What Is Communication? We Interview The Comms Coach, Kate Cousens to Find out More…
Kate Cousens is a true Communications specialist. She has spent the past two decades in the field of Public Relations and Corporate Communications, working with some massive brands including, The Environment Agency, McDonalds and Eddie Stobart. She now uses her industry insight to help others as ‘The Comms Coach’, and provides a shining light to help other women in the industry achieve their potential through her blog: ‘Ladder Climbing in High Heels’. Kate has kindly taken some time out of her busy schedule to discuss, amongst other things with us, What is Communication? and give insight into why communication skills are so important in the corporate environment.
Q: Please Tell Us a Little About You, What You’ve Achieved, and Where You Are in Life Right Now.
Kate Cousens: I have worked in the field of Corporate Communications for the past 18 years after graduating with a degree in Media Studies & Human Resource Management. These two subjects aren’t conventionally put together, but I have always had an interest in business and the psychology of people.
Looking back now it was the perfect combination to equip me for my career where I have spent time working in both the private and public sector. I spent 10 years working in Government Communications, primarily for the Environment Agency where I led the media and public response to a number of high profile floods. This taught me a great deal about how effective communications can have a significant impact on how trusted an organisation is during a crisis.
I have worked for some big brands including McDonald’s and Eddie Stobart, where I left my position as Director of Communications at the end of 2017 to establish my own business as a Communications Consultant – The Comms Coach. Additionally, I also write a blog ‘Ladder Climbing in High Heels’ which is aimed at ambitious working women where I share my experience and advice to women in corporate environments. I am really passionate about helping women to believe in themselves and have the confidence to go for what they want in their careers. Lastly, I have also self-published a book of the same title where I share my experiences of climbing the corporate ladder as a feminine woman in a primarily male-dominated environment.
As The Comms Coach, I combine my profession with my passion, working with a mixture of corporate clients, charities and solopreneurs helping them to build their reputation through strong and impactful communications, both in business and personally.
Outside of work I am busy with family life as a Mum and Step-Mum to three children aged between 8 and 11.
Q: What Makes You an Expert to Talk About Communication Skills?
KC: Aside from my qualifications and experience leading corporate communications, over the years, I worked as a trusted advisor to a number of high profile stakeholders and leaders, supporting them with their personal impact. I spent a number of years learning about how someone personally communicates through their tone of voice and body language can make a big difference to the way people are perceived and how an audience will feel before they think.
The main reason I got interested in this area of communication was due to my own journey with it. In the corporate environment, I came across the concept of ‘gravitas’ which is used to describe the way an effective leader holds themselves to engender feelings of respect. As a petite female, I personally struggled with this concept and how I could display more gravitas in the workplace – to me it appeared that the men I worked with had an advantage of greater gravitas due to their height and size!
I learned that there were certain things I could do through adapting my communication skills to display greater gravitas and have more of an impact when leading larger groups or addressing senior stakeholders. There is power in how you communicate and whilst what you say is important, how you say it makes all of the difference between a message effectively landing with an audience or not. Politicians are experts at this – they know the power of a good sound bite! Less is generally more when it comes to what you are saying…you want to hold an audience’s attention with short, sharp nuggets of interesting information delivered in a way that uses your voice in full. Simple things like ending your words properly and breathing in the right places are key to getting your point over effectively.
And it isn’t just verbal communication, I also learnt a great deal about how I walked into rooms and how I sat in meetings would impact whether I was seen and heard or not. The personal development I had borrowed learnings from the world of acting, and once you know some of the basics, there are many simple tweaks an individual can make to have greater influence and gravitas. I find this area of my work really interesting and love helping people to improve their communication skills, particularly women who are perhaps where I was a decade or so ago.
Q: Why Is Communicating Important? and Why Should We Care?
KC: Communications is the lifeblood of every business, both to external audiences and internally. No organisation can build a good reputation, succeed or progress without communicating who it is and what they do. Nowadays with so much information thrown at people via the many and varied social media channels, cutting through the noise is vital if you want to effectively get a message across. Communicating with customers and stakeholders helps to build rapport and trust, encouraging them to come back time and again. On an employee level, all tasks require communication in order to delegate responsibilities successfully. If actions are miscommunicated or not understood, time can be wasted, and it can affect morale.
Q: In Layman’s Terms, What Are Communication Skills? and Why Should an HR Manager Care & Need to Know About It?
KC: In simple terms, having good communication skills in the workplace is all about being able to convey information to people clearly and simply, in a way that means things are understood and get done. It’s about transmitting and receiving messages clearly and being able to read your audience. Sometimes it is what isn’t said that is important and being able to pick up on behaviours and body language is essential as a people manager. Two-way communication is critical to the success of a business and listening is an important part of the process. From an HR perspective, it is essential to understand what the employee needs to be able to do their job effectively. I am a big fan of putting myself in the audience’s shoes and asking myself whether something would make sense to them. In today’s world where employees can be overloaded with messages, it is vital that HR managers ensure there is enough distinction between what an employee needs to know to do their job versus what is nice for them to know.
