I recently received an email from an organization in which I used to be quite active. The purpose was an announcement of an amalgamation of segments of the organization. The message was well-written in a technical sense. It included a summary of the change, some of the activities leading up to the decision for the change, and a list of benefits that are expected to result from the change. It thanked those who were active in the segments previously, and it provide contact details for anyone who wanted more information. Further, the message went to previous leaders of the segments first, to give them the news before the general membership heard. It was textbook: well-written and flawlessly executed except for one thing. The message said nothing of substance. The words were there; but by the end of reading it, I had no sense of why the change was occurring, and what the benefits would actually be.
I know the writer well and I can imagine that everything that worked in the communication was the result of her efforts. But even well-written and well-executed messages can miss their mark, as this one proved. This issue can result from too many reviewers who water down the message to the lowest common denominator. It can also result from the author spending so much time word-smithing and being careful not to offend anyone that they themselves edit the meat right out of the message. Or – as with many law firms – it’s the result of a fear of sharing too much information. This stems from any of the following thoughts:
- If knowledge is power then we don’t want to give too much of our power away;
- If we tell the Partnership too many details, they’ll come back and pick away at the communication from a hundred different perspectives so let’s limit what we say;
- We know we want a particular result and we want to promote that heavily, but we aren’t really sure yet how we will get there. So, we don’t want to share too many details and be held to those processes yet.
Well-written communications will overcome all of these concerns.
Here is how to prepare a strong communication. Don’t write the message yet, just create an bulleted outline first as follows:
- Summarize what you want the reader to know in a strong sentence. This is the outcome, not all of the details. You can still share details in the communication, but before you start writing have a good sense of what your end-goal is. Example: we’ll be installing a new accounting system in October.
- Determine your audience. Is this going to the Executive? The Partners? All lawyers? Everyone in the firm? To clients? Knowing the audience will immediately start to shape what information you share and how you share it.
- When does this need to go out (and to whom)? The communication I’ve been referring to was first sent to prior leadership of the segments out of respect, and to ensure they were on-side with the change before the announcement went to general membership. That was smart. When I’m advising Managing Partners on communications around terminations, I generally suggest a personal phone call to those who work most closely with the individual; then a note to Partners; and finally, a note to everyone in the firm. The order is an important as the scripting of each message.
- Detail the reasons for the change. This is your rationale for considering change in the first place. For example: the version of our old accounting system was not longer going to be supported by the supplier. We took advantage of this opportunity to create a new needs assessment to ensure that whatever we replaced our current accounting system with had the functionality we would need going forward.
- Outline the decision-making process. You want to show that this wasn’t a gut decision by a single individual, but rather a calculated, well-considered process. Who was put in charge of this process? Was there a committee or task force struck? What did the decision-process include? For example, how was the needs-assessment conducted? Was there an RFP process? How was the eventual decision made?
- Develop (at least) three compelling reasons for the change selected. This should speak to the benefits of your decision. For example: the new system is faster and easier to use, which will save time by all timekeepers. The new system includes capabilities we need based on evolving client requirements such as (provide examples). The new system also integrates with our contact management system, which will significantly improve our marketing capabilities.
- State logistics. When will what be happening? What else do your readers need to know (for example, training)?
- Thank those who were involved in the process.
- Provide a contact name and details in case anyone requiring more information.
Now you’re ready to write your message. Be particularly careful about how you describe issues and solutions. In the communication I referenced at the beginning of this post, there were lots of great phrases, but without explanation. How have the segments collaborated more closely? What was the increased dialogue? What are the opportunities to streamline and leverage impact? What is the increased value to the members? By using those words without context or explanation, they become empty words. You sometimes see this happen when there is nothing further to say, because the words truly are just words. If that’s really the case, then I’d recommend you don’t send out a communication. It will only cause more harm than good.
An announcement doesn’t need to include every little detail about a project: just the pertinent ones. Although I’ve noted 9 pieces of information above, the end product needn’t be lengthy. By way of example:
Note to all members of the firm:
Effective October 30th the firm will be moving to ABC Accounting system.
This change was necessary as our current accounting platform is outdated and will no longer be supported by the supplier. To ensure that a new system would meet our needs, I asked Jane Smith to head a Task Force with (name the team members and their roles) to conduct a needs assessment and go to market for a new system. In due course, the Task Force interviewed three short-listed companies and selected ABC Company as being the best fit for our needs.
Our new system will be faster and easier to use, which will save time by all timekeepers. It will have all of the functionality we require as well as new functions that our clients have been asking for, such as (example here). As an additional benefit, the new system will integrate with our contact management system. The incredible benefits of this be explained during training on the new system.
(Training coordinator) has developed a training schedule at (location). Please ensure you sign up for a training session prior to October 23rd. We will have a team of trouble shooters available at the firm for three weeks during the transfer period to ensure everyone has the support they need.
On behalf of the Partnership I want to express tremendous thanks to the Task Force for all of the efforts on this important project.
Should you have any questions regarding this email or the systems transfer project, place contact…..
Don’t be afraid of including all of this information in your communication. While a firm may be able to get away with writing the following…
Effective October 30th the firm will be moving to ABC Accounting system.
(Training coordinator) has developed a training schedule at (location). Please ensure you sign up for a training session prior to October 23rd.
…it will result in uncertainty, confusion, perhaps a lack of trust. Always remember that in the absence of details, people will make up their own. You want to control the message.
A well-written communication (which hopefully follows a well-executed change management system) is sufficiently detailed such that the writer should not receive back many questions. When I was in-house, I told my staff that if lawyers were calling us to learn the status of a project we were working on for them, we had already failed in our communication. Think ahead to the questions the reader might have and address those in your communication.
But stay within reason by considering questions from reasonable readership. There will always be that Partner that asks the obnoxious questions, either because they just like to cause trouble or because they feel they should be intimately involved in every decision and are ticked they weren’t on the task force. Resist the urge to write your communication for them. Write for the reasonable masses.
If anyone responds negatively to the suggested communication, above, it’s probably because they disagree with the decision around the change itself. If that’s the case, it’s far better to spend your energy addressing that disagreement than bickering over messaging.
Great communication will re-enforce the power of a firm’s leadership. These skills demonstrate that someone is in charge, is looking out for all aspects of the firm, is professional and thorough in exercising those duties, is a strong communicator regarding that oversight, and is approachable if there are any questions. While knowledge might have power, effectively communicating that knowledge is far more powerful.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org