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Leaders Letter 137 – 5 Questions With Sonja Nisson

Dear leaders, internal communication and gaining cut-through with messaging have never been as important as it is today. Just ask all those tech companies making mass layoffs primarily through email.

The most important element most leadership teams and “leaders” are messing up on is keeping their people updated, enabling them to make the right decisions and repeating their message over and over again until the whole business can repeat it whenever they are asked what is our strategy and why we have the goals we have for the next 12 months.

So, this week I bring you 5 questions with content and comms specialist Sonja Nisson, her answers will help you craft, reshape and drive your comms forward in whatever state you are in currently.

The Q&A

Q1. You specialise in creating valuable content to communicate with your audience.  What are your three go-to tips for leaders to improve internal communication? 

I know from experience how important, and how tricky it can be, to get internal communication right. I worked as interim head of content design for a large building society through the first wave of the Covid pandemic. We had difficult messages to communicate to our worried teams. My Valuable Content principles came in useful, but it was a tough test. When creating content for an external audience you often don’t know how it lands. With an internal audience, if it misses the mark, you know about it! I learned a lot. 

I think of valuable content as win-win communication: information that’s relevant, helpful and valuable to you and your business (gets your message across, helps you achieve your goal too) and equally valuable to your audience too (answers their questions, helps them achieve their goal). 

Whether you’re communicating a message or creating an article, a video, a podcast, or a talk, to be valuable it must hit the sweet spot between what you want to say and what your audience (be that external or internal) needs to hear.

With this in mind, here are 3 top tips for anyone who wants to improve the value of their communications. 

  1. First, be crystal clear what it is you want to say. What’s the big idea – the main message you want to get across and why? Get that straight from the start. NB: Don’t try and say everything in one communication, focus on one message at a time. 
  2. Next, work out who you’re writing for and where they are at. What questions do they have in their mind around this topic? How can you answer those through your communication? Put the reader and their hopes, questions and fears at the heart of the piece of content you’re creating. Empathise and address these in your content. Make it more ‘you, you, you’ than ‘we, we, we’.
  3. Make it actionable. It helps the reader to do something new or to change hearts and minds. So what’s the purpose of your communication? The goal? What do you want your audience to think, feel or do differently? Decide on the goal, and make that clear in your content. Tell people what you want them to know, think or do.

Q2. You help brands get clear on their story. What is one ingredient to your secret sauce in helping brands become clearer on their story? 

I’d say, go back to your roots to find the essence of your story. Founder stories are personal, powerful, memorable and magnetic. Good companies are born out of conviction, a quest to right a wrong or do things differently and better. Go back to the beginning to find the source of your story.  

Here are 3 examples:

My co-author and long-term collaborator, Sharon Tanton has some great tips to help you sharpen your origin story: https://www.sharontanton.co.uk/blog/founderstory

Q3. What is the best piece of advice you would give to leadership teams trying to gain cut through with their brand?

Work out and communicate what you believe in and stand for as a brand. Make your brand mean something with a single, inspiring, meaningful message at its heart. Find your north star – it’ll all flow from here. 

To help you get clear, it can help to frame this as a question – what’s the big question at the heart of all you do? Create content that answers that question for your audience. 

As a starting point to that clarity and cut through, I’d recommend conducting research with people outside your organisation. It’s all too easy to become inward facing. Listening to your stakeholders – your clients, partners and other supporters – is the most useful exercise you can undertake to understand your business, from the outside in, to see how your brand message lands. 

“Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap

This type of external brand research is a powerful catalyst to help you confidently shape your future direction and message, so you cut through and deliver your mission with greater impact. You’ll be amazed at the value of the insight you get back. 

Q4. Brands are increasingly losing their brand identity, is there a common theme that leaders should look out for at the start of the year? 

Recognise that the world is changing fast. Your business will have evolved and changed a lot over time too. I think the start of the year is the perfect time to assess how you’re seen by the outside world. Is your brand still relevant?

I’m a big fan of the work of Al Reis and Jack Trout, and their book – The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (summarised nicely here). Law #12, The Law of Extension rightly highlights the irresistible pressure to extend what you do and the equity of your brand. 

“The key is to be the best in your niche, and not try to be all things to all people. Less is always more. The narrower the focus, the better you’ll be able to fortify your position in the mind of the prospect. In order to address new markets, create a new brand, rather than extending the equity of your current brand into the new market.”

I think leaders should use this opportunity to carefully review their brand and positioning. Is it still relevant? Is it focused enough? Is it inspiring – for people inside and outside your organisation? Time for a refresh and renewal?

Q5. We live in a content overload world. What are your three top tips to cut through the noisy feeds and really land?

If you want to connect in the sea of noise you have to really push it on the value front these days. Create and share stuff that’s “inherently valuable, surprisingly human or unexpectedly useful.” That was Joe Chernov’s advice in a recent interview and I think he’s so right.

  1. Get your intentions right and your actions will follow. When it comes to creating and sharing content ‘help don’t sell, talk don’t yell, show don’t tell’ is the very best mantra to hold in mind. I’ve found that there’s a paradox at the heart of all good communication: the more you help, the less you ‘sell’ your idea, the more impact you’ll have. To truly connect you have to genuinely care about those you’re communicating with.
  2. Be warm, personable and relatable. People want to hear from humans, not corporate robots. Share your excitement, your hopes, but also your fears. Intimacy and vulnerability is a trust-builder. Not just the polished corporate version of yourself but the human side too – real, messy stories with genuine authenticity. 
  3. Write for one, help many. Have a real person in mind with every piece of content you produce. Can’t think of WHO it’s for and how your content will help? Then the content is unlikely to connect. Write for someone, always. If what you create helps or inspires one person then chances are it’ll help many others like them too. But write for everyone and it’ll fall between the cracks. It always helps to have someone in mind.

Yes, the content game – internal or external – is not an easy one but that’s an opportunity, not a blocker. You can do this. You CAN create meaningful content that makes a real connection.

NB: You’ll notice that my first 3 tips involve doing some thinking upfront. I’m a big believer in planning before you start writing. I have a simple Valuable Content Planning Template to help you here – if anyone would like it, please just shout.  

Please go and connect with Sonja:  

On her website // On LinkedIn // Or get her book

Have a great week actioning Sonja’s great advice and I’ll land back in your inbox on Monday morning.

Thanks,

Danny Denhard

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