June 10, 2020
How an Improvisational Mindset Helps You Communicate in a Crisis
The past few months have seen communications professionals reaching for their crisis manuals over and over. Yet while these manuals may serve as constructive guideposts to start, their use is limited: how many playbooks, for instance, contain guidance on “abrupt, plague-induced lockdown” or “mass anti-racism movement and worldwide protests?”
Some fundamental crisis tenants, like communicating with empathy and transparency, apply in any scenario. But if these latest crises have shown us anything it’s that there’s no one way to plan for everything. Instead, the sudden lockdown and the pressure organizations felt to respond to last week’s events underscore why today’s communicators need an improvisational mindset.
Defining an improvisational mindset
To be clear, improvisation does not mean quickly coming out with vague platitudes and hollow statements expressly designed to meet the expectation for some sort of response. Nor does it mean – in this context, at least – moving ahead heedlessly, without any thought at all.
Rather, an improvisational mindset encourages communicators to pivot fast to meet changing conditions, move the conversation forward, and back up words with action – the way a musician or comedian adapts to the scene or song at hand and acts in ways which progress it.
Frank Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz, summarizes the challenge well:
We live in a high-velocity world with so many cues and signals that don’t come to us with clear messages. We are always facing incomplete information, and yet we have to take action anyway. Improvisational mindset means you have to leap in and take action to say yes. If you’re just in a problem-solving mindset, your imagination is going to be shrunk. You have to have a mindset that says ‘yes’ to the possibility that something new and interesting and creative can emerge.
What’s more, we perceive improvisations as truly authentic not simply because they’re made up on the spot. But it’s precisely because the performers are so practiced and credible that they can improvise effectively.
In the corporate world, authenticity tends to stem from a company’s track record. Nike, for example, could quickly improvise an ad denouncing racism because it had “built equity with its inclusion of Colin Kaepernick in a 2018 ad campaign.” For many others, the better choice was to donate to relevant groups or outline steps to improve their own diversity.
Embracing “yes, and…”
The “yes, and” approach that drives improv is always useful, but especially in today’s increasingly unpredictable business environment. Fortunately, in the past few months we’ve seen our clients embrace this mindset. Here are a few examples.
- Internal stakeholder coaching – We’re helping several clients coach their lawyers or consultants on how to leverage earned COVID-19 media coverage and content in client conversations and outreach. The thinking here is that the “last mile” of client outreach, which happens one-on-one, is most impactful – and now more than ever. They’ll have to be ready to think on their feet and lead with their humanity. If your organization’s professionals are unaccustomed to this type of touchpoint, an improvisational approach can help make them more effective in off-the-cuff situations.
- Flash surveys – A few clients of ours quickly pivoted their quantitative research efforts to better understand emerging client needs and concerns. One law firm, for instance, launched a flash survey of its clients because they had been conducting a survey that felt suddenly, if temporarily, irrelevant. We moved fast to help them generate a new survey that yielded relevant results and insights. Ultimately, the flash survey findings grabbed media headlines in top tier HR trades and national business media.
- Online focus groups – Similarly, we have several clients launching virtual focus groups as a way to obtain qualitative measures/feedback on various issues and offerings. These insights are critical in empathizing with particular audiences, and in avoiding tone-deaf positioning of products and services.
- Agile content production – For another client, we developed a three-part podcast series about the impacts of COVID-19 on the energy industry. The process, which would typically take at least a month, was finished in about a week. Similarly, we improvised to quickly edit a survey report – originally fielded before the world was sheltering in place – so it could elucidate how the findings became even more relevant and useful in light of COVID-19.
It’s unlikely we would have conceived of these projects in typical times – but then, atypical times require atypical responses. As communicators, it’s our job to say “yes, and” to new situations and find creative ways to address them head on.