Sarah Browning is a wonderful story teller, no surprise as she’s a comms expert and trustee of a Holybrook Associates_4412b_resizecharity focused on books and stories for children.  Here she tells us a little bit more about the impact that story telling can have:

Last night I presented to the RVA (Reading Voluntary Action)
Trustees’ Network about using the power of stories when communicating about their charity. As a small charity trustee myself, of local literacy charity ABC to read, I know that we often have to take a very hands-on approach and that we can get bogged down in the details of our Twitter feed or newsletter. However, as trustees we also have a more strategic role to play, looking at how we can get the most value from the communications we have.

Who doesn’t love a good story? Stories make people feel something and if they feel something, they will act. For charities who are looking to get others to take action, that’s really important – you may want people to access your services, to run a half marathon to fundraise for you, to campaign on something or to give you a grant for a new project.

If nothing else, 2016 taught us all about the power of telling a good story. Whatever your views on Brexit, it was pretty clear that the Leave campaign painted a clearer picture of (their version of) the future. And people took action depending on how that made them feel.

And whatever your organisation is there to do, you will be able to tell a story about it. There are hundreds and thousands of examples all around us every day. One of my favourites to illustrate that you really can tell a story about anything is this Friends of the Earth video from a few years ago which told the love story between 2 plastic milk cartons (yes, really) to encourage people to recycle more. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look. And whatever your organisation is there to do, you will be able to tell a story about it.

If you want to get more value from your communication about your charity, I recommend taking these steps to put together your approach:

  • Think about why you want to communicate in the first place. What are you trying to achieve? What do you want people to think, feel or do (differently) as a result of your communication? If you’re clear on that from the start, you will know whether you’re achieving that outcome or not.
  • Who are the ‘people’ you want to do something? It’s highly likely that you will have different groups of people that you would like to act in different ways, for example service users and their families, volunteers and funding bodies. Work out who these groups are and what motivates them or interests them? What do they already know about your organisation and cause – or think they do?
  • Now think about the stories you can tell to create that feeling (and action) in those groups of people. All charities have lots of stories and you need to pick out the powerful ones that you can tell in the best way to create action. Sometimes telling the same story from different angles can help you achieve your aim in several ways.
  •  Once you’ve got your reason, audience and message clear, it should become much easier for you to work out the best methods to use to get your stories to the right people. For example, short, sharp bursts or very visual stories work well on things like Twitter and Instagram, whereas more detailed written content might be better for a magazine that people read over a coffee.

Whatever you’ve got to say and however you say it, a key thing to remember is that there are no right or wrong ways to communicate, just more or less effective ones.

Sarah Browning our comms specialist is definitely a fan of Christmas spirit.  She wrote this piece on her own blog last year, but we all love it so much we’re republishing it again:

Santa and RudolfSanta’s Internal Comms Plan

I’m not sure of the exact employment status of the elves – does Santa pay them a living wage or are they volunteers, working at the North Pole because they want to make a difference to children’s lives – but whatever the legalities of it all, they are Santa’s team. He is their leader and, as such, he has a big responsibility communication-wise.

So why is it so important to get his communication with his team right? What difference will it make? Here’s a few reasons for you to consider and perhaps apply to your own communications with your team:

1. Motivation.
Successful organisations have teams that want to do well. They want to do their best for their employer, for themselves and for their customers (in this case, excited children waking up on Christmas day eager to take a look in their stockings). Despite the busyness of the pre-Christmas period, Santa has to make time for communicating well with his elves – finding out how they’re doing, making sure they understand what’s required of them this year (goals and targets may have changed since last December) and listening to feedback about improvements to products and processes from those on the frontline. Good elf morale is crucial. Happy elves mean happy children.

2. Customer satisfaction.
The team of elves who are tasked with reading children’s letters to Santa have to be engaged with paying close attention to what each child has asked for. There have to be good communication processes and channels in place for making sure that they pass this information on to the manufacturing teams quickly and effectively. And then the right gifts have to make it into the right stockings on Christmas day – effective communication is a key part of successful logistics. At the end of the day, non-one wants to see a sad little face looking at a gift from Santa that was meant for someone else.

