Donovan Group Insights

Working Backwards: Communication Starts With Result

The communication process seems straightforward. You write a message, then you send it into the world. That’s how most district leaders approach communication. They’re putting words onto paper, but they don’t necessarily know what they want to achieve with those words.

Instead of working forwards, try working backwards. Start with the end result, and trace your steps back to your district’s current situation. Before you communicate, you have to figure out what you want to achieve with your message.

Why should you work backwards?

Imagine you’re going on a road trip. You wouldn’t hop in the car and start driving, would you? Of course not—unless you wanted to see where you’ll end up! Before getting behind the wheel, you have to know where you’re going. First, you pick a destination. Then, you plan how you’re going to get there. In other words, you have to work backwards.

Communication works much the same way. Before you decide what, where and how to communicate, you have to nail down the end result. Figure out what you want to accomplish through your communications with stakeholders. Once you have a destination in mind, only then can you find a route that will take you there.

District leaders shouldn’t communicate simply to communicate. There should always be a reason for sending out communications, whether it’s inviting families to an ice cream social or updating the community after a school incident. Defining that reason will help you better understand why you’re communicating in the first place. Without a reason to communicate, there would be no point in communicating at all!

The desired end result

Before you put pen to paper, figure out what goal you want to achieve with your communications. Do you want to win referendum support? Do you want to recruit more chaperones for the next field trip? Once you create a communications goal, you can start taking steps to meet—or even exceed—that goal. There’s no goal you can’t achieve with a solid plan and effective communication!

If you’re not sure what the goal is, brainstorm ways you can improve your school community. Maybe the elementary school needs a new playground, or you’d like to provide more learning opportunities through the high school’s computer science program. Where there’s a need, there’s a goal. Create a list of several district goals, then decide what needs to happen in order to achieve them.

How people should react

Once you’ve established a goal, the next step is determining how you want people to react to your communications. Generally speaking, your messages should invoke positive emotions. Negative emotions can certainly affect change, too, but positive messaging will benefit your district a lot more in the long run. You might want people to feel joyful, reassured, inspired, even a sense of urgency. Whichever type of reaction you’re hoping for, the way people feel after receiving your message should bring you closer to achieving that end goal.

You might be looking to do more than invoke a certain emotion. In many cases, you’ll want stakeholders to take some sort of action, too. Depending on your goal, you might want people to enroll their children in your schools, donate to a local foundation, attend a sporting event or vote in favor of a referendum. The end goal will determine how people should react to your communications.

Messages that resonate well

You’ve determined how stakeholders should react to your messages. Now, choose the words that will invoke that desired reaction. Your words should grab stakeholders’ attention and make them interested in what you have to say. Your words should be so captivating, people will read or listen to your message all the way through. The right words will resonate with stakeholders and leave a lasting impact.

Create a draft of your message, then read through it. How do the words make you feel? Do they make you feel the way you want stakeholders to feel? If not, tweak the language until you’re confident that your message will resonate with the intended audience. You can also get a second opinion from people around the office, such as your assistants, administrators and marketing team. It helps to get a second opinion before releasing your message to the public.

The right stakeholder groups

You’ve put your message into words. You’ve decided how people should react to it. The next step is determining who should receive that message. Communication isn’t one size fits all—you always have to consider who the message is intended for. Oftentimes, a message is relevant to some stakeholder groups but irrelevant to others. Decide who needs to hear your message, then tailor your message to those specific groups.

Narrow down your audience as you create the message. For instance, imagine your elementary school has a series of field trips coming up. You need parents and family members to volunteer as chaperones. You could create one take-home letter for all families, or you could create a different take-home letter for each field trip, grade level or classroom. This will ensure your message reaches the most relevant stakeholders.

Choosing communication mediums

You have the message, and you know who your audience is. Now the question is, where are you going to put that message? There are many different mediums at your disposal, and some will communicate your message more effectively than others. The intended audience will determine which communication mediums you choose. Maximize the number of people who see your message by sharing it through the mediums your audience uses the most.

For example, let’s say your high school is planning to host an alumni night. You could advertise the event in your weekly newsletter, although there might only be a small fraction of alumni who read it. A more effective approach would be to email alumni directly about the upcoming event. Create an email that goes out specifically to the people on your alumni mailing list. That way, you’ll reach more alumni and potentially boost the attendance rate.

Where you are right now

Finally, after figuring out the goal, the desired reaction, the message, the audience and the communication mediums, you’ll arrive at the last step: defining your district’s current situation. All your communication efforts exist to transport you from where you are right now to where you want to be. By nailing down an end goal (and how to achieve it), you become better at identifying areas for improvement within your district.

You visualized the end goal. It’s time to focus on the here and now. Once all the steps are laid out, you can begin putting those steps in motion. You worked backwards to find a path that will lead your district to the desired result. All you have to do now is walk down that path.

Create a plan and move forwards

Before you communicate, ask yourself two key questions: What is my goal? And how will I achieve it? You can’t communicate until you know where you’re going! Communication doesn’t start when you put words onto paper. Communication starts at the end. Work your way backwards, and a clear path will unfold right in front of you.

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