Monthly: January 2015

Bill Nichols

30 January 2015

Bill Nichols

Leader Communications: The 3Cs of Motivation (February 2015)

Leader communications often retreats behind platitudes and, evidence suggests, is seriously damaging to business or cause (writes Dr Bill Nichols).  Easily embarrassing and irritating too.

So how do leaders ‘make dreams come alive’? (To quote guru Warren Bennis in an earlier Ad Astra blog). The solution, recent research finds (*1), is 3Cs.

That’s the balanced melding of content, context and colour.  Here’s why they matter – and how.

Power of Leader Communications

Leadership is a hot management topic.  If you have lifetimes available, check out all those airport pot-boilers, academic texts, blogs and manuals.

Leadership’s exact definition generates extensive debate.  But we know that it:

  • Is linked positively to business performance – both operationally and financially
  • Requires effective leader communications of a clear strategic vision.
  • Can generate positive reputation, attract talent and win wider stakeholder support.

‘How’ – Content and Context

But ‘effective’?  That ‘how’ is seriously murky.  Magic, charisma, dark art?   Or carefully-structured crafting?

Effective leader-communicators (or their speech-writers) integrate three major dimensions (3Cs).  Each dimension, suggests recent analysis, is mutually reinforcing.  Each must also break the sterility of management ‘wordzak’ (my coinage, cp. ‘muzak’).

First content or ‘meaning-making language’ (posh: ‘locutionary’).  This layer is more than facts alone. Content confirms starting points (organisational ‘beliefs’).  Creates shared ‘mental models’ to help us engage.  And finally highlights simple goals that everyone can grasp.  Compare:

  • Classic wordzak: “This year our priority is to deliver unsurpassed customer satisfaction”.
  • 3C Clarity: “Customers make pay-days. Every time we touch a customer (even by simplest email) we can make or break those pay-days. Customer satisfaction means their satisfaction with every contact, every day.”

Second context or direction-giving language (posh: ‘perlocutionary’).  Context dispels ambiguity in leader communications. It identifies tasks that put content into practice.  And it usually links rewards to goals:

  • Wordzak: “We will deliver satisfaction by focusing on continuous innovation at the boundaries of service”.
  • 3C Clarity: “We recognise that every client has special needs. So every day we all learn and share more about meeting those needs.  Together we adapt and improve.  And we understand that the more we contribute, the more we progress as individuals.”

How – Colour

Content and context take us a long way.  But fully effective leader communications requires orchestration.

So third and finally comes colour, the feeling or empathetic language (posh: ‘illocutionary’).  Colour is often notable by its absence.  Sometimes superficial.  Sometimes cringe-making.  But, properly wrought, it adds controlled and motivating emotion.  If, as leader, you want others to ‘believe’, you must yourself ‘believe’.  And you must show it personally:

  • Wordzak: “We will create a service of which we can all be proud and which will be a shining example for others”.
  • 3C Clarity: “For me every time my ‘phone rings, I’m conscious that everything we do is potentially ‘on the line’. To me, every failure feels personal. That way customers sense that we ‘get it’.  That we don’t just tick boxes.  That, if they need us to, we’ll throw those boxes away.  That’s satisfaction.”

Three Cs in Practice

So next time you craft leader communications – formal or impromptu – check:  content, context and colour.  Good and bad examples equally welcome here please.


(*1) The underlying theory here is MLT – motivating language theory.  See Mayfield, J. et al (2015), “Strategic vision and values in top leaders’ communications: motivating language at a higher level”. International Journal of Business Communication, 52 (1) 97:121.  Originally: Sullivan, J. (1988), “Three roles of language in motivation theory”, Academy of Management Review, 13 104:115.

Bill Nichols

26 January 2015

Bill Nichols

Justifiable Ambiguity: Shades of Grey in Strategic-Communications (January 2015)

Working in strategic-communications, is it ever acceptable to lie? (writes Dr Bill Nichols).

If strategic-communications is confronted by say terrorism, financial implosion or executive misdemeanour? When unvarnished truth meets e.g. risk of public panic, loss of jobs or investment damage?

Note this is a double challenge: acquiescence in falsehood and strategic purpose.  The conflict lies at the heart of PR’s classic dilemma.  Is the PR executive ‘truth-guardian’ or ‘client-advocate’.   The ‘lie-test’ demands a strict ‘no’. But it also prompts a compelling – and exceptional – case to deploy ‘justifiable ambiguity’.

In this zone of conflict ‘should’ tussles with ‘is’.  Resolution, in my view, marks a mature profession.

Here’s why and how.

 ‘The Truth, The Whole Truth…’

The ethics ‘lie-test’ is commonplace in my University PR classes. At first pass, it’s black-and-white. Most day-to-day PR emphasises clarity.  It serves and engages the information-recipient as ‘customer’.  It does not require the ‘dark arts’.  I.e. the “stunts, spin, lies and assorted PR ‘b******t” – dismissed with alacrity by most students.  Frequently, indeed, PR practice is undermined by them.

But ‘shades of grey’? Pause for thought

Duty and Justifiable Ambiguity

‘Should’ inclined textbooks and codes generally deny this issue.  PR’s excellence tradition exhorts us to embed ethics in planning and to become guardians.  Ultimately promoting ethics “will result in your helping the organisation to improve not only its image but its reality…. the real duty of a strategic communications manager (*1)” .   This approach leads, for example, to active and thoughtful corporate social responsibility (per my earlier blog).

But, as a thoughtful new case-based study evidences, this ‘guardian’ duty ultimately must defer to the real game-shifter.  It’s the ‘S’ word.  Strategic – properly understood – spotlights organisational purpose, intent and, consequently, selection.

Where ends and means conflict, ‘strategic’ shows us the communicator’s first duty to his organisation. It is – to paraphrase St AugustineSt. Augustine’s famous concept of the just war – to seek ‘order, the right disposition of things according to their proper end’.  War is acceptable if it serves peace.  We should also observe J S Mill’s framing of liberty: ensuring that our exercise of liberty does not make ‘a nuisance to other people’.

So, in making the best possible presentation, corporate communicator-advocates must not lie. But conversely they are neither judge nor jury.  They must deal in shades of grey which embrace both ‘ambiguity and deception’ (*2).

The Practice of Ambiguity

The practice of justifiable ambiguity, suggests the new study, comes in three flavours: syntactical,  the crafted positioning of phrase or clause; lexical, the precise practice of semantics; and pragmatic, the visual production of mitigating context and indicative image.

More on strategic-communications practice and ambiguity in a future blog. Your examples, ideas and feedback are hugely welcome here.


*1 Powell, M (2011), Ethics and the Public Relations Process in Moss D., and DeSanto, B (eds) Public Relations: A Managerial Perspective. London UK: Sage.

*2 Dulek, R.E., and Campbell, K.S. (2015). On the Dark Side of Strategic Communication, International Journal of Business Communication, 52 122:142