Use The Goldilocks Principle To Steer Clear Of These 3 Pitfalls In Corporate Communications

C.J. Feehan
May 7, 2020 · 5 min read
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There are three major ways that corporate communications commonly fail to effectively engage a target audience in the intended manner, and these shortcomings have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Both internal and external communications, from memos to social media posts and from public comment to employee intranet websites, are at risk of falling victim to these traps.

But if we apply a simple lesson first taught to us by a little blonde girl who broke into the home of three bears, the potential to make an impactful impression — particularly in times of crisis — is nearly limitless.

Humor me for a minute.

When something needs to be said, we can be enticed into focusing intently on the construction of our words to convey a specific meaning, while the how, why, and when of the delivery is of equal importance yet often neglected. Let’s say you’re planning to ask your boss for a raise. You can all too easily fixate on enumerating a long list of ways you have added value over the past 12 months leading up to your annual review. After all, those points are your justification for earning more money. But with this approach, you will have forgotten to consider how your message is going to be received and decoded on the other end.

A more effective strategy might be to catch your boss when she’s actually in a good mood instead of in the middle of a long cycle of employee evaluations, elaborate in greater detail on just a few of your key accomplishments, and then follow up at a later time especially if the first ask falls on deaf ears.

Similarly, the three major ways that corporate communications fail to consider how their messages will be received — and therefore, fail to engage their intended audiences — concern volume, tone, and timing.

The quantity, frequency, and type of messaging can be categorized as the volume of communication. Failing to say anything in a time of crisis will be interpreted across a spectrum, but none of the outcomes are advantageous. A lack of communication is, in itself, a form of communication — either you have no plan, you can’t tell anyone your plan because they probably won’t like it, or you refuse to make a plan. You come across as either a deer in the headlights, a malicious dictator, or like you’ve got your head in the sand.

The gut reaction might be to communicate everything possible right as the information arises, but this is an equally misguided strategy. Saying too much without context or concrete measures to support the content can easily lead to an overload of uncategorized information. And doing it too frequently like a running faucet waters down the effect, thus increasing the likelihood of an audience tuning out an important point.

Overly positive and overly negative attitudes and style with consideration to genre (whether strategic, inspirational, directional, financial, etc.) can also call credibility into question. An overly positive tone, like what a very small proportion of world leaders did at the start of the coronavirus crisis when they downplayed the potential impact it would have on their nations, wagers the trust that you’re taking a significant issue seriously.

Overly negative ‘the sky is falling’ messaging, less often seen in formal communications but certainly evident in the anxious informal dialogues from leaders and managers, is even more dangerous due to the nearly lethal combination of the human negativity bias and emotional contagion.

Coordination is crucial in corporate communications because despite everyone’s best efforts, information leaks. A statement can come too early if it is based on a secondary decision, confidential or otherwise, that has not yet been announced. And there is little worse than being too late — when the information, or often misinformation, has already spread throughout an organization, among competitors, or to the media before leadership took the initiative to frame and control the message.

Considering volume, tone, and timing, what is an organization to do so that it can maximize its engagement efficacy with its target audience?

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Now is the opportune time to recall that childhood fairytale of an impetuous little girl with golden hair who stumbled into the home of three bears and proceeded to sample their bowls of porridge, chairs, and beds to find the ones most suited to her.

Not too cold, not too hot, not too soft, not too hard, not too high, not too low — just right. Sure, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is best known as an allegory for showing respect toward others’ property. Even more so, it’s a fable espousing moderation that reminds us to seek out the sweet spot between extremes.

If we apply the Goldilocks Principle to our focal points of volume, tone, and timing, we discover that a finely-tuned balance across all three will yield the highest communication impact.

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Though it’s no easy feat when crisis mode kicks in, taking a breath to build a delivery plan covering the how, why, and when to address these three common pitfalls will pay off exponentially once you launch your message.

It may entail some trial and error to hit the sweetest spot between too much and too little, too positive and too negative, and too early and too late in all communications. But by repeatedly applying the Goldilocks Principle and adjusting incrementally as you go, eventually, you’ll get it just right.

C.J. Feehan is a communications manager and organizational strategist who previously worked as Editor in Chief at a US-based media agency and served on the marketing and comms team at the International Ski Federation where she coordinated the World Cup and Olympic Winter Games. She holds master’s degrees in Creative Writing and Organizational Leadership from Dartmouth College and the University of Colorado. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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