3. Avoid duplication.
With so much to do in such a short space of time, Santa’s workshop has to be running like a well-oiled machine. Everyone must know the role they play and how it connects to the next elf’s job. If duplication of effort creeps in because elves don’t know what other teams are actually doing, things could start to go wrong. And Santa would do well to remember that elves don’t want to be duplicating on purpose, they’ll be doing it because they think something needs to be done to keep children happy. Keeping the lines of communication open all around the workshop means any potential issues can be ironed out before they even occur.

And one last thing to remember about communicating with your elves, Santa – don’t talk down to them! (Sorry, that’s a groan-inducing cracker joke, but I couldn’t resist….)

If you would like to improve your communications with your team, please get in touch to find out how I can help you be more like Santa.

I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Until next time

by Sarah Browning
As I write this piece, I am sitting in the Oakwood Centre in Woodley, the town where I live. Holybrook Associates_4412b_resizeI am here today because I attended a breakfast networking group in one of the centre’s meeting rooms and decided to stay on for a cup of tea in the café and to use the wifi.
This building holds a special place in my heart, as when my now-8-year-old daughter was a baby, my friends and I would take our babies to be weighed at the clinic across the park and then wheel our prams here for coffee, cake and chat. I can look around the room and – even though it was recently refurbished and given a new lease of life – remember sitting at various tables and recall lots of memories: the spot where my pram was standing when I noticed my daughter playing with her pram toys for the very first time; the sofas where 6 mummies and 6 babies squeezed in – the grown-ups chatting, the babies snoozing.
I would never have thought it was possible, or even likely, to have an emotional attachment to a building that is not your home or the site of a big, significant life event. In fact, the Oakwood Centre is partly taken up by the town council offices, so I suppose strictly speaking it’s a municipal building, which makes attachment to it seem even more unlikely. But those years spent making new friends here, learning to be a mum and watching my daughter grow, have obviously flicked a switch in my brain. Now that my daughter is at school and my life is developing professionally, it is good to be maintaining that connection with this building as part of my life in a different way.
I choose to specialise in working with not-for-profit organisations, with people who are trying to change the world for the better. Some of the individuals and organisations I support are doing that on a global scale, improving the lives of people around the world; others are working more locally in the communities where they live.
To get their messages across, I often talk to them about using real people stories, to demonstrate the human impact of their work, whether that be a woman who is setting up her own clothing business in Sierra Leone or a Berkshire teenager who is learning interview techniques to get their first job. My story of connection to this building and this community is perhaps not so unusual as I first thought.
Talking to people about how they feel and react to things in their lives, not just the facts about what they do, is a great starting point for hearing some amazing, life-changing stories. Whether you use those stories to develop a whole organisation or just as interesting experiences to hear about for yourself, making connections in this way is enjoyable and valuable.
What stories are you going to discover today?

Holybrook Associates_4421b_resize

What can Ed Balls and Will from The Deep Gift shop in Hull can teach us about authentic organisations?

A few days ago I rang the Deep Aquarium in Hull with a request that seemed far-fetched.

My children had each been given a snow globe by their Grandparents after a recent visit there.  They each had a sticker with their name on and in the snow globe a Gentoo Penguin that the Deep is raising funds to conserve.

Unfortunately, one of the globes broke a few days ago, and all parents will know the distress of a favourite toy being broken or lost.  So, nothing ventured nothing gained I at least thought I should try.

I was put through to Will in the gift shop and thus started a chain of events that perfectly demonstrate how to market yourself in an open world – despite being entirely low-tech.

Authenticity Rule One: Be yourself

I briefly explained the situation and part way through the call I felt something unusual.  He appeared to be thinking carefully about my request and considering how he could help the little girl who he had never met.

He was concerned about the packaging and whether the globe might break if he sent it out.  He offered to call me back.  I explained the concept of ‘the school run’.  He agreed to call back at 3.30.

