Pause and Think: A 30-minute Exercise to Find the Right Comms Path Forward

by Angela Pontarolo

In the wake of the pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn, our inboxes, social media feeds, and brains have been peppered (then saturated) with an abundance of guidance for communicators.

What’s often missing in this guidance is how the writer arrived at a conclusion. How did they get there? What were the series of steps in between to determine that best next step? How can you find the most efficient way to layout an issue — while simultaneously thinking through all of the elements?

When a PR challenge arises — from forming a critical internal communication to employees to striking the right tone and timing for a key company announcement to timing for a major pivot in comms strategy — finding the optimal pathway to a decision is key. This is especially true today with the myriad unknowns.

Enter the “pause and think framework.” Influenced by my early career days at Chegg where I was guided in a similar process by CEO Dan Rosensweig, this has evolved for the communications practitioner and become my tech-free go-to exercise when stuck. If it sounds counterintuitive to the quick hits aligned with the comms practice, think again. Instead, it’s forming a practice on a regular basis to streamline what’s rumbling around in your head, then creating space in the day to get those thoughts out on paper to formulate proper next steps.

Think of this also as a 30-minute break from your computer with a chance to use colorful pens and quite literally draw solutions to your problem – on paper. College-ruled? Moleskin dots? Classic 8’ x 11” printer paper? You pick. And grab a timer while you’re at it.

And if you’re thinking you don’t possibly have time to do any of this plus other work and personal commitments, try to reframe this offline exercise to a long-term time-saving technique geared toward helping out your future self.

Ok, here’s what you’ll need:

A brewing communication problem
30 distraction-free minutes
One piece of paper
Colorful pens (why not?)
A quiet, computer-free zone

Now, think of the problem at hand. Have you been asked to create a strategy to announce difficult internal news that affects a portion of the company? Do you want to shift your social media strategy to fit the needs of the organization? Are there stakeholders who need to better understand what you’re saying and why?

Grab your piece of paper and write down these three questions, knowing the second question – where you’ll outline tactics – will take up the most room.

  1. What is the challenge you’re facing?
  2.  What are the steps to address this challenge?
  3. What, in this climate, are the keys to success?

Then, set your timer for 30 minutes and, with an unfiltered writing flow, respond to these questions, using the outlined considerations. Try to keep this to a half-hour — max. You may finish quicker than this, but don’t worry, the goal is to put down your first response on paper without too much thought — rather first reactions.

  1. What is the challenge you’re facing?
    Create a 1-2 sentence response, the clearer the better
    Include the target audiences and key stakeholders in your statement

2. What are the steps to address this challenge?
How could this decision positively or negatively affect the organization in the long-term? In the short term?
What are all of the tactics that might work to achieve what we’re trying to solve?
What sensitivities are present?
Who are the stakeholders who need to know and why?
Which employees can help with this?

3. What, in this climate, are the keys to success?
Data-driven?
Anecdotal?
When do we need to meet this success metric?

After you’ve finished the exercise, use the last 5 minutes to identify and fill your blind spots. Think about the key stakeholders at hand and the success metrics outlined. Put yourself in their place and try to imagine what solutions would make the most sense to them and then address these under the framework of the three questions. Then, before you finish the project, send a Slack or email to a few trusted coworkers who can help you fill out blindspots you may not see.

How do you find a blind spot? Try to visualize yourself in the spot of each audience receiving a message or at the subject of the topic at hand. Then, ask yourself, how could this work? What would be a realistic response if I was this person/stakeholder? Did my tactics outlined in question two respond to this?

Then, after you’ve sent a note or two to your coworkers, or a reminder to yourself to revisit in the morning, put the piece of paper aside.

Let this brew overnight, if you can. Revisit this in the morning after you’ve taken an evening to think, infusing any meaningful coworker input you’ve received over the evening.

Once some of those pieces start to fit together in your head or ever on your paper, grab your computer and build out a full plan.

This 30-minute exercise will help frame a comms quandary move you from questions to action – all overnight.

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About the Author

Angela Pontarolo is VP of Sparkpr’s Venture Capital and Emerging Tech Practice. She has over a decade of communications and integrated marketing experience working with Fortune 500 companies, executives, VCs and startup founders.