The Art of Communication Design


Mel Seckington

Job title



DevRelCon London 2023

In the fourth instalment in this series, Melinda Seckington shares a freamework for designing intentional communication. Whether you’re planning a large-scale event or simply crafting an important email, understanding your goals, identifying your audience, and designing a clear communication plan are essential.

Watch this video of Mel’s talk from DevRelCon London 2023 to  dive into the strategies that will help you effectively convey your message and achieve your desired outcomes.

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Key themes

  • Communication is a daily activity that can always be improved
  • Effective communication requires deliberate design and understanding of the message’s impact
  • Communication plans should be tailored to the complexity of the situation and the specific needs of the audience
  • Messages should focus on key points, minimize distractions, and be clear and simple
  • Planning for unpredictability can be done by maintaining a single point of truth and having a FAQ document


Feu Morek:

And the next talk is going to be primarily about, well, the art of communication design and how to get better at that. So our speaker has been speaking at DevRelCon a few times already. This is the fourth installment. Now. She’s a senior engineer engineering manager, sorry, at Container Solutions. Maybe you’ve known her before. As the manager of developer advocacy team for Wikimedia Foundation or the engineering manager at FutureLearn. A warm welcome to Melinda Seckington.

Mel Seckington:

Okay. Hi everyone. Hello. So quick show of hands, who here has ever communicated something? So don’t be shy. Yeah, I know it’s not a trick question, but yeah. Everyone here has communicated something to someone at some point now who here has communicated something that they think they could have communicated better? So communication is something that we all do on a daily basis, and most of us know that there are times where we could have communicated better. So as developers, as developer evangelists, we communicate in so many different ways and in so many different channels. We do talks, we do presentations, we do workshops, demos, we send emails and slack messages. We have face-to-face meetings and one-on-ones, and we attend conferences like this. There are so many different ways that we communicate, but beyond that, we also have so many different people that we want to communicate with.

There’s lots of different languages, different cultures, different backgrounds. There are different ways of perceiving and interpreting messages. So you need to take the time to understand what it is you want to communicate so that you can design whether it will have the right impact. So yeah, hi everyone. As mentioned at the start of this, I’m Melinda Sington and I’m a senior engineering manager at Container Solutions. And previously I was an engineering manager at FutureLearn and the developer advocacy manager at the Wikimedia Foundation. In all of these roles, though, it’s been really important to coordinate effective comms. Anyhow, I’ve spoken here at DevRelCon in previous years, and this is the fourth time in the series of basically becoming better communicators. So the first time I spoke about how do you create effective slides, so how do you apply design theory to your slides? The second time I looked at how do you create effective talks?

So how do you apply design thinking to your talks? Then the third time I spoke about how to tell effective stories, and then this year the focus is, well, how can you in general just become a more effective communicator? So it’s all about how to design effective comms. So let’s take a step back and look at what communication actually is. In most cases, we define communication as a way to impart or exchange information through some medium. So how do we enable a more effective exchange of that information? So we need to be able to be more deliberate, more intentional with what we’re communicating to allow that exchange. And there are lots of things that require more designed communication. So the way I’ve applied this to my own work has often been when we know that we have something tricky or complex to communicate where we know we need to basically just take a step back and consider, well, how do we actually want to do this?

Things that require more than just an off the cuff email and the scope and size of these comms can vary a lot though. So on one side of the spectrum, you might have things like events like hackathons or conferences where the complexity and communication comes from coordinating the different types of messages that you need to send and the lead up to an event using different channels or speaking to different communities. And the coordination here might need to happen over weeks or months. On the other side, you might have things like internal team changes that you need to communicate really rapidly where you might only have a week to do the actual comms, but the complexity comes in planning. Who needs to know maybe staggering information, tweaking the messaging depending on who you’re talking to. In other cases, the complexity may come from dealing with sensitive information where it’s key that you’re only informing certain people or you really need to figure out how it will land with someone and what effect it might have on them.

