We are living through a time of tremendous uncertainty. The sense of uncertainly is palpable and seems to be bombarding us from every direction. Uncertainty, especially about potential risks to our own health and the health of our loved ones creates a lot of stress. We are a stressed out world right now. And, at least from what I can see, here in our own country a lot of the uncertainty and stress is a direct result of inconsistent messaging from our government.
As I’ve watched the news over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed (and I’m sure you have, too) that there are lots of conflicting messages out there. “Anyone who wants to get tested can.” “We don’t have enough test kits.” “It’s OK to travel, just take precautions.” “Don’t travel. Airplanes are flying petri dishes.” “The coronavirus is no worse than the flu.” “The coronavirus is more contagious and more lethal than the flu.” People simply don’t know what or who to believe. This kind of inconsistent messaging can create not just stress, but panic.
I talk to my law firm clients a lot about the importance of consistent messaging – especially in times of change. If you’ve felt the stress of inconsistent messaging around the coronavirus outbreak, then you have a sense of how the people in your firm feel when communications from firm leadership are confusing and inconsistent.
Below are five rules for effective communication. While these rules focus on internal communications, they can be applied to external communications, as well.
1. Be clear.
Keep your communications as clear as possible. Don’t muddy the waters with equivocations. Be honest. With clarity often comes brevity. So, to the extent that you can convey your message clearly and succinctly, all the better.
2. Be consistent.
Make sure you know what you want to convey. If you are part of a leadership team or executive committee, make sure all the members are on the same page. Avoid situations in which one partner says one thing and another partner says something else. This is a recipe for disaster. You will inevitably have team members asking the same question of different leaders until they get the answer they want.
3. Say it. Say it. And say it again.
In marketing there is a rule that says a prospect needs to “hear” a message a minimum of seven times before they take action – or even notice it. This rule also applies to communication within your firm. You cannot overcommunicate in a time of change or uncertainty. Be clear. Be consistent. And say it again and again and again.
4. Be prepared for questions.
As a lawyer you are always anticipating questions – from your client, in depositions, in trials, and from the appellate bench. Apply this thinking to your office communications. Anticipate questions from your team. Be clear and consistent in your answers.
5. Acknowledge when you don’t have all the answers.
Finally, be willing to admit when you don’t have answers and commit to trying to get them. I say “trying to get them” because sometimes you won’t necessarily have an answer to a question. As with the coronavirus, there are some things we cannot know. But you can do your level best to get answers, then apply clear, consistent communication when you have the appropriate information.