Chuck Gose: I’m so excited to have you be a guest on Chuck Chats. Where does this rank in your long list of career accolades?
Helen Deverell: Thank you for having me, this will undoubtedly be a career highlight for me.
CG: I hope you’re ready for all the fame and fortune heading your way.
HD: I’ll brace myself for the adoration :)
CG: When it comes to internal comms, what’s your passion? Where does your love reside?
HD: I’m a bit of a generalist really. The thing I love about internal comms is the variety. The job means you get involved in so many different aspects that it’s never boring. The passion for me comes from being able to impact people and make a difference, even if it’s a small one.
"Stories are everywhere, you just need to find them."
CG: You wrote a post on LinkedIn recently that struck a chord with me and prompted me to reach out to you. It’s called Finding the stories in the ordinary. You shared quite a remarkable tale. Do you mind quickly recapping it?
HD: Of course, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
It was a personal story about how, in a roundabout way, internal communication brought me closer to a Grandad I barely knew. He died when I was four, but my whole life I’ve heard stories about him and how hard he worked to build a career, having grown up very poor in rural Ireland.
Then a few years ago my uncle was talking to someone in a pub and his last name came up. This man mentioned he’d worked with someone who had that name, and it turns out it was my Grandad. The next time my uncle saw this man, he brought the company employee magazine which was doing ‘back to the past’ feature, and in it was my Grandad. I wanted to share the story to demonstrate that the life of an ordinary man doing a seemingly ordinary job can make a great story. Stories are everywhere, you just need to find them. :)
CG: It’s absolutely remarkable and it got my head spinning a bit. I’m sure the communicator who published that employee magazine had no idea the impact it would have years or decades later. It wasn’t that long ago that communicators were also practically company historians.
HD: Absolutely, and that’s what’s so great about our job. It’s about people and we have so many opportunities to have an impact.
"Any communicator worth their salt should be visible, and be out and about meeting and talking with colleagues all the time."
CG: In looking at a communicator’s daily professional life, how much time do you think should be devoted to storytelling or finding those stories to tell?
HD: I don’t think it’s as much about devoting specific periods of time to it. Any communicator worth their salt should be visible, and be out and about meeting and talking with colleagues all the time. That way you’ll uncover the stories as you go and people will come to you with them as well.
An old colleague of mine used to get really frustrated that he would always find the internal comms team at their desks—we should be among the people, to understand them and their roles. And it will probably seem quite ordinary at first, but that’s where the skills of an internal comms pro come into play—knowing the right questions to ask and what constitutes a good story.
CG: Do you think some communicators are too “busy” to see the ordinary stories that are actually quite extraordinary?
HD: Possibly. Have you read the book Busy by Tony Crabbe? It’s a excellent read.
But I think, in general, company culture promotes ‘busyness’ and IC pros aren’t immune to that.
I think that comes back to the point about always being at our desks—it’s easy to be busy with stuff but I think all good IC pros should be curious and interested in people. To me it’s about stopping yourself every now and again and looking beyond what’s right in front of you to find those extraordinary stories.
"All good IC pros should be curious and interested in people."
CG: I have not read that book but I think communicators let “busy” get in the way of their key function, which then interferes with being a great communicators. . . if that makes any sense.
HD: Yes, that makes sense.
I also think that as IC pros we need to be clearer what our roles are. We’re often ‘busy’ because we’re doing what stakeholders are asking, whether or not it’s our job or adding any real value. That then stops us being great communicators.
I sit on the CIPR Inside committee and the research we did last year found that while senior leaders value us as a function, they don’t truly understand it.
CG: Everyone wants to feel valued but you also need to deliver value. How or where do you think communicators can deliver the most value?
HD: It’s become a bit of a buzzword but being that trusted advisor is where we add the value. But to be specific about what that means, it’s being confident in what you do, challenging stakeholders and being able to hold your own in conversations—if you don’t understand what’s important to stakeholders, you can’t add meaningful value.
