Checklists are not a substitute for brand communication

The Wall Street Journal once published an article about people who keep to-do lists. It caught my attention as I am forever carrying around a list of things to do and consider it a small victory every time I check off one of those tasks as done.


One of the points the article made was that some people get neurotic about checking things off their list. For example, if they've done everything on their list, they will add a couple of things just so they can feel like there is something left to accomplish.


So checklists can be useful, but they can also be used in neurotic ways.


This brings me to the use of checklists in professional communications.


On the one hand, these checklists can be a powerful tool for getting things done, especially in organizations that are relatively undisciplined about project management, or that experience frequent misunderstandings about timelines and deadlines. Having a list that everyone can refer to reduces conflict in two ways. First, it keeps people focused on an external, objective task, rather than on each other (what she said or he said, who is supposed to do what, why they will or won't do what they're supposed to do, etc.). Second, it reduces misunderstandings by clearly documenting roles, responsibilities, and timelines.


On the other hand, checklists can actually lead to the organization avoiding communication. Because the communication team can easily set up a checklist that makes it look like communication has happened, when in fact nothing of any significance has taken place. (Remember, the message must be received and understood, if not acted upon, in order to be worthy of the term "communication.")


Here is an example of what I'm talking about:


Checklist for Project X Communication Initiative


__Send e-mail to all managers today

__Hold all-employee webcast next week

__Follow up with telephone recording of webcast a day later

__Post summary to intranet in two weeks

__Place article in employee newsletter next month


Let's say you accomplish all of these tasks, but people still don't know what is going on. How is that possible, you say? Well, in this fictitious example:


  • Most of the managers deleted the email without reading it.
  • Half the employees didn't watch the webcast, and the other half didn't understand what the CEO was trying to say.
  • Nobody ever goes to the intranet except when they are forced to visit a specific link for benefits information or something like that.
  • Most people read the humorous parts of the employee newsletter and disregard the rest.


So you need more than just a checklist to make the communication happen.


What can you do?


I'd say, keep the checklist, but add four tasks to it:


  • Concept testing: Run the communication past a few people before you send it to everyone.
  • Refinement: Based on early feedback, edit the content of the message, or the style in which it is delivered.
  • Measurement: Find out 1) how many people received the message 2) how they understood the message and 3) whether they intend to act on it in the way you want.
  • Feedback sharing: Make the results of your measurement public. This demonstrates your confidence, builds your credibility, and motivates you to improve your performance.


Are you scared by the idea of really measuring the effectiveness of your communication, let alone making the results public? Of course you are! Traditional business writing (and speaking) is absolutely boring, not to mention difficult to understand. This is no secret to anyone, but the situation continues because communication senders stubbornly insist on ignoring how their messages are received.


As long as communicators fail to measure how their words are received, and pretend that checklists are a good-enough substitute, the people on the receiving end of their words will continue to ignore, misinterpret, and poke fun at the mix of buzzwords, clich├ęs, and jargon that pass for the transmission of actual meaning from one human being to another.