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A Modern Guide to Internal Communications

Learn some simple, actionable ways to improve internal communications across your organization with the help of proven strategies and modern tools.

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Communication can be challenging even in the best circumstances—people have different methods and preferences for how they like to convey and receive information. Even when those preferences align, we’re still left with the challenging task of transferring meaning between minds, and the difficulty compounds with each party you add.

And what is business if it isn’t a collection of communications?


The better your team gets at communication, the more likely it is to succeed and exceed its goals. Structure, practice, and good habits are essential to communicating effectively as a team—and that’s what this guide is about.

We’re going to lay out some of the most important elements of good internal communication and share some actionable tips on how you can use modern tools and techniques to better foster it across your organization.

Communication is a two-way street.

At least that’s what the adage says, but in practice that’s not often the case. Communication branches, detours, stops, and intersects constantly.

Even in a small team within an organization, internal communication looks less a two-way street, and more like a busy freeway interchange. Big and small ideas hop on and off arterial paths simultaneously at speed, as the flow of ideas races on.

As the size of an organization grows, that communication complexity compounds, and along with it, the structure and speed necessary to keep up. This is the stage at which informal internal communications often become more formalized. In many organizations, this means delivering internal communications top-down in a reliably structured manner, but that’s only one part of the equation.

It is vital for organizational leadership to share messages and communicate, and it’s equally important for other members fo the team to share thoughts, concepts, opinions, and ideas as well.

Limitations of top-down communication

Communication that only flows one way is simply a broadcast. While it may make the most sense to broadcast some messages, the broadcast method misses the forest for the trees.

Many corporate communications can benefit significantly from an open dialogue. The learnings gained from that exchange are worth the effort of developing the foundation it requires.

In addition to information sharing, broadening communication routes can help build relationships and foster engagement.

In her Harvard Business Review article "Moving from Top-Down to All-In" Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg describes the feeling she got when her boss asked for her opinion:

"It made me feel like I really mattered. It made me walk a bit taller for the day. And it even made me work a bit harder, knowing my opinion was valued."

In the next section we’ll discuss some ways you can build that open dialogue into internal communications in a predictable and productive way.

Why is internal communication planning important?

Communication influences every aspect of an organization, from efficiency to retention and engagement. Despite its central and wide-reaching influence, internal communication often takes a back seat to other issues.

External communications are poured over, strategized on, and carefully cultivated. It’s not out of the ordinary to spend hours debating a positioning statement, yet we often expect internal communication to just sort of work itself out naturally. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

That’s why it’s just as important to plan and cultivate good internal communication as it is to cultivate good external communication.

Who is responsible for corporate communication?

While the Communications Department (if your organization has one) may be responsible for establishing frameworks and norms, it’s up to each individual member of the team to embrace accountability for good communication.

Just like organizational culture, everyone has a part to play. If the entire burden rests on the shoulders of HR or the communications team, there’s little chance for a healthy practice to take hold across the team.

What does strong internal communication look like?

A few key elements of good communication—corporate or otherwise—are frequency, immediacy, clarity, inclusiveness, and safety. Each of these factors has its impact, but their combined effect is even greater than the sum of the individual factors.

In the next section, we’ll cover some internal communication best practices in depth, and outline some ways you can implement them as part of a holistic strategy.

Frequency

Frequency is one of the most challenging aspects of corporate communication, especially in a time when remote work is more prevalent than it has ever been. Frequency is also a balancing act. Too much, and it’s overwhelming; too little, and people feel like they’re stumbling in the dark.

A key to frequent but welcome employee communication is the element of friction (or really, the lack of it). How much friction can you remove from an interaction, so that communication is freeing, rather than burdensome?

With so many employees working remotely (or from home), it’s important to ensure you’re reaching them frequently enough that they don’t feel isolated from the rest of their team; however, it’s equally important to be judicious in how you reach out.

A daily email might be way overboard, while a Slack or Teams check-in might be a welcome channel to speak through and a reminder of their connection with the team.

Immediacy

Communicating quickly can make a meaningful difference in the overall employee experience. Whether the information is broadly applicable as in the case of major organizational change, or finite, as in the case of manager feedback, it’s rarely the case that quick delivery is detrimental.

Word travels fast organically, even if communications don’t. If the established channels are too slow, it’s nearly guaranteed that new channels will form, and those channels won’t be subject to the frameworks you’ve worked so hard to build.

Additionally, those makeshift channels may carry unclear, incomplete, or incorrect information which then requires an even larger mitigation effort.

Immediacy also powers iteration and improvement. The less time it takes to convey information, the more time you’re empowered to spend acting on it. Likewise, the more quickly you can act, the more quickly you can capture feedback on those actions and course correct if necessary.