For example, if reputation is big on their agenda, how can you as an IC professional support that. The other way we add value is through supporting employees and facilitating employee voice.
"I think in an ideal world we’d be a lot closer to the table but I don’t think we have to be at it to have an impact."
CG: I wasn’t aware that you were on the CIPR Inside committee.
HD: Yes! It’s my second year on the committee.
CG: How important is volunteering and giving back to the profession for you?
HD: Very important. Volunteering has allowed me to learn so much and build a really strong network. That was what enabled me to set up my business as an independent internal communicator. And I’m really passionate about internal communication. I want to see it evolve and be a part of that evolution, and volunteering is a great way to support that.
CG: When it comes to storytelling, what makes a story compelling to employees? I think communicators can tell stories but struggle to make them compelling.
HD: A compelling story needs to be authentic, honest, and relatable—that’s why ordinary stories work so well, because we all see a bit of ourselves in it.
Just look at some of the best TV dramas—a favourite of mine is The West Wing—t’s not about the president or the government, but the ordinary people behind the scenes. There also needs to be a hook or emotional element to it in some way. People are interested in people, so put them front and centre of your story.
"We need to have more confidence and demonstrate the value we add in a way that no one can argue with."
CG: I love the idea of looking at external sources as an inspiration for internal content. It makes it relatable to employees and it’s also usually more creative than what they’re already doing.
HD: Absolutely. And so much of what goes on externally will impact employees so it makes sense to use that as inspiration.
What are people reading/viewing externally in their spare time is also worth considering when looking at the channels you’re using and the way you’re writing your stories. Telling a story in the style of The Times to people who mainly read Buzzfeed isn’t going to work, however good the story is.
You need to know your employees really well.
CG: I think that also speaks to tone, which is also important for communicators to get a good grasp of.
HD: Definitely. Tone-wise I think stories work best when people can write or speak authentically and not be restricted by the corporate tone of voice.
CG: Encouraging leaders to develop their tone and get involved in communication. Do you have any tricks or advice on getting leaders more engaged in communication?
HD: I think measurement is quite key. Being able to demonstrate the impact internal communication can be powerful in engaging with them.
I also think you have to put yourself in their shoes. Leaders can seem very intimidating but they’re human too—they might be insecure about the way they write, or they might be preoccupied with things like how they will leave a legacy. Building a really strong relationship with them where you understand them will help you to support them and help them see the benefit of communication—it comes back to being that trusted advisor.
CG: It all comes back to being that trusted advisor. Do you think that also means having a proverbial “seat at the table?”
HD: Haha, not necessarily.
This comes up at every conference. I think in an ideal world we’d be a lot closer to the table but I don’t think we have to be at it to have an impact. In the research CIPR Inside did last year, some leaders actually preferred we weren’t there as it allowed us to be more objective, challenge more effectively, and play devil’s advocate.They really valued that.
I think communicators sometimes have a chip on our shoulder and we need reinforcement that we’re adding value. We have some phenomenally talented people in our industry, we need to have more confidence and demonstrate the value we add in a way that no one can argue with.
"We need to be proactive and make things happen for ourselves."
CG: I think it’s funny that so much of IC is focused around furniture—seats at tables and employees at desks.
HD: Yes! It’s easy to get hung up on things like seats at tables—I think that whole debate makes us appear quite passive. Always waiting to be invited. We need to be proactive and make things happen for ourselves.
CG: If you could have one internal comms wish granted, what would it be?
HD: Ooh good question. It sounds a bit boring but I wish it was easier or there was more appetite to measure what we do effectively. I think that could be a real game changer. And by measurement, I mean demonstrating how we impact business. We all know internal communication is an enabler of employee engagement and that in turn can increase productivity, etc. But tangibly proving it can be difficult.
CG: Let’s wrap this up with a question that I’m really curious to hear what your answer is. Describe your thoughts on IC in emoji form.
HD: 😍 👐 💡 🎆 👂 🤹