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Thinking out loud about internal comms
treating internal audiences like external ones


The words 'talk to me' displayed on an item photographed at the Science Museum in London

Quite a large chunk of the work I did during my last year or two at the Government Digital Service related to internal communication: helping the senior management explain their strategic thinking to the people in the wider organisation.

Internal communication is hard. It gets harder as an organisation grows. It also gets more important, because the larger an organisation is, the more likely it is that people might misinterpret or miss messages, and the more vital it is that everyone knows what the senior people are doing and thinking.

But: internal communication is easy to overlook, because at first it feels easy to do. When your team is small, all your internal communication can be done face-to-face in a single session. It’s just another stand-up meeting.

As the team grows, those stand-ups get less useful. Eventually, the team is too large to all stand up in one place. So you have to resort to communicating in other ways, and that’s where it starts getting tricky.

You could send out email - but not everyone reads email.

You could post stuff on an intranet - but not everyone reads the intranet either.

You could put memos on the wall - but when walls are already busy with work-in-progress, posters will be easy to miss.

It’s hard to make sure everyone sees messages that everyone needs to see.

My experience in a large and growing organisation helped me understand a few things that I didn’t understand before. I started to see some things that made more sense than other things, and some tactics that worked better than others. Here’s a short list.

Be explicit

This is the most important one.

Say what you mean. Don’t be vague. Don’t expect people to read between the lines. Don’t assume they know as much about a particular situation as you do. Don’t leave any room for ambiguity. If you do, everyone will have a slightly different interpretation of what you’re saying. Things will just get more confusing.

The clearer and more explicit you can be in everything you do and say, the more “in control” you will appear to be. The more your team will respect you. The less time you will spend explaining yourself and your decisions, because the team will understand what you mean from the outset.

This is particularly important if you’re doing your communicating via email. As everyone who’s ever watched a disastrous flame war break out on a mailing list knows, it’s so easy to misinterpret what someone else has written. Make sure, before you send out an email to everyone, that it gets checked by several pairs of eyes first. Let those people make changes and corrections. Let them make it simpler and more explicit.

Split things up into small chunks

Write internal comms messages like tweets. Keep them very short. People are busy enough doing their jobs already, so don’t ask them to give up more of their time to read messages from management.

For example, say someone’s just been appointed to a new senior role. Your message can just be:

“Our new Director of Blah is Sue Perkins. She’ll be sitting with the Blah team on the 3rd floor. Welcome Sue!”

That’s all it needs. (Wouldn’t that be great, to have Sue Perkins working in your organisation as Director of Blah? Blimey.)

Of course there will be times when you need to share something long and detailed - but when that happens, post it somewhere (on the web, in a shared folder, on your intranet, whatever) and tell the team where to find it.

Be present, and talk to people

Keep close to your team, spend time hanging out in the office and talking to people. The result is informal, unofficial internal communication in both directions: the people you spend time with find things out from you, and will spread them around the organisation.

And they’ll tell you things, too. The more time you spend with them, the more relaxed they will feel in your company, and the more likely they are to share complaints. You’ll get to find out about the things that bother people, and that gives you a chance to fix them.

Provide feedback loops, and pay attention to them

Give everyone an easy way to talk to you and to the rest of management. Make sure those managers pay good attention to those channels, whatever they are. Make sure those managers respond to the things people are saying. Make sure that the responses are going to result in action. No-one likes empty platitudes.

So in practical terms: if there’s an email address for people to send comments to, make sure someone with the authority to fix things monitors that inbox. If there’s a Slack channel where people can ask questions, make sure each question gets a prompt answer (even if that answer is “We don’t know yet, but we’ll find out and get back to you.”)

Apply the same standards to internal comms as you do to external comms

Just because one piece of communication is only required internally, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it the same care and attention you’d give to something going into the public domain. Plan to invest the same sort of time, thought and effort. Your internal audience will notice and appreciate that you did.


(18 Jan 2017)
Thanks to Liv Steatham, Angus Montgomery and Amy McNichol for reading earlier drafts of this and making it better.