by Ben Compton
Date Published June 12, 2012 - Last Updated May 11, 2016


Effective communication cuts through cynicism and makes it safe for others to listen, understand, and take appropriate action. It allows a lot of information to be shared in a very short period. It resolves concerns and reaches in and takes hold of the heart. It invites people to participate, engage, and help a project or initiative succeed.

In the book The Leader’s Voice: How Leaders Communicate During Turbulent Times (Select Books, 2002), Boyd Clarke and Ron Crossland provide insight on using three channels of communication to reach beyond the typical pessimism and cynicism and get the message out loud and clear. The three channels are:

  • Emotions—how people feel about what is being communicated; 
  • Symbols—compress a message and expand the impact of the message; and 
  • Facts—information about the project or initiative.

We successfully leveraged these channels during a 2010 rollout. This is our story.

Our Project

In 2010, a group of people from different areas throughout the IT organization at TECO Energy were brought together and challenged with replacing our service delivery tool in ninety days. I was part of that project team. To be clear, the ninety-day deadline included design, implementation, and communication. There was no prework. The clock started the first day we met.

We were moving from HP’s ServiceCenter to CA’s Service Desk, replacing the tool that drove all our major ITIL processes, including incident, request, problem, change, and configuration management. We also were told we could not lose any functionality. Of course, the procedures for getting things done were going to change, but what people were able to do could not change unless we added new functionality. Further, this project was to be an out-of-the-box solution, serving as a small proof of concept for an out-of-the-box enterprise resource planning (ERP) replacement project scheduled to begin the following year. Using an out-of-the-box solution was a new strategic direction for our IT organization, and we were the first project to fully use it. This project was going to bring a huge amount of change. Getting the communications right was critical to its success.

In our first project meeting, I pushed the project team to make communication a major part of the project. The team pushed back, saying that communication was something done at the conclusion of a project. With a short deadline, team members felt like an all-hands-on-deck approach was needed for design and implementation. One person even said, “We don’t have time for communication.”

It was decided that I would split my time between design and implementation of the system and communication. In hindsight, I should have pushed for communication as my full-time responsibility. Communication is such an important component of making a project a success with end users; it should never be treated as a part-time or end-of-project job.

I first developed a symbol for the project. The symbol became the brand. Branding is important because it helps people identify instantly what you are talking about, and it can communicate a lot of things at one time.

A few months earlier, another team had been formed and tasked with helping to bring about “organizational transformation.” As part of the team’s work, we had given every IT employee a copy of John Kotter’s Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), which is a metaphorical story about a colony of penguins living on a melting iceberg. The book describes how the penguins dealt with the iceberg melting and the results of their various actions. Our project represented a melting iceberg: new technology was being brought in and a new method of implementing that technology was being used.

With the help of our corporate communications department, we created a logo and a brand for the project. Corporate communications provided the much-needed artistic and creative abilities to bring this to life. A penguin symbolized the project, connecting it to the book. This helped people envision and come to terms with the fact that they needed to adapt to coming changes. The new tagline for the tool, “Solutions for a changing workplace,” underscored the emphasis on change. We then used this branding on every email about the project, which immediately identified the subject for recipients.

The next step was to explain to the IT staff why we were using an out-of-the-box solution and how we would be unable to make the same level of customizations the staff was accustomed to. We also wanted to convey the benefits of this new strategy, which included faster deployment. So, how were we to communicate all of this at one time, and make sure everyone got the same message?

Emotions, Symbols, and Facts

The solution to this problem was to use all three communication channels at once. In a department meeting, I stood before the employees and talked about how we spend our lives adapting to change. Growing up, we moved through various phases as we separated ourselves from our parents. With that as a backdrop, I told the following story:

When I was a child I would help my mother bake my birthday cake. It was an exciting time for me. I remember gathering all the ingredients, my mother carefully measuring them and putting them in a bowl. It was always fun to watch the beaters spin around and mix the ingredients together. The highlight was sticking my finger into the batter and licking it. Once the cake was in the oven, the smell of chocolate would spread from room to room. And when the smell reached the back of the house, I knew it was almost time to take it out.

I then pulled out a boxed cake mix and put it on the table and asked, “How many of you bake cakes like your mother did?” No one raised a hand. I continued, “How many of you make cakes with a boxed cake mix?” Almost everyone’s hands went up.

