Eating the elephant

When you are presented with a task or challenge of elephantine proportions, that at first seems insurmountable, how can you tackle it and what lessons can be learnt from the experience?

Today is a big day for me. The new version of the post-graduate internal communication certificate course I am the course leader for, is now available for new students to enrol on.

For the last few months I’ve had my head in the text books updating the course content and repackaging it into an ‘on demand’ format for a new digital learning platform. It has been a big task, and I have to say, a bit of a learning curve. I hope that all the effort has been worthwhile and that the students enrolling today, and in the coming months and years, will enjoy working through the course materials and emerge as better internal communicators overall, as well as achieving a professional qualification.

As I scoped out the work to recreate the course at the beginning of this year, the enormity of the task that emerged was a bit overwhelming and somewhat daunting. Taking a step back, I reminded myself of that famous quote once cited by the late Desmond Tutu:

“There is only one way to eat an elephant…………a bit at a time”

As a professional communicator, what have I learnt or been reminded of whilst eating this particular elephant?

I think that there are three main things.

Experience is all

When putting together something like a course of study, the obvious place to start is with the content. But content is nothing and just a ‘bunch of stuff’ if it isn’t brigaded and synthesised into some kind of experience.

I worked as a communicator in higher education for a while, and one of the things which constantly and rightly preoccupies the HE sector is ‘the student experience.’ So, this was a natural starting point for me when thinking about how to shape the redesigned course.  

It’s a similar challenge to designing and organising an event for employees. Like most other internal communicators, I’ve delivered quite a few employee events in my time. Most of the stakeholders and senior leaders I’ve worked with when doing this have almost always started by focusing on what they want to ‘tell’ employees. In other words what the content would look like and who would come up with it. I have always tried to steer them away from this as a starting point.

It is better to start with what you want the event experience to be like for employees and to think about how this links to the objectives of presenting the event in the first place. Then think about what content you will need to achieve both of these things.

Content never comes first in communication planning (or planning a course of study). Establishing the experience you want to create, and setting the objectives needed to achieve this, is all.

Objectives, objectives, objectives

Communication without having an objective in mind is usually a waste of everyone’s time. Similarly, learning without having an objective has no real context, meaning or purpose.

So, one of the first bites of the elephant was to use the existing course syllabus to create a long list of learning objectives for the students which were eventually packaged into course lessons and which provided the context for the content creation. This guided the subsequent bites of putting the content together within the lessons and helped to make sure that each lesson supported the others.

The objectives literally became the glue which cements the whole course together.  

As the bites of the elephant became a meal and then a banquet, I was glad that I’d spent the time up front really thinking about what learning objectives the students working through the course would need to achieve. It made the whole task of recreating the course so much easier, and I hope this thinking will also help those who come to study it.

Updating and redesigning the course has been a powerful reminder that setting objectives is essential for successful communication planning and implementation, and without them acting as the glue, the communication plan is often doomed to fall apart and fail.     

Theory needs practice and practice needs theory

During a very tetchy meeting a senior manager once said to me ‘I don’t want to hear the theory, I just want to see results.’

I think that this was the last time that I ever presented a communication plan to a bunch of senior managers by starting with the comms theory. Take a tip from me, it’s a big of turn-off for them and they usually just want you to get to the punchline (and comms plan) quickly and then leave the room!

However, whether senior managers want to hear about it or not, theory is important for what we do as communicators. Without theory as a guide to shape internal communication practice in relevant circumstances, what we do as practitioners can sometimes feel like the blind leading the blind.

One of my challenges in redesigning the course has been to strike a balance between theory and practice and not have so much of the former that everyone glazes over, like my senior management chums all those years ago, and enough of the latter to make the course practical and immediately useful.  

How we bring theory to life, by translating it into practice, is a real skill for internal communicators (and those of us who teach the subject) and something which is tested in the course assignment.

You can’t have good practice without theory, and theory needs practice for it to have any real-world relevance.

What next….

Now that this particular elephant has been eaten, I’m looking out for the next one. Whatever it looks like and however big it is I’ll be sure to consume it ‘a bit at a time’.

What initially looks daunting and unachievable isn’t if you take it step by step.  

This is perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve been reminded of from my recent experience.


I am the PR Academy Course Leader for their CIPR Internal Communication Certificate course.

It’s only fair to mention that there are also other providers of CIPR qualification courses.


Image credit – Martin Flegg

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