Our communication is like wading through treacle

Having worked as a Head of Comms in a previous career, I know as well as anyone that communication can feel like a thankless task. Whatever you communicate, however you craft it, whichever platform you use, there can be a sense that it hasn’t quite hit the mark - and of course, there’s always someone out there who has a different view on how it could have been done better.

As leaders, we spend so much time planning and delivering communication - it’s an essential part of the job to get right. Yet, we often hear from clients that “our communication is like wading through treacle”, “things just don’t seem to land” and “despite having communicated things what feels like a hundred times, people just don’t seem to have got the memo (or even be interested in the memo).” 

Sound familiar?


The communication illusion 

It brings to mind that brilliant quote from George Bernard Shaw that “the greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it’s been achieved.” How often, as leaders, do we find false comfort in the belief that the communication we sent out into the ether did its job, only to realise weeks later that in fact, not only did it not do its job, it didn’t even reach the troops. 

If we take communication back to the drawing board, what is it that we are really trying to achieve? Are we trying to educate, inspire, change behaviour, challenge current thinking? Or are we trying to build trust, reputation, credibility or excitement around something? It can be all and none of these, but whatever your communication objective it is, it all starts with one thing. 


The art of connection 

We’ve all seen the results from the regular employee survey where the trend is that people want more, better, different communication from the company and its leaders. We’ve also all witnessed the scurrying effort to address this with more email updates, another bi-weekly newsletter and perhaps even some opportunities for the holy grail of ‘two way’ communication. Sadly, we’ve all been there when the next round of survey results come back and our people STILL want more, better, different communication. So what is going wrong?

99.9% of the time when people ask for more communication, what they’re really asking for is more connection. Not more emails, not more briefings, not more broadcasts. Instead, more meaningful interactions and conversations that create understanding and emotional connection. As leaders, if we can completely reframe the way we look at communication and focus on the art of true connection, rather than the transaction of communication - this is where the magic starts to happen. 


From treacle to transcendence - my eight top tips: 

1) Find the way to connect  

Instead of working on a communication plan that is focused on “how are we going to communicate this to people?”, swap it out with “how are we going to connect with people around this?” This simple mindset shift will transform your thought process around it. Consider questions such as what is this audience interested in, what do they care about, what will motivate them about this, what concerns will they have, who will they trust and respect to hear about this from, how can we create space for them to process and chat about this? 

As human beings, we are born wired for connection, it’s an intrinsic part of our DNA. As adults, we connect to each other when we relate to one another - as leaders, we need to find the ways to relate to our people in order to conquer true connection. 


2) Be a communication chameleon 

You’re different from me, and all of the people you work alongside. We are all unique humans with a variety of preferred working, learning and communication styles. Kinetic learners absorb information by participating, visual learners learn by sight, and auditory learners like their information by sound. That’s before you even consider personality types, the ways in which people prefer to exchange, explore and converse and the fact that many people need an element of variety (or communication becomes wallpaper).

This means that, as a leader, we need to be a communication chameleon - bringing different colours, approaches, platforms, mechanics and styles in order to create connection with different groups, generate excitement and anticipation and show our own unique leadership (and human!) personality. This includes verbal, written and visual multimedia. Being a versatile communicator (and connector) is top of the list for leadership brilliance - push yourself out of your comfort zone, mix it up and learn as you go, knowing that imperfect leadership communication that is authentic and brave goes a long way.


3) Right communication, right way 

Often when we need to communicate something, we revert to type and go for what seems like the fastest, easiest way - the way that enables us to tick that communication box off our list for the day. However, this is so often where we get into trouble and where the communication penny fails to drop. This has been excarbetared through the pandemic and continues to be as many organisations navigate hybrid working.  

Reverting to type often means the use of email (and long ones at that). This is where the true wading through treacle stuff happens. For senior leaders who need to communicate with their people (and hybrid working means they can’t physically be around them), try replacing that furious typing with hitting record on your phone or laptop to capture a short video or piece of audio. Imagine reading a film script as opposed to watching it play out on the big screen and you’ll get the idea. Take some time to reflect on your usual communication approach - be brave, try something new and you’ll connect with people in completely new ways. 