Q: What Role Does an HR Director/Manager Play in Communication?
KC: The HR leader plays a critical role in communication, ensuring that the employee has just the right amount of information they need in order to do their job and understand the wider corporate objectives and vision of the organisation. They can also hold the leadership team to account and ensure that as individuals they are all equipped to communicate effectively. In larger organisations, leaders are at every level of the business and therefore HR Managers need to be able to spot the ones who might need more support with their communication skills in order to get the best out of the team they are leading.
Q: Which ‘Streams’ of Communication Skills Should HR Directors and Managers Be Concerned About? For Example, Communicating to Employees Might Be One ‘Stream’.
KC: In my experience HR professionals have a keen interest in communications which is no wonder considering the positive impact it can have on employees when done well. There are various streams of communications which they will be interested in – most obviously internally there is communicating with employees, who may be segmented by hierarchy, geography or function.
In terms of hierarchy, ensuring the leaders of the organisation are well equipped with strong communications skills to be able to lead, manage and motivate employees is extremely important as it is through effective line management that things get done.
Leaders have a critical role to play in cascading information down the organisation from the top, ensuring the vision and values are shared and understood by all employees. Social media has extended into the corporate world as well, with popular apps like Yammer playing a role in improving the informal communications between employees and leaders.
Externally they will have a keen interest in how potential employees might perceive the organisation and will want to ensure that any communications put out reinforces them as an employer of choice. They will be concerned with the organisation’s external reputation and, like the Corporate Communications function, will want to ensure that any risks are well managed to avoid negative publicity on the employer brand.
Q: We Might Confuse Communication Skills with PR or People Engagement. How Are They the Same or Different?
KC: Communication is one of those words which everyone has a slightly different view of what it means. As a profession, Communications covers the breadth of Public Relations, branding, internal engagement and reputation management. Internal communications can be confused with people engagement, but it is actually only one element, as HR professionals will understand. People engagement is a whole workplace approach which puts the employee at the centre of the organisation to create the right conditions for them to perform at their best consistently. When employees are engaged and believe in the purpose of their organisation they are far more likely to feel a better connection and want to work harder towards achieving their objectives. This is known as ‘discretionary effort’. Communications has a role to play in helping employees to feel more engaged in the organisation’s vision, purpose and values. Through regular corporate communications messages being shared with employees via different internal channels such as newsletters, Town Hall meetings and cascade briefings, employees can feel a greater sense of belonging.
Q: Some People, Usually the Theorists’ Learners, like a Model – What Are the Most Popular Communication Models? and Can You Bring Them to Life for Us?
KC: There are many models of communication which have been developed by theorists over the years. The simplest is the Shannon-Weaver model developed in 1949 by two engineers working for Bell Telephone Labs in the US which is referred to as the ‘mother of all models’ and is based on the functionality of radio and telephone technology. The original model of Shannon and Weaver has five elements: information source, transmitter, channel, receiver, and destination. It formed the basis of Communication studies for several years although was criticised for not allowing for differing purposes, interpretations or different levels of power in relationships.
The model was developed further by Schramm later in the 1950’s where he suggested that communication is a two-way process where both sender and receiver take turns to receive a message. It also recognises that there are certain points in the process where the message can be open to different interpretation and that there is the potential for noise to interfere with how it is received.
The main thing to remember with any models of communication is that theories are great but when humans are involved there is never going to be a mathematical or systematic approach because human connection doesn’t work that way.
Q: What Mistakes Do You See Companies Make When They Communicate to Each Stream?
KC: It is essential that organisations have a consistent approach across all channels, both internally and externally, ensuring that employees are informed about significant business decisions and announcements before they are communicated externally. The worst mistake an organisation can make is to allow the public to be informed about something important before employees are aware. This can make them feel under-valued and breeds mistrust.
Q: What’s the Cost of Good and Bad Communication Skills?
KC: Good communication skills can enhance the efficiency of a business, making the difference between things being delegated and delivered correctly. They can also have a big impact on how people feel about an individual or organisation they are working for or with. If someone takes time to listen to them, they are more likely to feel valued and supported, which could make the difference in an employee being more willing to go the extra distance and give more discretionary effort.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw.
Bad communication skills include traits such as talking over others, not listening, avoiding the issue or interrupting. The good news is that I believe you can learn how to improve your communications skills through identifying what is having an impact on you and then practising new techniques.
Q: Can You Share with Us Some Best Practice on Communicating Effectively?
KC: When it comes to communicating effectively, my advice is to know your audience. Always start from the perspective of putting your audience at the centre of your communications and you won’t go far wrong. Remembering that an audience feels before it thinks, you will want to consider how to get your message across in a way that resonates with them. For instance, in a presentation environment, rather than talking to a set of slides you could tell them a simple story or anecdote – something that they will remember and be engaged with.
