My 12-step programme for communications –

When I was asked to speak to members of the Power Lunch Club last week, I decided to speak about communications. It’s what I know best.

It was only really in the planning for the speech that I actually appreciated I’ve been learning subconsciously about communications since I could speak (and believe me, as soon as I learned how to do that I rarely shut up). If you’ll indulge me I’ll share what I’ve learned along the way.

Communications lesson number 1: For a long time I believed that communication was what happened to you when you were growing up, parents, teachers, ancient relatives, talking at you and not expecting you to answer back. At college, where I studied journalism, it was pretty much the same; lecturers telling you how to do things that they were clearly no longer capable of doing in the real world and getting paid for it.

Communications lesson number 2: The first realisation that communication was different was in my first newspaper job. I had a grumpy, old editor who taught me you have to listen to what’s been said, then listen to what’s not been said, and then listen to what everyone else thinks, then listen a bit more, and then ask a question – and repeat. Invaluable.

Communications lesson number 3: After I started freelancing for Scottish national newspapers, I became Scotland’s first female football reporter covering a premier division match every weekend for the Sunday Mail. That’s when I learned it was okay to shut out some communications: in this case what was being said about me in the fanzines and on the terraces – particularly the chants about me!

Communications lesson number 4: I was the first western journalist into Albania – accompanying an aid convoy from Shetland for a Daily Express series of features – and encountered a similar situation to Ceaucescu’s Romania. Children, old people, families, living in appalling poverty; that’s when I learned that communication on it’s own isn’t enough.

Communications lesson number 5: Being a news reporter and filing copy – that was a communication challenge – you had to find a phone box/ phone a grumpy, and usually pissed copytaker, and build your story – off the top of your head, referring only to notes for quotes, ages, and spelling of names.

Communications lesson number 6: I left newspapers to work with my then husband at Voice and Data – an award-winning communications company, specialising in cabling, computer network installations, training, maintenance and support. We bootstrapped the business to a million pounds turnover in less than four years on a £5k overdraft – that’s when I learned that true communication with banks will never ever happen.

Communications lesson number 7: Our spectacular success was followed by spectacular failure (if you’re interested I’ll explain what happened in another blog). Suffice to say we were approached by two suitors – so what did we do? We communicated with our staff, built our own “culture-fit” matrix against which they were judged and then asked the potential buyers to come and talk to our staff. They were gobsmacked. Communications with employees are as important – if not more so – than communications with potential buyers!

Communications lesson number 8: I worked as group head of communications for the company that bought us from the liquidators. My first task was to audit the company’s communications; they didn’t have any. I spoke to literally hundreds of the 800 staff – unheard of – and the dialogue generated hundreds of fantastic service improvements.

Communications lesson number 9: I learned I was really a crap employee, so I left to launch Tartan Cat – my first communications consultancy – where I learned from listening to clients that it’s not just about communicating with staff, the media, shareholders, it’s also about the suppliers; customer service can’t be delivered unless you keep them in the loop, as if they were part of your business. And it’s also about the wider community, involving them in what you do and being an integral part of supporting them.

Communications lesson number 10: I decided to take a few years out to be with my daughter; now that was possibly the biggest ever communication challenge, being a single mum with a daughter who could have been cloned from me we’re so alike. When I master that particular aspect of communication, I’ll share it with everyone and make a fortune.

Communications lesson number 11: I came back to work with the launch of Tartan Cat UK, a communications and business development consultancy with an HR expertise. First job we won two weeks after our launch was project managing a pilot partnership between the MoD and the occupational health arm of the NHS.  Now if there were two organisations that should never work together it would be those two. One’s completely beaurocratic and the other totally hierarchical. We thought it would be a communications mission impossible – without the added benefit of eye candy in the form of Tom Cruise. Not so. It was incredibly successful with the award of a proper contract, won from under the noses of companies like Serco, Capita and Atos. I learned that you can always find a way to communicate in innovative ways that works for everyone.

Communications lesson number 12: Which brings us to where we are today. I have the lucky fortune to be both working in and writing about business.  I think ultimately, after all I’ve learned to date, is that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has actually taken place.

“I know you believe you understood what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise what you heard is not what I meant.”

In truth, communication is simple; we need trust, openness, transparency, honesty and we need to be really clear about what we want to say, how we want to say it, and to whom.

And if we can have some fun while we’re doing it, all the better.