Communication Context—Knowing What to Say… and When to Say It

by Miki Reilly-Howe

Communication Context means taking into consideration the relevant circumstances before you decide what message to communicate and when to communicate it to others. With internal communications, those circumstances can determine how well your message is received by the organization – and how likely the audience will be to react positively.


Seek First to Understand

The best way to figure out what your message should be is to talk to your audience before you start crafting it. Brands understand this and make it routine in their communications. The same is not true of business leaders. Tasked with communicating information internally, they don’t often seek first to understand.

Talking to your audience in advance is more efficient and ensures that your message is relevant to the people it needs to reach.

Here’s a humorous example of what I mean. Shortly before my son turned three, my husband and I separated. A few weeks into our new living arrangements, I picked up my son at my husband’s on a Saturday afternoon and brought him back to my new house. As we came in from the garage, my son sighed and said, “I wish I didn’t have two homes.”

I stopped on the steps and sat down with him. I had prepared for this conversation for months with a small team of therapists. I had an age-appropriate script on the tip of my tongue, and promptly launched into the bullet points. “Mommy and Daddy both love you very much…”

My young son listened patiently. When I was done talking he looked up and said, “Yeah, it’s just that at Dad’s house, I get Sprite. But I don’t get Sprite here.” 

I found myself blushing as we got back in the car to go buy some Sprite. If I had only asked first what he disliked about having two homes, rather than following my assumptions, our little conversation would have been much shorter—and more to the point.

A lot of communication within large corporations is much the same. Pinpoint the issues that might arise during a change initiative and your messaging gets focused on the right topics. It’s amazing how much time and effort this can save.


Timing is Everything

Sometimes what you say isn’t the issue. Sometimes it’s simply when you say it. Your message is most effective when the audience is receptive.

Consider a teenager who wants to use the car to go to a weekend party. She’s anxious to plan the evening with her friends, but she smart enough to know not to ask her mom or dad the minute they get home from work. She’s patient. She chats about her day over dinner and helps clean up the dishes. Then, when everyone’s relaxed and full, she sits down on the couch and convinces her dad to give her the car for the evening.

This lesson translates to business as well. Announcing a transformation effort right after a massive layoff or a week after the new CEO takes over may create an uphill battle. If possible, wait for a period of relative calm to make a major announcement. Consider the state of mind of the audience and react accordingly.

Communication context offers an effective way to make sure your message is relevant and timely. Find out what your audience really needs to hear and determine when they will be receptive to listening to it, and you will avoid unnecessary obstacles in moving the organization forward.

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