“Which is faster to make, a cake from scratch or a boxed cake mix?” Everyone agreed a boxed cake mix was faster.

“How much of a taste difference is there between the two?” Everyone agreed a cake from scratch tasted better, but not enough to justify the time it took to make a cake. Then I made my point.

“Which is faster to deploy, a home-grown IT solution or an out-of-the-box solutions?” I followed up with, “Which is better?” Everyone agreed that customized solutions were great, but out-of-the-box solutions were less expensive, faster to implement (i.e., less lost productivity during implementation), and easier to maintain.

Then it was time for some economic and time-consumption facts: upgrading our existing system would cost about $100,000 in software and licensing fees and nearly $1M in development to upgrade all of our customizations. However, the new, out-of-the-box product would cost less than half that with no lost time in functionality. Everyone sat quietly. They got it. There were a couple of questions regarding the timeline, but none of the typical questions arose (i.e., Why are we doing this? Why can’t we just stay with what we have?). Nor did anyone voice the typical criticisms, such as “this won’t work.”

In five minutes, the three channels of communication had conveyed the “why” of the project, resolved concerns, and eliminated the need for cynical commentary. These channels of communication were:

  • Baking a cake with mom = emotions; 
  • Boxed cake = symbols; and 
  • Dollars and cents = facts.

After the meeting, numerous people stopped by my office or called to tell me that the story I told took them back to their childhoods. They imagined baking a cake with their mother. They
remembered laughing with her in the kitchen, cracking eggs, using a butter knife to level the flour in the measuring cup, and licking the beaters. Evoking these positive emotions helped them grasp the deeper message. When people have positive emotions, they tend to hear what is being said and are more open to learning and new experiences. The opposite is also true. Negative emotions tend to evoke resistance to listening, learning, and accepting change.

The authors of The Leader’s Voice note that there are four fatal assumptions when it comes to communication: 

  1. People understand what was communicated. 
  2. People agree with what was communicated. 
  3. People care about what was communicated. 
  4. People will take appropriate action.

So, how do a penguin and a story about baking a cake address these four fatal assumptions?

The penguin in the brand represented change and the fact that the new implementation strategy wasn’t going away. Combined, the penguin and melting ice acted as an enforcer, something that made people confront and deal with reality. This representation accomplished that without anyone having to say a word. That’s the power of a symbol—it says a lot without saying anything.

The cake story created positive emotions and helped people associate those emotions with the project. I told a story that I knew almost everyone in the room could relate to, since most adults probably helped their mothers bake a cake at least once or twice as children.

The symbol of a boxed cake was literally ideal because we were deploying an out-of-the-box solution. It communicated the “why” of the project more powerfully than if I had given a list of all the reasons for the project. It helped people agree with what was being communicated almost instantly, and I didn’t have to rely on words to send the message.

The facts—in this case, the aggressive deadline and the cost savings—helped people face the reality of the situation and understand that the benefits far outweighed the risks. It allowed them to be more patient and understanding with the new system (which had some hiccups in the first few months after implementation).

Did this kind of communication eliminate all the fussing and complaints? No, of course not. Very few people will accept change without having something to say about it. Did it tone it down considerably? Absolutely. Did it allow people to see the bigger picture? Of course. Did it help prepare our IT department prove that we could successfully implement an out-of-the-box solution? Yes.

When it comes to communication, remember: emotions, symbols, facts. Use the power of stories. A good story is one of the best ways to generate positive emotions. Look for symbols that are relevant to your project, or, better yet, a single image that says a lot. Be creative, and don’t be afraid to use something out of the ordinary. Finally, share the facts last. While they can be persuasive, they don’t always guarantee engagement. They are emotionally neutral. However, when emotions are positive and people are engaged, facts have context and meaning. The most effective communication is often something that is simple and quick, but has a powerful and lasting effect.


Ben Compton has over twenty years of experience in IT, ranging from software development to service delivery and technical support. At TECO Energy, Ben is responsible for creating a work
culture that is engaging, promotes individual growth, fosters teamwork, and measurably improves the quality of IT support services. Through his work on execution and culture, he was able to help the Tampa Electric Service Desk win the 2009 HDI Team Excellence Award (Internal). Ben is also a seasoned group facilitator and speaker, focusing on leadership, culture, and performance assessment.  

Tag(s): people, communications skills, leadership, change management


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