If you want to change the world, you have to bring the world on board. Adam Stones FRSA argues that changemakers must think of themselves as communicators if they are to cut through the noise and become leaders of positive change.
What unites the RSA community is that we all want to change the world, even in our own small way. We all want to be heard, to have our ideas valued and for people to act on them. Some of us will do this through a purposeful venture, some through leading a cause, and others still through rising up the ranks of an established organisation and steering its course. And with all these routes, there is one common factor of success: to lead change successfully, you have to first build your influence as a communicator.
In a fair world, the ideas that can do good – that can accelerate positive social or environmental impact – would be the ones that shine out, get shared and acted on. It should be easy. You should be able to say, ‘Check out my great idea to make your life a LOT better’ and wait for people to sign up. Alas, instead, we live in a paradox.
Throughout the day we will have multiple conversations, send dozens of emails, make social posts and broadcast all sorts of messages through our beautiful body language. Anyone can quickly create a website, share a video or even just shout their beliefs out of their window if they wish. In short, it has never been easier to communicate. And yet it has also never been harder to connect. There is so much information out there that we are always competing. And we often end up just adding to the noise.
As a result, many people are struggling to cut through. And poor communication is a recurring theme of failure or conflict in business, politics, society and even everyday life (including in our relationships). With poor communications, we will confuse, remove someone’s desire to act and – at worst – encourage advocates against our ideas. As Matthew Taylor says in this recent interview, reflecting on his time at the RSA: “The world is not short of people with good ideas, it is short of ways of actually achieving change”. So how do we address this?
I have studied a range of individuals and organisations in depth to find out what makes them effective and I’ve decoded all these attributes into five core traits that every successful leader deploys to navigate the communications paradox and achieve change.
The Five Traits of Influence
First, be purposeful. Put ‘why’ at the centre of all your communications. If your message is authentically driven by a bigger cause and relates to a clear vision for the future, people will better connect with it. Too many of us have an instinctive purpose, we need to make this distinctive. If you want to lead people into the future, you need to be able to describe what that future looks like. Because powerful communicators don’t tell us what to do, they make us want to do it.
Second, be personal. We often assume that everyone else is just like us, that they have the same fears and hopes and will be triggered by the same stimuli. So we express what is top of mind and important to us. Instead, you must develop an empathetic understanding of your audience and what they want, if you want to inspire them. Then show how your message is not about you but about what you can do for them. Support this by finding ‘the others’, all the people who will help you along the way (collaborators, funders, mentors, connectors). Change – real, meaningful change – never happens without collaborative efforts, and networks that challenge and support you (like the RSA…).
Third, be distinct. We all have a personal brand, it is just that some of us allow it to be formed by the others’ perception of our passive behaviour rather than forging it with our active choices. You must build a strong personal brand to ensure your communications are catchy, credible and consistent. Your brand will become a magnet, bringing people to your mission by making your value clear. It also ensures that the value of each message is amplified by all that has gone before it. And when doing this it is essential to remember that just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is your brand. You need to work to shape that perception constantly.
Fourth, be active. Don’t wait for change, lead it. Push people out of their inertia by revealing the problems of the status quo and pull them past their anxiety of change by showing the benefits of acting. Move people from being unaware to acting and then advocates, and then harness the power of your new tribe to influence others. Being active means being strategic about what you say and do, when and where; communicating two ways, not blurting out broadcasts on every channel. And it means understanding that people won't always act in their own best interests - you need to craft your message to play with their inherent psychological biases, not try and fight against them.
Finally, be skilled. Review, reflect and rebuild your approach regularly. Preparation and practice will ensure conviction and confidence. Constantly build core communications skills in areas of body language, speaking (on stage and in person), PR and writing. And never be afraid to make mistakes; they can become your greatest teacher. Constantly ask yourself ‘what else can I improve?', 'what can I learn next?' Your communications skills are like muscles that need to be worked out, put under stress and stretched, so that you are ready for the big stage, whenever it appears.
The RSA’s Living Change Approach
These traits form a strong complement to the RSA’s Living Change Approach (which loosely follows these steps: understand, analyse, apply tools and test interventions). Communication is fundamental in allowing you to test and then scale meaningful interventions. And all of these influence traits need to be embraced, developed and applied collectively if you want to have the greatest chance of success. By following these traits you will stir minds, hearts and limbs; getting people to think, feel and do differently. You will become a more effective leader of purposeful change. And the world could certainly do with a few more of those right now.
These five traits form the architecture of my new book Influence: Powerful Communications, Positive Change, which is now in the RSA library. Do check it out there. And for those not located near RSA House, you can also download the accompanying Influence Canvas for free here. I compiled these five traits specifically to help people that want to do good, to make a great impact. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.
Adam is a writer and communications strategist working with those committed to making a positive impact. Having worked in UK media and in leading PR agencies, he moved to Amsterdam in 2016 and established A’DAM Communications. He is the author of the new book Influence: Powerful Communications, Positive Change, and The Limey Project.
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Really helpful as a new member. Thank you very much.