What I learned about engagement at IABC’s World Conference

In June, I had the pleasure of attending the IABC World Conference in Washington, D.C.—an event showcasing a wide range of content focused on setting communicators up for success.

From thought-provoking keynotes on the rise of artificial intelligence and the importance of creativity, to a buzzing World Café on ethics in communicating in a post-truth era, the conference provided a rare opportunity for communicators to come together as a community and reflect not so much on what we do, but how we do it.

As a presenter at the conference, I delivered a session titled “This is what effective change communication looks like,” which was a springboard for a lively discussion on some of the unique pressures communicators face in helping their organizations lead change. It’s clear that change communication is emerging as one of the most sought-after competencies among strategic communicators—and one that comes with its own set of challenges as we find our way through this new landscape and carve out a role in which we can add value.

As a conference participant, I was particularly struck by U.K.-based Katie Macaulay’s presentation, based on her excellent book From Cascade to Conversation. Katie made a compelling case that “exceptional organizational performance is rooted in exceptional internal communications.” She spoke about the revolution in internal communication triggered by the democratization of access to media—from the “corporate monologue” in which CEOs proclaim information and an absence of response is seen as success, to an environment in which the rules of internal communication have shifted profoundly. The focus now is on authentic engagement through conversations in which organizations define their values by listening to employees and using their voice, rather than imposing sterile messages from the top down. Quoting David Weinberger, Katie reminded us that “Today, the smartest person in the room is the room itself.”

As a fan of his work, I was excited to participate in a session by Australia’s Shawn Callahan, “Crafting and telling the story of your strategy.” His workshop was a riff on his excellent book Putting Stories to Work. Shawn launched his presentation by sharing the “dirty little secret” that between 80 and 95 percent of employees don’t know or understand their organization’s strategy—a problem I come across often in my consulting practice.

He made the point that all strategy is change, and that the way people cope with destabilization and ambiguity is by making sense of things through stories. That’s why bringing a strategy to life through relatable stories that connect with employees is so vital. Shawn made the case that “if you want to change a culture, you have to change the stories that are told across the organization.”

I found the presentation totally refreshing and thought-provoking. For starters, his first piece of advice about storytelling was that we avoid the “s-word” and take the word story out of our vocabulary. Amen! Shawn hit the nail on the head that the more communicators talk about storytelling, the more leaders tune out and the less authentic the content becomes. In collecting stories, Shawn suggests we ask our leaders and employees “tell me about an experience” and avoid the use of the word “story” like the plague.

He offered a practical framework for thinking about creating good stories to support strategy:

  • Story always starts with a marker in either time or place.
  • A good story follows a structure and has shape. A useful narrative arc is: In the past, then something happened, so now we’re doing this, to have a future that looks like this.
  • The story should connect clearly to a business point or goal from the strategy.
  • Use names and dialogue so that the story feels more personal and intimate.
  • At the end of the story, don’t explain it—that takes the control back to the speaker. Silence is better.
  • Keep oral stories oral—this will help avoid sanitizing the message or killing the story through revision and nitpicking.

Shawn wrapped up by recommending that we do three kinds of story work: story telling (crafting vignettes), story listening (collecting stories from employees) and story triggering (hosting sessions to encourage employees to come up with stories that connect their experience to strategy).

His work makes an important contribution to the communication industry, and his session added enormous value to the excellent programming at the conference.

We look forward to having Montréal host next year’s IABC World Conference—it promises to be a banner event, powered by an amazing team of Canada East volunteers. Mark your calendars for 3–6 June 2018!

Written by Caroline Kealey for CW Magazine.