Authenticity Rule Two: Be good

At 3.30pm I had a call back from Will. Exactly when he said he would.
He told me he’d do his best to ensure that the globe got to me safe but he wasn’t sure.  He refused to charge me for postage and packaging.  “It’s a goodwill gesture”.

Two days later a large package arrived.

I was nervous so opened it before letting my children know.  I should have taken a photo of the packaging, never have I seen something so well wrapped.

Rule three:  Have fun

Inside was this:

2016-04-27 14.36.45.jpg

We were already bowled over by how good the Deep (or rather Will) was.   But “Best fishes” and a picture of a fish?  Now we *loved* the Deep

But what if being yourself and being good are incompatible?

Well yes, if you are a racist or like to send abusive tweets to people there’s not much hope.  But for the vast majority of humanity they aren’t.

Take Ed Balls Day, on the face of it this is an example of why people are scared of using twitter.


We’ve all done something similar – I defy anyone who has been on twitter for long to not have had to delete a tweet or two (in my case usually because of a typo).

But, and this is the beauty and simplicity of Ed Balls Day (google it),  he didn’t delete the tweet.

Which means Ed Balls day is an object lesson in rules 1 and 3: be yourself and have fun. 

Is it an object lesson in rule 2?  Not if what you want in your politicians is a robotic perfection.  But do we want Yvette Cooper (whom Ed Balls is married to) to go home from asking the Prime Minister a question about child refugees and stare soulfully into the distance or do we want to know what she made Ed Balls do to celebrate his special day?

If you are going to do it do it right.

The fact that any of this needs saying I think tells us a lot of how organisational culture in general and management of social media in particular can change and become more natural.

If it was your niece or nephew you’d probably write ‘best fishes’ too.  If you sent an email to your sister with just your name typed in you’d never hear the end of it.

So why would we expect our organisations to behave as if they have no sense of fun?  Or that our public figures can never press enter when they meant delete?

I hope that more organisations will be like the Deep and trust their employees to think for themselves and more public figures will treat social media as a way of building relationships, even if that means being vulnerable.

Because we’ll get more effective organisations and more interesting, human public figures if we do.

Authenticity matters.



Online and offline do of course mix and create great marketing copy.  But that’s not why authentic organisations do it.

A nice by product for the Deep was they got a thankful tweet and a loyal customer (and this blog post for that matter…).

But do I for one moment think that is what Will was thinking when he wrote a note to my daughter?

Here’s what I think he would like to know:

Last night, on Ed Balls Day, as I put my daughter to bed she asked to hold her globe.  “I love my snow globe so much” were her last words before sleep.

And Will, she thought ‘best fishes’ was the funniest thing she’d ever read.



ChangHolybrook Associates_4412b_resizee. There’s a lot of it about. Some of it good. Some of it not-so-good. Some of it just plain baffling. And lots of it – in my experience anyway – badly communicated.

There are, of course, fantastic examples of change communication, where everyone who is affected feels informed and engaged. They understand what is happening, when and, most importantly, why. In these examples, individuals who are negatively impacted by what’s changed can still see why it has to happen – the communication allows space for them to hold two views at the same time (I understand why this is good for the organisation, but I’m also upset that it has a bad effect on me).

And for those who are less interested in the touchy-feely aspects of making people feel good about change, these positive approaches are also successful operationally. If everyone understands what needs to change and why they will be motivated to act on it – whether that be taking up a new process, aligning themselves with a new strategy or getting used to a new boss.

Good for business and good for individuals. Sounds like a win-win to me.

So why have I seen so much badly-communicated change? Why have we all seen so much badly-communicated change?

There are many answers here and many aspects of change communication that I could talk about in this article. The (lack of) planning. (Failure to) put yourself in others’ shoes to consider their perspective, motivations and information needs. The (lack of) strong, compelling narrative or case for change. I could go on, but I know we all have limited time. So today I am restricting myself to one aspect that I notice again and again.