So in all these cases though, it’s this idea that because you have complexity, it’s worth taking the time to take a step back and be deliberate in how you design what you’ll be communicating. It’s already the intent to increase understanding. You want to take the time to be deliberate and design your comms so that what you’re communicating will have a better effect. Now, you might be thinking, I don’t really have to deal with these type of complex communications. I’ve not really been in a position where I’ve had to do that, and I think that’s okay. Not every world will require this type of kind of thinking about comms, but I think especially in devel, there may be more situations where you can apply a bit more deliberate thinking about comms to what you do, even if it might not be as complex as some of the situations that I just described.

And also learning how to do this. Being prepared to apply this process will help ready you for when you ever do need to communicate something more complex. So what I want to talk about today are a couple of steps that you can take when thinking through something that you want to communicate. So to design effective comms that can be as big as planning outcomes over several months, like for an event or as small as writing a tricky email to your manager to tell them something that you’ve been dreading to tell them. So the four steps that we’ll be looking at are define your goals, identify your audience, design your comms plan, and design each message. So first, define your goals. So before doing anything else, your first step is to ask yourself, so what is your main goal? What is the purpose of your comms?

So this may seem like a given, but if you don’t take time to define this, that’s often when your comms can become messy, unclear, or just unfocused. Or what I’ve also seen is mixing up too many messages that aren’t really about the same thing. The first exercise is write down in a one-liner your main goal of what you want to do. Why are you planning on communicating something in the first place? And also think about whether there are secondary objectives. This will also help clarify whether it’s something that actually belongs and fits in with the main comms or whether it is actually something different. So here are a couple of examples just made up ones to show that, and they’re all just simple one-liners about the goal of the comms. The next step is asking, well, what I do is comms trying to achieve, and this may seem like the same question as the previous one, but what we want to do here is to determine what the effects of the comms will be.

So one way I like looking at this is to start with this concept from Steven McCarthy from the book Igniter Shift. So at the start of your comms, your audience will be in certain current state, and by the end of it, you want them in a specific desired state. So what effects will your comms have had? So this is about defining the desired outcomes. What is the angle of the message that you’re trying to get across? So next exercise is about defining the desired outcomes in a goal statement. So what effects will your comms have had and what angles should your message be focusing on? So again, here are a couple of contrived examples, but it really will depend on your comms on what you want to focus on here. And this is also where you can align your outcomes with your team goals or objectives or anything like that that you might already have set up.

So you can have several outcomes for a specific comms piece, but you do need to be careful with trying to do too much with one thing. He might also be really tempted to just immediately go into detail here and define specifics of specific pieces of communication. But right now in this exercise, we want to remain high level. There will be more exercises coming up where we really dive into the detail of specific messaging. And that brings us to the next section, identify your audience. So the question most times gets asked is, who is your target audience? But I think it’s more useful to ask who are your target audiences? So unless you’re planning your comms for one specific person, which I mentioned earlier, may well be the case, you’re more likely to be aiming or comms to multiple people. So I’m not saying that you need to consider every person individually, but be wary of making two large buckets for your audiences.

It’s very easy to generalize and not realize that by doing so, you’re missing nuances needed in your comms. So think about the subsets or the slices of groups that you are trying to target, what makes them distinct, and then think about what do they each need to know? How does that change with each group? What variations are there next to that, also think of the attributes and constraints of these groups. What is important to keep into account when designing comm for them? The next exercise is create an audience breakdown. So consider all the different groups that you want to target with your comms. Think of individuals, teams, communities, volunteers, stakeholders, execs. I can continue listing types of groups, but this will be super dependent on your context. Again, depending on your company or your team and the type of comms that you’re looking at, this might be something that you’ve already have defined.

You might already have user research available that can inform this, or you may already have some form of segmented data. If that’s the case, that’s great and use that. This is not about reinventing the wheel completely. This is about just considering who your audiences are. So here’s a very simple example. Rather than just considering all potential attendees of a hackathon, you can break it down to more tangible groups. So in this case, we’re looking at the potential origins of where the attendees might come from, how they might’ve come across the events. Another way of looking at it is at the different types of programming languages, maybe it’s more relevant to you to communicate in different ways to these specific subsets. There’s no one way of making subsets of your audience, and sometimes it helps just simply being aware of the various lenses that you can apply here. Think about the target audiences that make sense for what you want to communicate. Where are the differences and which differences do you need to be aware of and lead into? And this is going to be really important later on when you start trying to figure out, well, do I send a single message to all of these groups or do I send dedicated messages to each group? So then write out for each of these groups what the goal of the comms is for each of them. What do they specifically need to know?

