Q&A: Communicating change in turbulent times

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Written by

Patti Sanchez

We are experiencing unprecedented levels of change as professionals and as humans—more so now than ever. This disruptive change is dramatically affecting the way we work, communicate, and lead. It’s time for leaders of all kinds to step up their communication.

To help them navigate through a constantly changing landscape, people crave communication from their leaders… communication that is frequent and informative, but also reassuring and inspiring. After all, empathetic and thoughtfully planned communication can make people feel secure, confident, engaged, and empowered to forge ahead, even amidst the fog of uncertainty.

Storytelling is one of the most important techniques you can use to communicate change and mobilize people to make it a reality. By using the right kinds of story techniques at the right time, leaders can move people to embrace and act on transformative ideas. In fact, the journey of change itself follows a five-act story structure, a structure that was first revealed in the award-winning book, Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez.

In our recent on-demand webinar, “Communicating Change in Turbulent Times,” which took place on the 5-year birthday of Illuminate, we heard from the book’s co-authors, Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, about how Duarte has used these same principles to lead our organization through change for over 30+ years.

In this blog post, Patti answers some of the most burning questions we received from participants about communicating change.

Q: I have experienced the power of sharing personal stories in speeches, but should I avoid sharing personal stories in business settings, or are they actually appropriate?

One of the core principles of great communication, in Duarte’s opinion, is empathy for your audience. When you’re planning to communicate, you should think about your audience first, and that can help you determine what you should say, based on what they want, or need, to hear from you.

When you’re planning to tell a story, especially a personal one, and you’re not sure if it’s going to be appropriate for that audience, step back and ask yourself some questions about your audience. Who are they? What kind of information or inspiration do they need? What are their emotional goals? How might a story from your personal experience meet those goals?

Once you know those goals, use them to choose the right story to tell. When we coach people on how to craft their stories, we ask them to think about the lesson that their story is intended to teach. You can think of the lesson as being like a moral in a fable, like Aesop’s fables. Fables or parables serve a purpose, which is to teach the listener a universal truth. Sharing a personal story should have the same goal. Just make sure you are clear on what your story is meant to communicate, and if it’s not serving your audience, you shouldn’t tell it.

Q: We know storytelling is a powerful communication skill, and that understanding story structure is key to crafting and sharing a story that inspires, but how can we use story structure to be a better story listener?

Empathy is always a great place to start your communication planning from, and that includes being a better listener. First, find out what the storyteller needs from you at that moment. What is their goal in telling you that story? Then, figure out how you can listen to better support that goal.

For instance, are they looking for feedback on their story? If so, perhaps jot down some notes about points where they lost you, or moments in the story where you were really captivated. Or is their goal just that you enjoy their story? In that case, practice active listening, which includes a lot of head nodding and expressing emotion to let them know you’re really into it.

The main point is to listen to a story with the needs of the storyteller in mind. If you’re an expert in story, try not to anticipate what they’re going to say next (“oh, I bet there’s an obstacle coming up!”). Just be present and immerse yourself in what they have to share because there’s probably a lesson in their story for you, too.

Q: What is the most important thing a leader needs to remember when communicating about a large company transformation? What’s the best way to inspire people to go after change when they’re experiencing burnout due to the continuous changes in the world around them?

Empathy is everything in communication, including communicating change. When you’re a leader communicating about change to your employees, you must remember that they’re the ones who will actually enact the change. That means that they’re going to be experiencing a lot of frustration, fear, and anxiety that comes along with doing something different or new.

It’s important for leaders to consider the perspective of their employees and tailor their communication about the change to include what is in it for employees. Why is this change good for them personally? Not just for the company, but also for their careers, quality of life, and future happiness and success.

Leaders also need to be sensitive to what people are feeling at that very moment. In the Illuminate book and workshop, we describe the five-stage journey of change, and what people are likely to be thinking and feeling during each of those stages. You need to recognize what stage people are in, what they’re thinking and feeling, and then give them emotional fuel to move forward. that means saying and doing the right things to meet the needs employees have at that moment.

The more you listen to how employees are thinking and feeling about the change, the more likely you are going to be successful in communicating it, because it’s going to be coming from a place of empathy and understanding.

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Q: What tips would you give to people who find storytelling difficult?

While it’s true that people may have different levels of skill as storytellers, we’re all inherently wired for story. I don’t want anyone to feel intimidated about their potential ability to become a storyteller, because the reality is, storytelling is something we do in our lives without even really thinking about it. So embrace the fact that you are a storyteller inherently; all you need to do is develop your skills.

In the Illuminate workshop, one of the exercises we take participants through is a three-step process for developing a personal story of their own. First, attendees recall past stories, then they choose one story and develop a very simple outline of it using the classic three-act story structure, and finally, they share that story. People are often surprised how able they are to craft a story in a short amount of time.