4) Encore une fois

As humans, we often need to hear the same message multiple times to help it sink in, but also to sustain and embed the behaviour or habit it’s promoting. We are all bombarded with thousands of messages every day, in all formats from a multitude of people. A frequent mistake that leaders make is to think that everyone has received and absorbed the message that they have communicated. 

Humans also need to not only hear a message in a variety of ways but have the chance to unpick it, explore it, discover what it means for them. When you’re sending out messages, never assume they’ve been digested. Never assume yours has been heard. Instead repeat it and check in to make sure it’s been heard (in a human way). Create conversations around your communication to help people connect to it individually, including what it means for them. 


5) Conversation without agenda 

Sandwiched between communication and connection is an important filling - conversation. Conversations are crucial to building connection and promoting understanding and empathy. Honest and open conversations (rather than the ‘as per my last email’ chaser) avoid wasted time, misunderstandings, nip conflict and tension in the bud and boost collaboration. I’ll often say to leaders that the only communication that can ever be grounded in truth and true understanding is conversation. 

A piece of advice we give to leaders every week is to create opportunities for conversation without agenda - this means conversation with no specific purpose or outcome. Call three people each week for no reason other than to chat and see how they are (this will be met with suspicion at first but after a while, becomes the norm). Launch a company coffee roulette where everyone has a virtual coffee with someone new each fortnight. The discovery of invaluable information, insight and collaboration opportunities spring directly from conversations, whilst also building the human to human relationship.


6) Say goodbye to jargon 

Jargon, buzzwords and corporate-speak are rife in the twenty-first century, they litter emails and company communications, but they make people switch off and lose interest. When you think about how you communicate with people, remember that words create worlds.  Carefully selecting which words you use and the resulting world which they create, both internally for your people and externally to the world, is crucial. It’s brilliant when a company shows its human side and can also clearly explain what they do and what they stand for. 

As leaders, it’s up to you to set the standard for brilliant communication. Always use plain language and as few words as possible, this means nothing should ever be unclear and nor will it alienate people in the business. Replace boring words with exciting ones - expand your language repertoire with colourful adjectives as if you were reading a bedtime story to your child.  And on that note, if a six-year-old could understand your communication, you’re winning. Simple. 


7) Ask great questions 

Questions unravel and unwrap so much.  If you don’t ask great questions, you’re keeping a door locked on a room full to the brim of incredibly useful information. Humans like to be asked questions (especially great ones), and as our favourite topic is usually ourselves we are happy to answer in detail. Being able to extract people’s thoughts, opinions, motivations and insight through brilliant questions is an essential leadership skill. 

When leaders ask their people great questions, it leads to innovations, improvements and a bank of true insight that helps leaders to think about how people can thrive in the business and what their future plans would look like. It also builds connection and trust because we’re listening to others. It was Einstein who said “if I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes thinking of the best question to ask.” Right on, Einstein.


8) People will never forget how you made them feel

The late, great Maya Angelou said ‘I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ It’s plain and simple. If you think about someone you know, you’ll immediately know how you feel when you are around them without remembering all of the conversations you’ve ever had. 

Whenever I ask clients to tell me about the best leader they’ve ever had (which I do often), without fail I hear stories of leaders who made people feel listened to, valued, trusted, respected - the list goes on. The point is brilliant leadership is a feeling we leave with people - every day and in a legacy long after. 


Leave the communication treacle behind 

No matter how fast-paced and innovative technology gets and how busy our daily lives become, humans will still have the same needs. We all have a need to feel safe, like we belong, to feel connected and to feel valued. It’s only then that we have the desire to be our best - and how we communicate as a leader is central to this. 

The reality of the world we live in is that our brains evolve at a snail’s pace compared to the dazzling progress that the technology sector has made. The result is that our brains and our needs aren’t always in sync with our daily interactions - which have become less human and more transactional.

At Jester, as part of our progressive work we love to help leaders and companies to elevate their communication and create cultures based on connection. Get in touch to explore how we can help transcend your communication treacle:



What's love got to do with it?

My first memory of feeling really inspired dates back to my English teacher in secondary school, Mrs Boland. Although we were all adolescent teenagers, she somehow captured our imagination, helped us to believe in ourselves, and encouraged us to tune into our own individual strengths. She got us to think for ourselves instead of only teaching us, she challenged us on who we were as people, as well as how bright we were, and boy, was she a great storyteller. Looking back, it was one of my earliest experiences of a brilliant leader.

