The Comms Coach Interview: What is Communication?

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. She has worked with some of the biggest brands. And the list includes The Environment Agency, McDonald’s and Eddie Stobart. She now uses her industry insight to help others as ‘The Comms Coach’.

She is also a shining light for other women in the industry. He helps them achieve their potential through her blog: ‘Ladder Climbing in High Heels’. Kate took 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 conventionally do not belong together. But I have always had an interest in business and the psychology of people.

Looking back now, it was the perfect combination. It equipped me for my career in both the private and public sectors. I spent ten years working in Government Communications. Primarily for the Environment Agency, where I led the media and public response to several high profile floods. This taught me a great deal. In particular, how effective communications can have a significant impact on how others trust an organisation during a crisis.

I have worked for some big brands, including McDonald’s and Eddie Stobart. I left my position as Director of Communications at Eddie Stobart in late 2017. And that is the time I established my communication consultant business – The Comms Coach.

“I left my position as Director of Communications at Eddie Stobart in late 2017. And that is the time I established my communication consultant business – The Comms Coach.”

Additionally, I run the blog ‘Ladder Climbing in High Heels’ which I target at ambitious working women. I share my experience and advice to women in corporate environments. I am really passionate about helping women to believe in themselves. In particular, giving them the confidence to go for what they want in their careers. Lastly, I am a self-published author. I have a book out by the title, ‘Ladder Climbing in High Heels’ . In it, I share my experiences of climbing the male-dominated corporate ladder as a woman.

As The Comms Coach, I combine my profession with my passion. I work with a mixture of corporate clients, charities and solopreneurs. I help them build their reputation through strong and impactful communications, both in business and personally.

Outside of work, I am busy with family life. I am 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 in corporate communications, I worked as an advisor to high profile leaders. My primary role was to support them with their impact through communication. I spent years learning how people communicate through their voice and body language. And how the tone or body signals make a big difference in how the audience subconsciously perceives them.

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’. This is used to describe how an effective leader holds themselves to engender feelings of respect. As a petite female, I struggled with this concept. In particular, how I could display more gravitas in the workplace. To me, it appeared that the men had an advantage of more considerable gravitas due to their physical size!

“I came across the concept of ‘gravitas’. This is used to describe how an effective leader holds themselves to engender feelings of respect.”

I learned that there were certain things I could do through adapting my communication skills to display more considerable gravitas. And I could have more of an impact when leading larger groups or addressing senior stakeholders. There is power in how you communicate. What you say is important. But 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. And you should deliver in a way that uses your voice in full. Simple things like ending your words correctly and breathing in the right places are key. They get 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. All would impact whether I was seen and heard or not. I borrowed some of the personal development and lessons from the world of acting. And once you know some of the basics, there are many simple tweaks you can make to have more considerable gravitas. I find this area of my work really interesting. And love helping people to improve their communication skills. In particular, women who are perhaps where I was a decade or so ago.

Kate Cousens in a discussion with another person whilst writing in a notepad
A discussion on verbal and non-verbal communication

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 numerous channels, cutting through the noise is vital. At least if you want to get a message across effectively. Communicating with customers and stakeholders helps to build rapport and trust. And that encourages them to come back time and again.

On an employee level, all tasks require communication to delegate responsibilities successfully. If team leaders miscommunicate actions or employees do not understand concepts well, you are going to waste time. And that 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, good communication skills is all about conveying information clearly and simply. It is about making people understand concepts to do things the right way. 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 do their job effectively. I am a big fan of putting myself in the audience’s shoes. And that includes asking myself whether something would make sense to them. HR managers must create a distinction between what employees need to know to do the job versus what is nice to know.

Q: What Role Does an HR Director/Manager Play in Communication?

KC: The HR leader plays a critical role in communication. That includes ensuring that the employee has the right information they need to do their job. And also that they understand the broader corporate objectives and vision. They also hold the leadership team to account. That is after they equip the leaders to communicate effectively. In larger organisations, leaders are at every level. Therefore HR Managers need to spot those who need support with their communication skills. That is to get the best out of the teams 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. And that 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, communicating with employees, who you may segment by hierarchy, geography or function.

In terms of hierarchy, ensuring the leaders of the organisation are well equipped with strong communications skills is extremely important. As it is through effective line management that things get done. The leaders lead, manage and motivate employees.
Leaders have a critical role to play in cascading information down the organisation from the top. They ensure the vision and values are shared and understood by all employees. Social media has extended into the corporate world as well. Apps like Yammer are 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 should be concerned with the organisation’s external reputation. And, like the Corporate Communications function, should manage well any risks to avoid negative publicity on the 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. It creates the right conditions for them to perform at their best consistently.