And then write out the attributes and constraints for each target audience. So what do you need to take into account when designing your comms? So this could be things like, well, this specific community only interacts with us on IRC while this other community has a mailing list or discord. But this thing about what I mentioned in the intro, there’s lots of different languages, different cultures, different backgrounds of audiences that we may interact with. So how will these things affect the way that you communicate with people? What are the things that you need to be aware of here? So the next step is looking at what type of impact do you want on your audience? What is it that you’re trying to actually do with them? So I would like to look at this as what journey do you need to take them on?

So this is going back to Steven McGarvey’s concept of that current state. So a person’s current state consists of several things, their faults, their feelings, and their behaviors. And most of the time these are all related to each other. A person will think something that will lead them to feel something which will make them behave in a certain way. So what are they currently thinking, feeling, and doing? Now, this scenario also applies to the desired state. You want them to get them to think a certain way so that they feel a certain way so that they’ll behave a certain way. So you need to be thinking about how do you lead them there? What journey do you want to take your audience on to get someone to that desired state? So in this exercise, you want to create an audience journey overview. So I’ve mentioned this in previous presentations as a think, feel, do, overview. So how does your target audience currently think, feel, and do? And then how do you want your target audience to think, feel, and do after your comms?

So first, looking at current state. So think this is about how does your audience currently think? What beliefs, values, criteria do they have, feel? How do they currently feel and do what actions are they currently taking? What is driven by those thoughts and feelings? And then think about your desired state. So again, what do you want your audience thinking about? What mindset are you trying to change? Then how do you want them to feel? And then what actions do you want them to take? What new behavior do you want to see from them? Again, it really depends on the columns and you just how you fill this in. For some, you might only have one elements in one column. For others, you might have a row that really lines up nicely with things you want to do. It doesn’t really necessarily apply to every situation. The third area that we want to look about around target audience is what are their core needs?

So for this, we’ll be looking at the biceps model. So the biceps model is a model that Paloma Medina came up with, but I know it mainly through Lara Hogan’s blog posts about how to organize desk moves across engineering teams, and it basically looks at the six core needs that are important to humans in both their work and personal lives. So each of us will have our own individual order of these needs, and we might also have different orders for these needs depending on the situation. So the six biceps core needs are belonging. So this is about feeling connected, feeling part of a community improvement is about growth and progress. Choice is about having control, autonomy and flexibility over things. Equality is making sure that things are fair and equitable. Predictability, which is having certainty about when and how things are going to happen and significance.

And this is knowing how you fit in and what your purpose is. So there are nuances to all of these, and I’ve sped quite quickly through them, but this is worth taking a closer look at. So take the time to think about your target audiences and understand how their core needs might be affected by what you are communicating, because understanding their core needs will help shape how and what to communicate. Thinking about these will help frame and might give a different perspective on what you need to take into account and what information you might need to include. Now, not everything that you can communicate will have these core effects affected, but it’s useful to think about how what you’re communicating might affect someone’s needs. So next exercise is around audience needs. So write out your target audience’s needs. So which of these might be affected by what you want to communicate?

And then how could your comms help address these needs as well? So here’s a simple example. So let’s think about a situation where we’re sunsetting a service and we need to communicate that to users. People will likely be upset about it in different ways. Their core needs will be affected in different ways. For some people, it’ll be about belonging. They might not be able to connect with their friends anymore because they’re suddenly losing access to the service. For other people, it might be more about choice, the fact that they weren’t able to input into that decision. For others, it might be about predictability, not liking the fact that it might happen really soon. For others, it might be about significance, the fact that they weren’t important enough to be informed earlier. So it’s a bit of a contrived example here, but it’s to show that a certain action can have very different effects on the needs from different people, and your comms should be taking that into account when communicating something.

So putting that all together, you’ll have a good overview of your audience, you understand who they are and what they need to know. You understand what they currently think, feel, and do in their audience journey, and you’ll understand their core needs. So now that we’ve defined the goal of our comms and we’ve got a lot of information about our target audience, the next step is designing an actual comms plan. So first I want to revisit that concept that it’s about coordinating complexity. Your comms plan is all about making it easier for you to coordinate what you’ll be communicating. And this needs to be optimized for your context. You need to design your comms plan in a way that will help reduce the complexity of your specific context. So this is going back to what I said at the start of the talk. So it might mean that the complexity comes from having multiple audiences and having to coordinate the different messages that you’re sending to each of these audiences.

