business, have a conscience, and are trying to do their best for stakeholders.”


Natalie Canavor is a business writer, author and workshop presenter who teaches writing-for-results. She has been a journalist, national magazine editor and communication department director, and is a two-term past president of IABC/Long Island.

With Claire Meirowitz, she owns and operates C&M Business Writing Services, which creates publications, e-media content and training programs.

Their new book, The Truth About the New Rules of Business Writing, has just been published by Pearson/FT Press.

Reach Natalie at