It’s About People!

by Rick on December 5, 2011

I detest words like “publics, audiences, markets, influencers and opinion leaders,” and I especially dislike “stakeholders.” We all know what the terms mean, but I worry they make us forget we’re communicating with human beings. Sure, we are talking about groups of people with similar interests and issues, but we’re still talking about people.

Communications is about convincing people who are motivated by the same things that motivate us. I’ve always tried to step back from a plan or a message and think how I’d convince one person, or a small group, face-to-face. What objections might I encounter in a conversation and how would I respond to them? Going through that process helps me avoid generalizing or using messages that would never come out of my mouth in person.

I never convince “shareholders” to vote for a proxy initiative or against a takeover. My job is getting most of the people who own the stock to vote a certain way. I have to think about who owns the stock and why. Then I have to break it down. If I’m talking with a group of people who are institutional owners, they have an entirely different set of concerns than people who own a few thousand shares. It is the same for every program I work on. It is about convincing people.

Obviously, no one can go about this job one person at a time. But if you imagine having face-to-face meetings with the different groups of people you’re trying to talk with, I’m confident you’ll get closer to having messages that resonate.

My friend Rich Becker wrote an excellent blog post titled, Dehumanizing People: How Social Connections Create Elitists. In a follow-up discussion with me about this post, he went on to tell me a story about a very large company where the executives began calling employees “units” to make a major downsizing less stressful for them. Just for the record, I pretty much summed up my reaction to how bad that attitude is in one of my previous posts: Communicating Layoffs.

The day people in communications forget their job is connecting with people is the day they should move into another line of work. Remembering it is about people goes beyond successful communications.

Humanize is a great new book by my friends Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter. They walk you through how human beings are taking back control, thanks in part to social media. This book offers an important message about leadership and the future of organizations, and I highly recommend it for anyone in communications or leadership.

Gini Dietich put it well in her quote for the book’s cover:

“The days of controlling your messages are dead. Born is the human organization where people buy from people, not companies. This is not another social media book. Notter and Grant dispel the notion that your leadership and your culture can continue to be self-centered and two-dimensional…”

You can also check out Gini’s full review on Spin Sucks. Or check out this review from Danny Brown.

Don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you are dealing with some faceless mass. Communications and leadership success boil down to convincing people to support you, your organization or your issue.

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  • Any time someone mentions a “stakeholder” I envision a frustrated person trying to fell a vampire.

    • Either that, Tinu, or someone putting a stake in the middle of a pile of wood in old Salem… It is just a horrible invented word that makes it too easy to forget what we’re really doing.

  • It seems like such a simple equation, but it’s the fundamental premise behind the golden rule, isn’t it? Who amongst us wants to be treated poorly?

    • Lucretia, I worried that it was too simple a concept to take up space on the blog, but lately I’ve seen it ignored way too often. Communications and leadership are both stronger when we remember and apply the golden rule.

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing…

  • Bonnie Koenig

    Although I think this post has some great reminders about the need to keep the focus on people and our humanity, I do like the concept of ‘stakeholders’ when used appropriately. There are times where a particular project or initiative needs the involvement of the group that will be responsible for taking it forward (i.e. the stakeholders). Am certainly open to a better term, but it can be a very helpful concept.

    • Hi Bonnie,

      I agree, terms can be a useful shortcut but I’ve sat with people lately who don’t focus enough on the human side of the equation. There are plenty of times I use the terms and concepts as a shortcut when I’m making a presentation but I do try to keep my brain focused on motivating people.

      As for stakeholder, I hear you and it is just a personal reaction that I do not like the word. You are right. The concept is helpful.

      Thanks for stopping by, sharing your thoughts and tweeting the post. I appreciate it.

  • I’m having a hard time understanding how you can call people units. I get it’s to make it easier on you when you have to let them go, but come on!

    • That one blew me away too, Gini. And it was a big, fairly reputable organization that employed the terminology.

  • Hey Rick- I agree with you 100%. It seems to me that companies are overwhelmed by how many people they have in their market and the thought that they form relationships with them all. Where do you start? Then the revert to what they know for large groups – blast messages. For me the key is knowing who to build relationships with so that you can make them genuine and count.

    • Matt,

      Thanks for stopping by! Knowing who to build relationships with is huge. You have to start with those closest to you but then where to next. I’d agree that too many organizations get caught up in reaching numbers at the expense of building relationships that count and will last.

  • Jim

    Rick, I generally find myself agreeing with everything you say. BUT, while I’m certainly a huge supporter of remembering who we’re talking to, I also happen to see the utility of referring to “stakeholders” as shorthand for groups of people who have some interest in the subject at hand.

    For example, if I’m talking to a client about reaching the people who have a stake in their company’s success or failure (whether they happen to own shares in the company, be customers of the company, be employed by the company, etc.) I think the term “stakeholders” is useful.

    However, I think the trend you identify is something that we try to make sure never happens: creeping jargon. How many times have you told a client to avoid industry jargon or acronyms in media conversations? Well, I think terms like the ones you cite are basically the jargon of communications. And we fail to be effective communicators if we start slinging those terms around real people.

    • Jim,

      That word just grates on me. What can I say? I’m a certified curmudgeon and if I don’t want to use it I won’t. So THERE!

      I hear what you’re saying and yes, that word and all the others, can be useful shortcuts. Yes, I worry about and don’t like jargon but I worry more about people forgetting it is just a term. When we start trying to motivate customers instead of the people who buy our product or service I think we start down a very slippery slope.

      My primary point, if I didn’t make it, is that as communicators and leaders our job is gaining the support of people, not faceless units or categories.

      Thanks for reading the post and adding to the conversation!

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