Fast forward to last year and I was inspired by another teacher, my son’s headteacher. In the face of COVID and the myriad of challenges facing every school leader across the country, she made time to support my child and our family with our own challenges. She didn't email me, she called me. She delivered some difficult messages directly but in the most compassionate way. She listened to us, fully, acknowledging our situation and feelings wholeheartedly.

When we think of great leaders, we think first of those who have inspired us, who have believed in us, and who have used their position to empower us, not themselves. We also often think of those who have taken decisive action when needed, taken the tough calls before it was too late but importantly, have done so with character, compassion, and heart. We only have to look back over the last two years to see that the most successful leaders have listened to their people, demonstrated they genuinely care, and have shown true compassion - as well as having the courage to say, “I’m not OK”, winning respect and trust in abundance. Yes, we have needed a clear strategy and plan to navigate COVID but we have needed it from leaders that we feel connected to.

Great leaders have often known personal struggle but rather than be driven by the legacy of that pain, they use it to understand others. They have great wisdom and emotional intelligence to see past facts and figures to the people and lives that live beyond them. They speak with
courage, and humility, with both the imagination to picture what seems possible and the patience to make it a reality. Their authority comes from within and is not dependent on the external rank of recognition. So much about love represents being an advocate for the success and wellbeing of others. It is unconditional and selfless. The same can be said of true leadership. Something we see in the very best leaders is the clear understanding that they are in service to the people around them - and they love it that way.

It might be Valentine’s Day once a year but when you consider these stories of kindness, listening, and empowerment, it’s not difficult to see how love really is at the very heart of leadership, 365 days a year.
It might not present itself in a red heart-shaped balloon but is there a love that is stronger than enabling others to succeed? Leading with love doesn’t require title or authority. It doesn’t stem from privilege or entitlement. Instead, it guides and connects, invests and inspires, and moves people to transformation and action.

Lead with love and the legacy you leave will be lifelong.

86% of employees said this one thing helped them navigate the demands of their work and life

If you were told about one thing that could improve the wellbeing of the majority of your people, would you implement it in your role as a leader? We’re guessing it’s a yes.

A study showed that this one thing helped 86% of people to better manage the demands of their work and wider life. Therefore, it must be revolutionary, or something that requires lots of work and investment? Here’s the big reveal…..

86% of people reported that they were able to navigate the demands of their work and life when they felt their leaders were more empathetic. That’s it. 

It’s quite the stat when you think about it. Drink it in. 

Leaders have the potential to make their peoples’ lives easier by just being empathetic. 

Leading with empathy

Every person you work with has their own unique life outside of work that you may know snippets about or you may know a lot about. There are times when it feels like life is flowing easily but there are times when it starts to fizz manically in our heads and stress sets in. The difference between feeling comfortable to share that with a leader to lighten the load or having to try and hide it is big

If people feel supported and able to ask for help, this has a huge impact on their day to day productivity, motivation and happiness at work - in a good way!

We re-shared an article about empathy and kindness earlier in the year and how empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right - it had a huge response. It’s no surprise that the articles and posts on LinkedIn which are more personal in nature garner tons of likes, shares and engagement. Of course, LinkedIn’s purpose is a business networking platform but doesn’t it speak volumes that the biggest engagement on there comes from when the people behind their job title and work attire share some of themselves and their stories? It’s because these posts show the human side of people and we can all relate to it.

Our working life can feel like we are sometimes pretending not to be human. We’re just a Head of Digital or a Director of Finance, and some workplaces can make us feel like we need to tone our emotions right down and the personality that we carry with us (what makes us who we are, essentially!) 

Births, fostering, promotions, deaths, diagnosis, financial issues, caring responsibilities, moving house, loss and hundreds more of these events happen to people every day. Employees can try and close the door on these when at work but they’re still there banging on the door needing attention.

What great leaders do

For a leader to actively check in with their people, asking if they’re ok and what help and support they might need is something that no business perk will replace. It’s as easy as that. 

Mental health first aiders and ensuring that employees feel safe to share any issues with their leaders are extremely beneficial to workplaces. But as a very first starting point, just making sure that empathy is displayed and is genuine is going to go a long way.