When you engage employees, they are far more likely to feel a better connection. When they believe in the purpose of their organisation, they would want to work harder towards achieving its 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, employees can feel a greater sense of belonging. Messages can be shared with employees via different internal channels. That includes newsletters, Town Hall meetings and cascade briefings.

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. It was developed in 1949 by two engineers working for Bell Telephone Labs in the US. The model is often referred to as the ‘mother of all models’. It 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. However, it has been 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 1950s. 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 specific 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. However, when humans are involved, there is never going to be a mathematical or systematic approach. That is because the human connection doesn’t work that way.

Q: What Mistakes Do You See Companies Make When They Communicate to Each Stream?

KC: Organisations must have a consistent approach across all channels. That is both internally and externally. They should ensure that employees are informed about significant business decisions and announcements before they are communicated externally. The worst mistake an organisation can make is to inform the public about something important before employees. 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. And it makes the difference in how the organisation delegates and delivers.

They can also have a significant impact on how employees feel about the organisation. And even how they feel about one another. If someone takes time to listen to them, they are more likely to feel valued and supported. And that could make the difference in an employee being more willing to go the extra distance. And indeed they 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. And that is 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 with putting your audience at the centre of your communications. You won’t go far wrong. Remembering that an audience feels before it thinks. Therefore, you want to consider how to get your message across in a way that resonates with them.

In a presentation, 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.
Take an audience-centric approach to your communications. That way, you are more likely to be effective in conveying what they want to hear. And not what you want to present.

Woman talking to an older couple on a sofa opposite each other
Communicating effectively with your target audience

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, that aside, my reflection was that there had clearly been issues with their use of mainstream social media. Probably weak customer interaction and slow response times. This suggests to me that social media wasn’t a big part of their communications strategy in the first place.

Most likely, because their brand was well established before the explosion of social media. They are unlikely to be affected. Interestingly they kept their profile on LinkedIn. That suggests 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 we do communication well, both the sender and receiver get on the same page regarding the key message. In PR terms, we know we have it right when the target acts on the call to action. 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. We can also use quantitative analytics 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 we have to align a communication strategy with the overall business strategy closely. I also think one won’t work without the other. The Simon Sinek saying ‘start with why’ is salient when developing a communication strategy. That is because once you know why you are communicating, you can start to develop a strong narrative. And you will have a purpose to establish it.

You should develop a communication strategy with a clear understanding. You should be aware of the problem it is solving. Also, you need to ground it in as much evidence and insight from 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. That makes it possible to measure the impact you achieve with your strategy. From an employee perspective, this might be to sample a cross-section from across the organisation before launching a campaign.

Then during the campaign roll-out, you should seek feedback 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, you should do a full analysis. That helps you to determine whether the employees understood the campaign.

And in particular, if they took the necessary call to action if there was one. You should encourage a continual feedback loop. Also, a culture where employees are safe to share their thoughts and opinions freely. That way, your organisation can improve its performance as well as making employees feel like you value their contribution.

Q: Which Companies Do Communication Well, and Why?

KC: I am potentially biased because of my time working there.  However, I believe that the UK Government does some of the best communication, both internally and externally. They see the value of communication and invest in the development of the people delivering it. They are also world-class at putting the audience at the heart of what they are communicating. Think about some of the fabulous behaviour change campaigns we have seen over the years from the UK Government.

There have been a few that are memorable. One of those is Change for Life with the plasticine figures. The government aimed it at helping families understand obesity issues and how to make healthier choices.

The THINK road safety campaign is another. It has developed over the years with messages about seatbelts, drink driving and mobile phone use. The government invests in audience insight before developing any communication campaigns. That allows them to understand what is going to cut through the noise. And, more importantly, 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 in the corporate world, there is far too much reliance on email. It is used 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 it 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. In particular, when applied to help individuals know more about themselves and how they can improve their interaction with others. With one newly established team, that I was leading, there were a few issues. In particular, 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 instance, how we like to receive information.  However, the team were not gelling. And therefore, I needed to instigate something that would develop a shared narrative. I needed them to understand things from one another’s perspectives.

“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.”

I worked closely with my HR leader to develop a team workshop. And that brought them together as individuals. It allowed 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 several team exercises. And we always come back to how they as individuals preferred to work. And then how we could utilise the various strengths that existed within the team.

We turned a corner in that one session, and we formed strong relationships. And that became the foundations of a more effective team. I believe this investment of time is crucial to the effective communications of any organisation. 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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