Organizational change — why it lives and dies by how well you know your audience

Any major organizational transformation or strategic initiative requires consistent, quality communication. Your people need to be informed about what changes are coming, when they’re happening, and how those changes will affect them, as well as what the status of the various moving parts are as the change program unfolds. 

But it isn’t enough to simply communicate or share the strategy at an all-hands meeting or via mass emails. You also need to humanize it for your audience. And to make them a meaningful part of that story, you need to start by truly knowing and understanding them.

Knowing your audience well not only helps you hone your message to the most useful and actionable information, it also makes the message more meaningful to more people, and allows your audience to see themselves in it. They will be instrumental in the change, so they’ll need to know how they fit in.

Identify your audience

You will have multiple audiences. At the highest level, audience segmentation likely includes leadership, management, and individual contributors. There will be segments within these audiences, as well. This does not mean you create and disseminate dozens or hundreds of customized messages. It means that by splitting them into smaller, defined groups — each with their own concerns and roles to play — it becomes easier to understand their needs and how they may react to the change (and easier to combine like groups in specific messaging).

There will be more individual contributors than leadership and management combined. This makes it crucial for leadership to be fully aligned before implementation. This allows management to fully understand what their teams need to do during implementation, so those individuals can fully appreciate the change and their roles in implementing the transformation. 

The variety of functions at the contributor level means that different strategies or mediums may be needed so you can connect with groups in the channels that matter to them. It also means that some groups will be impacted more or less than others, and require more or less information.

When you don’t consider the different audience stakeholders you risk putting out too much or irrelevant information, and losing attention and engagement. You also risk putting out too little, leaving those affected in a fog of confusion with little to no information (or motivation!) to contribute in meaningful ways.

So, with your message in mind, start by answering these baseline questions:

  1. Who is the audience or audiences for this communication?
  2. How will they be affected by this change?
  3. What action do I want them to take?

This framework is the first step in narrowing down and gaining insight into your audience. For each audience member you identify in the first question, you should have a specific action in mind to answer the following questions.

This exercise will allow you to have a better sense of who you’re talking to. You can better identify what questions need to be answered for those groups to take the desired actions.

Empathize with your audience

Now it’s time to try to get inside your audience’s heads. There are a number of exercises you can employ, and one we use often at Tremendousness is Empathy Mapping.

For each audience member you’ve identified, draw a head and surround it with segments, each containing one of these words: Thinking, Seeing, Saying, Doing, Hearing, Feeling. To optimize the communications, include a foundation or sidebar labeled “Do”. You can do this on a whiteboard, a large flipchart, or even a single sheet of paper.

In each of those segments answer the following questions:

What is that audience member thinking about the coming change?

  • What are they seeing?
  • What are they saying?
  • What are they doing?
  • What are they hearing from others?
  • How are they feeling?

And finally…

  • What do we need them to do?

Of course, you need to know the real answers to these questions, so involving SMEs who might not otherwise be part of the change strategy is important. Because if you answer the questions on various groups’ behalfs, all you have is your perspective. These groups are not deciding what to say about the change — they are helping you decide what to say so your comms can have the greatest possible positive impact.

Empathy Mapping exercises often bring a lot of energy to the room — whether IRL or virtual. In our sessions, we’ve seen participants have fun playing out the most negative and positive thoughts and feelings a given audience may have. And while the more negative responses may be given in jest or with a wry smile, they almost always bear a kernel of truth that will be valuable to know going forward.

Being able to put yourself in the audience member’s shoes will help humanize them by  identifying and acknowledging their worries and concerns about the coming change. This gives you insight into what you should cover in your communication and how to address it.

Communicate to your audience

There are two parts to developing your message: choosing what to say and choosing how to say it.

What to say

Throughout the process of creating your message, always keep your audience in mind by regularly checking your messaging against the audience you identified. 

If you’re uncertain whether a piece of information should be included, ask yourself “Will this matter to audience X? Does it answer their questions? Does it enable them to take action?”

For example, is your audience at the executive level? They probably aren’t as interested in details as they are in outcomes. Is your audience ‘in the field’? They’ll want to know where exactly they fit in, what will be different, and how those changes will directly impact them.

How to say it

Take what you’ve learned about your audience and identify the best medium for the message. Is it an email? A poster? A guide? A slide deck? A series of meetings with managers? It’s likely a combination of these things. Knowing your audience and key use cases will help you sequence the messaging to get the most engagement.

Someone in leadership positions may want things summed up in just a few slides, with an understanding of how to make the change real for their teams, and a picture of what this new future should look like.

Those in general staff positions might benefit more from a conversation with their leader around targeted materials like infographics or videos, combined with follow-on materials with extra detail tailored to them.

Achieving the change

Throughout the change goals and targets will shift. It’s critical to keep your message alive through supplemental updates and stories. Use your knowledge of and empathy with your audience to keep that messaging targeted and actionable.

The success of any organizational change hinges not just on the strategy itself, but also on the effectiveness of communicating that strategy. By deeply understanding and empathizing with your audience, identifying their needs and concerns, and tailoring your message to engage them directly, you create a fertile ground for change. 

Remember, the goal is not only to communicate the change, but to inspire your people to become catalysts and active participants in the change journey. Through this shared experience, change becomes less of a top-down directive and more a collective, agile evolution.