The missing message

How many times during a badly-managed restructure do you hear people say ‘they’re expecting us to do more with less’? And after the badly-managed restructure, for that matter. Understandably, if your job is put at risk during a restructure or your team’s numbers are reduced, the immediate impact you feel is that there is still a pile of invoices on your desk, a queue of people to see or an inbox full of queries to answer, only there are now fewer people to do it.

The message that you hear is:

‘We need to do all this with fewer people because that will save money’.

However, often the aim is to do things differently, using new processes, technologies and priorities – with the result that fewer people will be needed to do it. A subtle but important difference. Sometimes people can be freed up to work on other areas or in different ways.

So the message should be:

‘In order to compete in our current market and offer the goods/services we are known for, we need to do things differently’.

The difference here is that the message is first and foremost about new ways of working. It’s not about numbers of people or volumes of current paperwork.

You have to start by putting in the time and effort to engage people to understand this message – and it will take time for them to work through all the implications and come to a point where they understand and agree (or not, in which case they are in a better position to make an informed decision about their own actions). Then you can start to talk about what that means in terms of change and new ways of doing things. This will inevitably lead to discussions around numbers of people or roles and money saved, but with a more solid foundation.

Change communication is a nuanced and complex activity. You need strong messages, genuine openness and trust and support for local managers in their day-to-day communication. It won’t just happen on its own

As an internal communicator, there are many different types of audience you have to bear in mind. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all approach to internal communication – your communication plans should always acknowledge the groups within your staff body and use the golden thread of messaging to link everything together, whilst making the most of tailored approaches. Today I am going to focus on some ideas for communicating with your frontline staff.

So who do I mean by frontline staff? These are the people who have the most direct contact with your beneficiaries, patients, students or customers, if you have them. They have a hands-on role in delivering your mission and making the difference you want to see in the world. (Note: I am not saying that their role is more important than others, I believe that all organisations need a whole range of roles to work together and be successful.) Very often they are working in a non-office environment, such as a hospice ward, a family support centre, a classroom or on the road. Geography and environment can make them feel far removed from, and misunderstood by, ‘HQ’ or ‘the centre’.

First step
The first thing to do is develop an understanding of their priorities and motivations. Why do they do the jobs they do? What is important to them about working directly with beneficiaries or students? What is the reality of their daily working lives? The best way to get this kind of insight is to get out and about, meet your frontline staff and spend time with them, observing what they do day-to-day. If time and budgets make this difficult, then at the very least you should be arranging to speak to them on the phone and listen to what they tell you life is like for them.

Better not to communicate
Secondly, give some thought to how their role fits with the overall vision and mission of your organisation. Everyone has a part to play and how they fit in will vary. However, when you have a clearer view of the connection, it is easier to see how effective communication with them will help them to do their jobs and make their contribution.

Sometimes this will actually mean not communicating with them at a certain point or in a particular way. For example, a few years ago I worked with The Children’s Society on their Make Runaways Safe campaign. We identified actions that all staff could take to support the campaign, such as signing petitions and spreading the word on social media. However, as part of the communications plan we identified that support workers who were engaging directly with young runaways were supporting young people more effectively by finding them safe places to sleep, counselling them and so on. Communication with them therefore had to be much more about sharing that the charity was campaigning on this issue and trying to bring about change for the young people they knew, rather than asking them to stop and do something different.

Different types of communication
Thirdly, identify the different types of communication you need, such as information-provision, engagement, behaviour change. Whilst these categories exist will exist across all your audience groups, the way they are executed will vary. For example, statutory or safety-related information is non-negotiable and has to be received and understood by frontline staff. Using direct channels, such as team meetings and information points (online or offline), and engaging them with the importance of these channels is key. For other, more cultural aspects of communication, you will probably need to build in extra time to engage these staff and support them in exploring what works for them and why it is important.

Finally, your frontline staff will have a wealth of ideas about how to improve matters for your beneficiaries, based on their experience and daily direct contact with them. So remember to listen to what they have to say. Mutual respect and trust is at the heart of any successful organisation and listening is a key step towards that.

Until next time

This post was first published on Sarah’s blog here