By taking an audience-centric approach to your communications you are more likely to be effective in conveying what they want to hear rather than what you want to present.
Q: Wetherspoons Have Just Closed All Their Social Media Platforms – What Do You Think About This?
KC: There has been speculation in the Communications world that this was something of a PR stunt! However, if we put that aside, my reflection was that there had clearly been issues with their use of mainstream social media such as Facebook and Twitter, with poor customer interaction and slow response times. This suggests to me that social wasn’t a big part of their communications strategy in the first place and because their brand was well established prior to the explosion of social media, they are unlikely to be affected. Interestingly they kept their profile on LinkedIn suggesting they value that channel as a mode of communicating with employees, both existing and future.
Q: How Do We Know When We Have Got Communication Right?
KC: When communication is done well both the sender and receiver will have understood the key message the sender was trying to get across. In PR terms we know we have got it right when the call to action in our communications is followed up on by our customers and stakeholders – for instance, they attend the event, or they buy the product! I am a big fan of evaluating the effectiveness of any communications campaign to ensure it has been a success. This can involve seeking qualitative feedback from customers or employees via focus groups and surveys, as well as delve into quantitative analytics which is available on websites and social media channels.
Q: What Does a Communication Strategy Look Like?
KC: In simple terms, a communication strategy should answer the questions of who, what, where, when, why and how? To be successful I believe a communication strategy has to be closely aligned with the overall business strategy and that one won’t work without the other. The Simon Sinek saying ‘start with why’ is salient when developing a communication strategy because once you know why you are communicating, you can start to develop a strong narrative and purpose to address it.
It should be developed with a clear understanding of what problem is going to be solved through communications and be grounded in as much evidence and insight into the target audience as possible.
Q: How Can We Measure Effective Communication?
KC: Measuring communication is something that has become more and more scientific over the years as technology has developed and we have been able to use it to communicate more effectively. Before any communication takes place, it is best practice to start with a baseline of current understanding so that you can measure the impact it has. From an employee perspective, this might be to sample a cross-section from across the organisation prior to launching a campaign. Then during the campaign roll-out, feedback should be sought periodically to ensure understanding – again you may wish to do a survey or hold an employee focus group to seek views. Then at the end of any campaign, there should be a full analysis of whether the employees understood the campaign and took the necessary call to action if there was one. By having a continual feedback loop and encouraging a culture where employees are safe to share their thoughts and opinions freely, organisations can improve their performance as well as making employees feel like their contribution is valued.
Q: Which Companies Do Communication Well, and Why?
KC: I am potentially biased because of my time working there but I believe that the UK Government does some of the best communication, both internally and externally. Not only do they see the value of communication and invest in the development of the people delivering it – they are world class at putting the audience at the heart of what they are communicating. For instance, if you think about some of the fabulous behaviour change campaigns we have seen over the years from the UK Government, there have been a number that are memorable – Change for Life with the plasticine figures aimed at helping families understand the obesity issues and how to make healthier choices. The THINK road safety campaign is another, which has developed over the years with messages about seatbelts, drink driving and mobile phone use. They invest in audience insight before developing any communication campaigns to understand what is going to cut through the noise and actually make a difference in people’s lives. I think there is a lot that large corporates can learn from the Government Communication Service.
Q: Which Communication Tools Would You Suggest Adopting?
KC: In my experience of the corporate world, there is far too much reliance on email to send general messages as well as direct actions. Important information can be missed if employees are bombarded with emails. Having an informal messenger or chat system can help to reduce emails, particularly as telephone calls continue to decline. Company intranets are also important tools for sharing important information and there should be a good mixture of corporate messaging and more social sharing to encourage use. The use of video conferencing is going to continue to grow in importance, particularly as the roll-out of 5G nears. I believe video generally is something that organisations will continue to invest in to translate information to employees and is something people will expect more and more in the digital workplace.
Q: Can You Share a Case Study in Improving Communication Skills with Us, Please?
KC: I am a big fan of using psychometrics to help individuals know more about themselves and how they can improve their interaction with others. In a newly established team, I was leading there were a few issues with how the team was getting on with one another. There were obvious signs of tension with everyone focusing on their own objectives and goals, pulling against rather than together. I realised it was important for us to understand one another’s communications styles and preferences for how we like to receive information. However, as the team were not gelling, I needed to instigate something that would develop a shared narrative between them and help them to understand things from one another’s perspectives.
I worked closely with my HR leader to develop a team workshop which brought them together as individuals, allowing them to share their Insights colours (a type of psychometrics) and talk about how they prefer to communicate. Over a full day’s workshop, we worked through a number of team exercises, always coming back to how they as individuals preferred to work and then how the various strengths that existed within the team could be utilised to support the wider goals and objectives.
We turned a corner in that one session and relationships were formed which helped to build the foundations of a more effective team. I believe this investment of time is crucial to the effective communications of any team – lots of people think it is a waste of a day but in my view, without this investment, you end up wasting far more time in miscommunication and mistrust.
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