As Rita Barret Craig explains in her post for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), it’s important not only to listen to employees, but also to apply what you’ve learned through that exchange. Doing so helps your colleagues understand the value you place on their feedback.

Clarity and coherence

The more clear and coherent communication is, the less chance there is for information to be misconstrued. If members of the team are getting different messages from different people (or worse, different messages from the same person), it can be immensely difficult to rally behind a vision for moving forward.

Inertia is tricky to overcome without a unified effort, and communication can have an outsized impact on inspiring or confusing and stifling that effort.

Consider that impact as it relates to the alignment between senior leadership, managers, and individual contributors.

Clarity and coherence also help compound the benefits of immediacy by requiring less explanation and re-explanation. The time colleagues dedicate to you is a gift, as leadership expert Lolly Daskal explains in "7 Effective Communication Habits of the Most Successful People":

It’s always more effective to be concise and clear. Honor the gift of people’s time by getting to your point quickly and clearly.

Context

Context is the cornerstone of communication. If you ask someone how well the new ticketing system is working as they’re counting out their till for the night, you’re likely to get a rushed and incomplete answer, a miscounted till, or both.

The better employee communication matches its context, the more effective it will be. If you’re delivering information, deliver it where it’s likely to be seen and acknowledged. If you’re capturing insights, ask for them in the context they’re drawn from.

For example, if you want to find out how the team feels about a project, ask while it’s in progress, and ask within the confines of the work. For an example on a grander scale, if you want to know how the team feels about the ergonomics of their remote work setup, ask them as they’re working remotely. Their ergonomics will be front-of-mind.

Inclusivity

Communication that excludes a portion of your addressable audience is incomplete at best, and detrimental at worst. Not only are you missing out on a chance to speak to a portion of your audience, you’re also missing a chance to learn from them.

Include a diverse audience in your communication plans. Consider the makeup of your audience, and how a message might fall on some ears differently than others. Think about how information tends to travel vertically and laterally.

If you’re fostering clear, coherent, and thoughtfully inclusive communications to your team, you can expect a more complete feedback picture and more positive responses.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety helps to build more creative, resilient, and fearless teams by creating an environment where there are no good or bad ideas, and where mistakes are framed as opportunities to learn and grow.

While psychological safety is most powerful when embedded in the very fabric of your organization, that’s sadly more often an aspiration than a state of being for many teams.

So, while it might seem nice to do so, you can’t flip a switch and decrease the social risk of sharing ideas openly. You can, however, flip a switch in the direction of psychological safety simply by providing anonymity in cases where sharing ideas might feel particularly sensitive, or where the stakes might feel high.

Although it doesn’t provide psychological safety in itself, anonymity can foster an environment where everyone has a buffer, and in that buffer, they gain a sense that ideas are safe to share because they’re no longer their ideas, but as ideas in abstract, viewed solely through the lens of their merits.

Building strong internal communication habits

Just like individual communication habits, good corporate communication is like a muscle—the more effort you put into developing and using it, the stronger it gets.

But here’s where it’s different. Strengthening your individual communication habits requires the effort of one person, while internal communication in your organization needs the support and effort of everyone on the team.

Let’s take a look at some of the most direct ways you can build your positive internal communication habits, while helping your team achieve the same.

Long-lived vs. short-lived communication

The key to frequency is finding ways to convey ephemeral information and more long-lasting sources of truth separately.
Slack, Microsoft Teams, emails, and Zoom meetings are all great ways to share ephemeral information. But, like Notion puts it, your organization needs a long-term memory as well. Whether you use a tool like Confluence, Notion, Coda, Guru, or Google Docs, it’s important to have a source of truth the team can refer to on things like benefits, holidays, addresses, and more.

Just like broadcast information needs a long-term memory, so does feedback.

Leading by example

Organizational culture is defined just as much by what is tolerated as it is what is demonstrated, and communication standards are no different. As a culture leader, it’s important to continue asking:

  • What quality of communication is your organization tolerating?
  • What quality of communication is your organization visibly encouraging?
  • What quality of communication are you demonstrating as a leader?

If the above don’t match the communication habits you’re striving toward, don’t despair. You have a big opportunity for improvement and a clear place to focus.

Transparency

Transparent communication helps to build trust and keep everyone on the same page. Although some organizations benefit from practicing radical transparency, it’s not required or even beneficial for every team. Some things aren’t meant to be shared widely. Instead, simply embrace the spirit of a strategy originally popularized by the team at Buffer: default to transparency.

Defaulting to transparency simplifies communication, and it’s not challenging to implement it across different aspects of your work and team. When it comes to a piece of information, use this as a litmus test:

Instead of asking “Is there any reason I should share this information with my team?” ask “Is there any reason I should obscure this information from my team?”

