Between the Lines HEAD
16th Aug 2019
3 Min Read

Between the lines. Internal comms lessons from literature

Elle Bradley-Cox
Elle Bradley-Cox
IC & Engagement

For sixpence a line, Shakespeare reckoned he could cause a riot in a nunnery. Our resident wordsmiths are obsessed with the power of messages, particularly when it comes to our specialist subject. So here’s our countdown of the internal comms gold we found in the pages of a few well-thumbed reads on our shelves.

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Two wives. One dead, one haunted by the memory of the former Mrs de Winter: Rebecca.

During her short life, Rebecca ran the sprawling Manderley estate like clockwork with the cloying devotion of her housekeeper Mrs Danvers. From the moment the shy new mistress of the house arrives, it’s clear there’s an axe to grind.

The tension that builds in this masterful epic sticks in your throat – we’ve all been at the wrong end of a power play. So what would I suggest to keep Mrs Danvers in her box?

Well, a simple switch up in communication would be a start. Don’t be afraid to change your tactics when your first attempt doesn’t work. Regular check ins and clear goals draw a line in the sand that can’t be ignored by your colleagues. Even if they do burn the house down when you thought you’d sorted it all out.

– Elle Bradley-Cox, senior writer and editor

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

A house full of killers. But only one knows it.

Justice Wargrave, a high court judge with a penchant for both sadism and following the rules, executes the systematic and well-planned murder of nine individuals who, thanks to loopholes in the law, managed to escape the guillotine. Each death looks like an accident, and let me tell you, that doesn’t happen without a little forward thinking.

The lesson? Well, where would Wargrave be if he didn’t plan ahead? He’d be on an island, alone, in a big, dark house. How sad.

If we didn’t put time into knowing our audience and anticipating possible obstacles to our objectives, our internal comms would be pretty slap-dash. There’s a lot to be said for forward planning and combing for detail. Let’s hope the topic is usually a little lighter though!

– Jen Entwistle, editorial assistant

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

“…you see a sign which says KEEP OFF THE GRASS but it should say KEEP OFF THE GRASS AROUND THIS SIGN or KEEP OFF ALL THE GRASS IN THIS PARK because there is lots of grass you are allowed to walk on.”

Meet narrator and protagonist, 15-year-old Christopher – a math whizz living with autism. His neighbour’s dog has been murdered with a pitchfork overnight; an equation he must now solve.

This book is brimming with IC lessons, but here’s my number one: comms need more than clarity – they need to be sensitive, too. Understanding not just the wants, but the needs of your audience will ensure a message is more than heard: it’s understood.

– Lisa Deas, consultant

Dear Mrs Bird – AJ Pearce

It’s London during the Blitz. The formidable Henrietta Bird is the agony aunt at a women’s magazine that’s dying a slow, painful death. Emmy Lake, full of compassion and optimism, unwittingly becomes her latest assistant.

IC parallels abound.

First and foremost, listen to your audience. If you only create the content you want to create, you can’t expect everyone else to engage with it.

Secondly, during tough times, show a little empathy in your comms. No-one’s saying that a corporate restructuring is as bad as an incendiary bomb landing on your house, but it can still be tough.

Lastly, having friends in the office can make your work, and your life, better. Why not make someone a cuppa? It could be the start of something beautiful.

– Alastair Atkinson, senior consultant

1984 – George Orwell

Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece needs little introduction but with top-down communication soaking through every page, it’s worth a re-read – as a warning against straying into Big Brother territory.

Central character Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, altering Party publications to make sure the authorities’ version of the facts is never questioned. That includes re-writing events, erasing people from history and revising past predictions to make them accurate.

If your job is to communicate change, perhaps launching a fresh strategy or introducing a new face at the top, always be authentic. Don’t try to erase the past or sweep a much-heralded former vision under the carpet, as if it’s now an embarrassment.

Colleagues can find it hard to embrace change, particularly without context. Be honest, take them with you on the journey and be sensitive to people’s beliefs and allegiances.

– Jacey Lamerton, senior writer and editor

Feersum Endjinn– Iain M. Banks

Feersum Endjinn’s key protagonist speaks in an undefined accent, written in the first person, phonetically. Some readers find this narrative device impenetrable, but I found Bascule memorable because of this – the other characters paled in comparison with their third-person archetype.

You get a real sense of his personality as you get into his brain; he even mimics the way others speak through the filter of his speech – so it cleverly layers within layers.

It’s a Marmite choice though – in fiction you can get away with it artistically because people seek out what you’re writing. So, IC pros should consider that messages need to land with as many people as possible. Alienating them is a try-to-avoid, not a calculated risk.

– Andrew Kelly, senior creative

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

A young girl is thrust into a life she could never have seen coming.

Sayuri is split from her sister as her father sells her into a whole new world. Training to be a geisha, she finds herself having to communicate with silence and gestures. The communication is controlled, different, even frightening. Sayuri must adapt.

Every day, we revise our ways to overcome obstacles and changes of circumstance. Without this attitude, we’d be static and stagnant. In IC, there’s no room for apathy. Adaptation, determination and a desire to thrive, not just survive – that’s what Sayuri has taught us.

– Sarah Todd, account and project manager

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

A man and his son trudge their way across a scorched, desolate wasteland in the utter definition of a ‘slow burner’, and we’re just the omniscient passengers taken along for the ride.

McCarthy’s relentlessly repetitive grey landscape and the messages within it are intended to wear down the reader almost as much as our inexpressive protagonists.

With so little going on in this ravaged world, it’s important to remember that consistency isn’t always key. Quality is vital, of course – but be careful not to bang the same drum too often.

The Road is a slog of a novel, but that’s part of its charm. Top-notch, varied content is key; not just the same messages repeated over and over. When a message becomes repetitive, people switch off to future communications, too.

– Connor Faulkner, writer and editor

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë

What’s better in a time of crisis than a good leader? In Jane Eyre, it’s teacher and role model extraordinaire Miss Temple who saves the day following a disastrous meal of burnt porridge that no one can eat. Her cool head brings calm to the chaos and cheese to hungry bellies. It’s hard not to admire a leader who gives you cheese – and young Jane certainly admires Miss Temple.

Jane’s respect for her favourite teacher isn’t just about her intellect – it’s also because she’s fair and listens to what the children have to say. She says “to her instruction I owed the best part of my acquirements” – showing that good leaders role model behaviours others want to emulate and builds greater trust with employees.

– Pagon Gregory, consultant

So, what’s the story in your organisation? Do some of these tales ring true throughout your internal communications or is engagement more a work of fiction?

If you’re looking to create a page-turner, talk to us about writing a gripping new narrative.

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