Maybe these messages need to be staggered, delivered in a specific order where it makes sense for a certain group to be formed to be informed before others. It might mean that you have multiple audiences, but you want to send the same message to them, and that message needs to work for those different audiences. Maybe it’s the same target audience, but you need to reach them in different ways on different channels. So where the message needs to be tailored for each channel, where there’s only a certain length of message that you can use for each channel, or maybe it’s about multiple messages planned out over a set piece of time, delivering different time sensitive information, or maybe it’s about all of these different things combined, making it a lot more complex and messy to follow. So think about what type of complexity do you have? How does it apply to your specific context?

And then within that complexity, it’s all about providing the right information at the right time to the right people. So understand how you want to design the flow of information. So this means planning what messages you need to send. So the next exercise is first deciding a framework of a comms plan for your specific concept. So I could share, I’ll be sharing a couple of examples of how I’ve done it in the past, but the main thing to think about is what works for you. There are multiple templates out there. Have a look if those work for you, but also be prepared to change them for what works for you and your team. So what is the trickiest thing to coordinate? Is it the timing of the messages? Is it the audience of the messages, the channels that you’re using, the person who needs to do descending are certain parts dependent on each other.

So I think a lot of examples that I’ve used so far have been informing people about something. But going back to the beginning of the talk, remember that comms is also about the exchange of information. Often, it’s not just only the broadcasting of information, it can be bidirectional. That exchange can also make the coordination complex. Are you actually waiting for the other parties, the audiences to respond with something? So take that also into account when you’re building up your comms plans and then look at the comms plan framework and plan out all the specific messages that you need to send. So what needs to happen when and who is doing what?

Here’s a made up example, but based on the format that I’ve used previously. So it’s a simple comms plan for an event where messaging needs to go out over multiple channels over a span of several weeks. The focus of the comms plan here is on the timing, the channels, the progress of the different messages, whether or not someone has approved it or not, whether or not has been scheduled, and who’s owning that piece. So it’s about visualizing the coordination of those specific event elements. Here’s another example based on the format that I’ve also used in a different team where we had to communicate to two teams that they were being merged and making sure that we staggered the conversations there in the right way. So here the focus was really on the timing. So the who and how to have coordinated messaging by different people, making sure that each owner of that piece of information is covering the same pieces of data to get across. So keep in mind that it really doesn’t matter what format this is in, whether it’s a spreadsheet, a Google doc, a Jira board, it’s about visualizing what makes sense for your team.

So the final section is about designing each individual message. So as we touched on earlier, messages can come in all different formats. You can have messages in text, so emails, slack or I RC messages, stuff like that. You can have messages in person through talks or workshops or meetings. And each of these are quite different and they need different approaches. And I’m not going to be able to talk about every single one here because each of those could be its own talk. In fact, that’s what my slide design talk was actually about how to do that within your slides. But I want to try to touch on some general tips and advice to keep in mind when designing messaging. So again, let’s start with specifying what the goal is of this specific message.

So in this exercise, you write down for that specific message, the things that are most important, who’s the target audience or audiences, what is the channel or the format, and what are the goals and outcomes? So these are all things that you’ve thought of before. Previously for the overarching arms. Now we want to do it specifically for this message. So what do you need to get done with this specific message? The key thing about all of this is ensuring that your comms have the right impact. So to me, this is about reducing cognitive load. This is the amount of mental activity required to accomplish a goal.

So this definition comes from this book, universal Principles of Design, great resource book. I recommend checking it out. And in the book we find this quote about cognitive load. So design should minimize cognitive load to the greatest degree possible. So how do you make it easier to consume your message? How do you reduce that cognitive load? So one good principle to keep in mind here is maximize signal, minimize noise. So this principle comes from the theory of signal to noise ratio. So this is the concept that in every type of communication, there’s a certain amount of relevant information to us, the signal and a certain amount of irrelevant information to us, the noise and good design, we want to maximize the signal and minimize the noise. So how do we maximize signal by focusing on the key points. So keep it short, easy to understand.