Here are five ways you can demonstrate empathy in your role as a leader:

1) Call someone every week just to see how they are doing and what they have going on

2) Always leave space at the beginning of every meeting to enquire how people are doing

3) When asking someone ‘how are you?’, dig deeper when presented with an ‘I’m fine’ response

4) Share when you’re feeling vulnerable to create psychological safety for others to do the same

5) You don’t need to solve everything, ask a great coaching question instead to help people explore something they’re feeling or struggling with.

Start with empathy and see the difference it will make, because in the words of Maya Angelou ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

Leader reading an ideas book

10 top tips to make your hybrid meetings ROCK

We've moved into a hybrid world but it seems everywhere we go people are in constant meetings.  

On average, UK working adults are attending 13% MORE meetings since the pandemic started. 60% are multitasking in those meetings if they're dialling in virtually, driving huge inefficiencies of both time, creativity and productivity. And, as a result, we're working an extra half a working day a week, on average (meaning many of us are doing far more).

There's got to be another way, right?!

We’ve been supporting leaders and teams on leading in a hybrid world throughout this year and have had a front row seat to the inspired thinking, hybrid team hacks and top tips that really make hybrid meetings work. We'll share some with you here.

Read more

Lit up question mark. Open-ended questions in leadership

This one question will change how you lead and live

Hands up, how many times when someone is talking to you are you waiting for them to finish so that you can immediately respond? Welcome to the way most conversations work...

Sometimes it’s just hard not to jump in on the last bit of what someone is saying as we are so keen to talk next - it feels like being in a queue and craning your neck to see when it’s your turn.

Added to this is small talk. These well-intended but often dull daily interactions, usually just lead us into an awkward dead-end. We ask the same questions, offer the same tried and tested ‘safe’ responses and feel like we are having the same conversation on repeat (we usually are!). 

Whether it’s a lack of listening, too many opinions, or the same questions on autopilot, it’s easy to see why so many of our conversations end up feeling transactional or like we can’t shift it into another gear.

It doesn’t have to be this way!Read more

laughing in leadership

Eight ways to be a brilliant leader in a hybrid working world

Whether we lead an organisation, a team, a project or a specific activity, the pandemic has thrown us a fair few curveballs during the last 18 months. We’ve relocated (overnight), juggled more balls than ever, Zoom Zoom Zoomed (!) and adapted and pivoted.

As more and more teams head back into the office and enter into a hybrid working world, how do leaders get their heads straight about what happens next? 

With so many of our ways to communicate, connect and collaborate seemingly turned upside down during the pandemic and many questions around what exactly should happen now, there’s still a lot of talk about the need for a total re-think on how we lead as the world of hybrid takes hold.

However, when we look at the leaders (in all walks of life) who have done a brilliant job throughout the last 18 months, they haven’t actually changed their leadership approach at all, regardless of where they have been working from. Granted, their leadership might have been delivered slightly differently but it’s remained entirely focused on the age-old principles of leading others that are also bang up to date and that we can’t see changing anytime soon.

Read more

Video: Leading through the ups and downs of life

Watch our three-minute video on leading through the ups and downs of life, or if you prefer reading, the transcript is below.

Today I want to talk a bit about the ups and downs of life, and what all that’s got to do with leadership.

Six months ago, both of my children were diagnosed with autism and a range of other special needs. And around the same time, my wonderful, wonderful Father-in-law passed away with Covid. Fast forward six months and we’ve relaunched the Jester business. We’ve also had news that my youngest son has been offered a place at a phenomenal specialist school, which we’ve been hoping for for a long time. Read more

7 Leadership Mistakes youre making right now

The 7 leadership mistakes you are probably making right now

Say the word ‘leader’ and often we can’t help but think of someone with a commanding presence and a great capacity for speech.

Read more

Make your team feel incredible

How to make your team feel incredible with just three things

There’s loads of stuff out there on what makes a brilliant team (big yawn...). When we get rid of all of that noise - it’s simple. A team that feels good, does good. How your team feels all round, well, it’s a lot to do with how you make them feel.

Read more

10 reasons why you can’t fake it until you make it in leadership

9 reasons why you can’t fake it until you make it in leadership

Years ago, I was a new Head of department for a global company. I had my first big meeting with the exec team. I wheeled out a fancy presentation, it had all of the bells and whistles, the data was immaculate - but it fell completely flat and it’s fair to say that I spectacularly screwed the whole thing up.

Read more