Apply that same logic when you’re asking information of your team. “Is there any reason I should obscure where this information came from?” In some cases individual privacy will supersede data completeness, and in other cases, the opposite will be true.

The benefits of this simple ideology shift is a better informed team that is more empowered to act in ways that move the organization forward.

Strategies for better internal communication

While following the basic tenets of good communication is a faithful barometer, there are some great ways you can structure techniques that foster stronger internal communications into your day-to-day operations.

Meeting prep

One of the best ways you can communicate effectively in a meeting of any size is to come prepared and help other attendees do the same. If you’re planning an event that relies on a lively exchange of ideas, make sure to plant the seed of curiosity ahead of time.

Whether you’re presenting on the results of a marketing campaign, or sharing information about your employee review process, getting advance feedback on your agenda can make leading and attending the presentation more valuable and enjoyable. You get the chance to apply laser focus toward communicating the exact things your audience cares most about.

Meeting feedback

Following any meeting, it’s critical to gather feedback on its effectiveness. The more feedback you have, the better you can tailor future meetings and ensure their success.

There may have been a key topic that wasn’t addressed, or too much time spent on another. With each datapoint of feedback, you’re getting closer to planning meetings and presentations that attendees look forward to.

All-hands meetings

All-hands meetings are a great way to deliver information to a team of any size; however, they often break down at the flow of information. Of all the communication methods commonly deployed across organizations, All-hands meetings, Channel or Team announcements, and company-wide emails resemble broadcasting most.

The all-hands meeting doesn’t have to be a broadcast event though—it can be a uniquely powerful opportunity for dialogue. You and your teammates just need to be willing and able to ask questions and share answers.

Those lanes of dialogue are crucial, especially in a time when a great deal of the global workforce is working remotely, lacking the face-to-face interactions that engender a candid dialogue.

This doesn’t mean the dialogue needs to become free-for-all. There are tools available to help guide those conversations and surface the discussions people want or need to have.

Live Q&A

There’s no better time to ask and answer questions than during a live presentation, but it’s common for this format to get overlooked because presenters worry that communication will descend into chaos. They worry they’ll get irrelevant questions, questions they can’t answer, or questions they aren’t ready to answer, then everyone will start hissing and throwing rotten fruit at the stage.

Luckily, the scenes of our public speaking nightmares are often unrealistic, and even the most challenging audiences can be given a healthy outlet for their questions and feedback.

The key to smooth, mutually enjoyable, and worthwhile Q&A sessions is to have just a few ground rules in place: moderation and voting.

Moderation helps sure that the questions you answer are relevant to the discussion. This can save you and your audience from tangents that distract from the clarity and cohesion of your communication strategy.

Popularity measurement reveals which questions are most interesting or pressing for your audience. You can use purpose-built tools to make this process simple and seamless for you and your team.

Live pulse checks

Live pulse checks can help steer a dialogue toward the most pressing concerns of an audience. For example, an educator might check the pulse of the audience they’re communicating with to confirm whether they’re ready to move on, or need more time to explore a concept in more depth.

Pulse checks can also be useful during larger meetings, like an all-hands. For example, you’re discussing the possibility of returning to the office, and want to gauge the level of comfort your team has with that idea. Based on the pulse data, you could discuss ideas for a return strategy, or a longer-term remote work plan.

Ask Me Anything (AMA)

An AMA is much like one big all-hands Q&A session with a few thoughtful guardrails in place. The goal is to give the floor to anyone and everyone on the team. While some all-hands meetings segue into AMAs, it’s often best to plan your AMA with a full-sized time slot to ensure as many people as possible can get their questions answered.

AMAs aren’t always easy, but that’s ok. As Greenhouse CEO Daniel Chait explains in his blog post on AMAs, “It’s just plain hard for most employees to be completely honest with executives about anything negative or critical.“

While AMAs are often a truly positive experience both for the askers and the answerers, it’s important to be ready to answer some tough questions.

“I’d much rather learn about problems or frustrations from people while they’re still employees and I have the chance to do something about it. I certainly don’t want people leaving the company simply because they feel like their voices were never heard.”

It’s also important to hold events like AMAs at a regular cadence. You may not get a chance to answer every question in a single meeting, and new questions are bound to form over time.

Get creative

These tools and frameworks are a great start that will work for many teams. Take those that work for you and adapt them to fit your use case, but remember that they’re just a jumping off point.

There’s no shortage of opportunities for everyone to relay ideas, and some will be specific to your organization. Finding those hidden opportunities can be an exceptionally rewarding exercise.

The more ways you can find to foster strong internal communication, the more team cohesion you’ll likely experience, and that in itself is a path to more wins.

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