Help your audience understand what the key messages are, and this will be different per medium, per channel, the way you focus on something within talks and within your slides. It’s going to be different from when you are writing a slack message, but you need to consider are you doing your best to get across what is most important? So one thing you need to consider here is remember what you pulled together in the previous sections around the audience breakdown journey and needs. So does your message take each of these into account? These need to be a part of your key points. For instance, the core needs. Remember the example of sun setting a service. Consider whether your specific message could address any of the core needs that would’ve been affected.

So how do we minimize noise by reducing distractions? So to me, this is about removing ambiguity, making your messages clear and simple. Think about what words or sentences you’re using that could be interpreted in different ways. If you ask 10 people to describe what a dog looks like, they’re all going to use different words. Consider whether what you’re saying could be interpreted in another way. And one way, way of focusing on key points as well as reducing distractions is by chunking information. So group together the information that belongs together and that can be digested together. And this is again, going to be applied differently depending on the format. For slides, it’s about having one key message per slide, keeping information that belongs together in different sections of your talk. In text or in email or webpages. You can use headings and bullet points to provide clarity and structure to your message.

In conversations, you can plan out different parts of topics to discuss. So it’s all about designing the flow of information in your message. And finally, it’s keep it simple. So use common words, keep sentences short, avoid jargon. And also you use the vocabulary that your audience is already using and use consistent wording. So final exercise is message prep. So identify your key information. What does this specific message need to get across to your audience? Then define your chunks of information, what belongs together, and then design the flow. How do you want your information to be consumed? So here’s an example of a not well thought out email. It’s not bad, but it’s also not designed. So reading through it, just consider what is the key information? What are the audience journey and needs? So to me, what is important is in this example that the hackathon takes place on this date, at this location, you also want people to remember to bring along a printout and an id, and you don’t want to surprise people thinking about their needs about there being security checks and back checks.

So here’s a cleaner version, just simplified language and uses headers and sections to make it really clear what information you need to convey. Again, just a simple made up example, but consider all these things when designing your messaging. So those are four steps to designing more intentional comms. Define your goals, identify your audience, design your comms plan, and design each message. So I’m hoping that with these steps, you all are more prepared to look at your comms and be more deliberate with what you’re communicating. So once I leave you with one final food for thought, the steps I described are mostly applied in situations where I knew something complex was coming up and I had the time to plan out and design how to do this. Where it’s been most useful though, is where something last minute has happened, and I’ve had to put a course plan together like this very rapidly for something so that we could coordinate it within the team very, very quickly. And it helps having had the time earlier to try out these steps and figure out what types of comps plans work for your context. So the next time that you need to communicate something, even if it’s something small or less complex, remember these steps, take the time to reflect on what it is you want to say, who to say it to and how to say it.

Thanks for listening.

Audience member:

So we again, have time for one or two questions if there are some from the audience. So thank you for the talk. Melinda, what do you do when complexity is about stuff being adaptive and things happening that you did not predict? So how do you prepare for unpredictable stuff and is there a way to build for that?

Mel Seckington:

Yeah, so the question was how do you plan for unpredictable stuff in my, I think it depends on what type of unpredictability you’re thinking of. I think how I’ve used these comms plans in the past is using it primarily as a single point of truth for a lot of what we do. So if things come up during that process that we realized the other person needs to take into account when we’re trying to coordinate a sort of message going out, we can write notes on it, or we’ll use Slack to coordinate to keep people up to date as to what the most relevant up-to-date information is. The other thing, what I’ve also used is kind of as a side doc to the comms plan is things like frequently asked questions. What are the questions that people might have coming out of the comms that we do so that we have something to fall back on and build up over time with information that we might only discover later on?

So I think it depends on the type of unpredictability, but I definitely think the more that you think about this, the better it works. There’s a really good book, I can’t remember the author’s name, but it’s about crisis communication. So that’s actually all about how to communicate in big crisises. So when things really go wrong, how do you communicate in that environment? And that book really goes into detail about planning out your comms, but also planning out doing test drives of things going wrong basically, and trying it out. So yeah, I think there are certain different ways to do of it.


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