The hardest thing about storytelling for most people is that they are afraid to put themselves out there and to be judged negatively or rejected. The best way to get over that is to not let that fear stop you. If you find storytelling difficult, my main advice is to practice doing it, and Or you can find a “feedback friend” to practice with.You can also study by watching videos of people you think are great at storytelling. By watching what they do well, you’ll develop a sense for your own style as a storyteller.

Q: I love the way you create group unity through the giraffe symbol at Duarte. What kind of symbols can be used in other business environments?

Symbols take many different forms. There are symbols that are visual in nature, like objects or images. Symbols that are auditory in nature, like sounds or cheers. Symbols that are actions or gestures, like raised fists or high fives.

Consider which symbols your company might already use organically and then amplify them in your communication. For instance, in sales teams, there’s often a symbolic act, like a ringing of a gong or bell, which people do when they land a big deal. How do people mark milestones in your company today, and how can you use them to celebrate a win in your change program?

Sometimes, a symbol might be need to be dismantled to signify a change. For example, when Jack-in-the-Box restaurants went through a rebrand, they blew up the old creepy clown outside one of their locations. It was a funny gesture to signify a new era for the brand. But be careful not to denigrate something people dearly love or it could backfire.

The symbols that have meaning in your company are going to be different than the symbols that resonate at another company. But you won’t know that until you study them in your own culture to identify which ones have a lot of power for people, and whether that is helpful or hurtful to the change effort that you’re trying to enact.

Q: Change in an organization often causes employee turnover. How do you recommend applying this advice to the employees who did not leave the organization and are now undergoing changes?

When there’s turnover and people leave, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary, departures take a toll on the employees left behind. A leader communicating change in this situation needs to be sensitive to what employees are feeling and acknowledge those feelings.

This is a good opportunity for a town hall meeting or a fireside conversation, which is something that some leaders like Steve Jobs are good at. Jobs would often hold town halls with developers of Apple applications when they were moving to a new operating system. At one point, he was giving a presentation about the new product direction, and one developer raised his hand and expressed frustration and anger at the changes. Jobs paused, took a sip of water, took a deep breath, and essentially said, you’re right, I understand, this is hard. In that moment, Jobs empathized with what his audience was feeling, which helped dissipate the anger in the room. Empathy can be so powerful for defusing negative emotions when employees are going through a tough change.

So it’s important to take time to acknowledge their pain and frustration, but don’t linger on it too long. It’s also important to remind your remaining employees of the reasons why this is a great place to be. Share why the future that this change effort is leading toward will be good for them. Express gratitude to the people who are still with you on this journey, and give them reasons to stay that are specific, relatable, and relevant to them.

Q: Has anyone put together a grid that shows which kinds of anecdotes or stories, factual versus metaphorical, inside domain versus outside domain, work best in different kinds of presentation situations?

In the Illuminate book, Nancy Duarte and I categorized a whole taxonomy of types of speeches, stories, ceremonies, and symbols that you can use to communicate change in different situations along the change journey. You can download the Torchbearer’s Toolkit for free here, and use it as a reference tool to determine the right kind of story to tell during the change effort that you’re in.

Q: What might be some strategies for a strong communication mix in times of COVID?

People have many emotional needs during a crisis which must be addressed. Namely, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. In times like these, people need more reassurance than ever.

That means leaders need to communicate more frequently. The less people hear from you, the more reasons they have to worry, and the more they’re going to invent stories in their heads about why they haven’t heard any updates on the strategy, or why there hasn’t been any new information about your recovery plans.

Leaders also need to communicate more empathetically. People are having a lot of feelings, and it’s important for you to acknowledge that fact. This is especially true if you’re the kind of leader who tends to be more analytical and less comfortable talking about feelings…if that’s the case, you’re likely not giving people the emotional fuel they need in this moment.

Finally, learn to communicate change better virtually. It’s crucial that leaders learn to overcome the challenges that virtual communication presents. Put some energy into mastering this medium so that people feel more of your presence, even though you’re not physically in the room with them.

For instance, our CEO, Nancy Duarte, sent Duarte’s employees weekly video messages throughout the pandemic to give us all updates, which was a convenient format for her. The video format also helped to create an empathetic connection with Duarte’s employees much better than a memo or email could. While she was communicating her updates, we could read her body language and feel her level of commitment, engagement, and concern for us.

Your employees, too, want to feel your care and concern for them, and they want to be reassured that you have the right strategy to make things better for them over the course of this change.


We hope you’ve found these questions and answers helpful as you plan your next change communication!

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Illustrated by Alexis Macias

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