Communication is a critical skill for effective change management, whether you’re leading change for an organization, a department, or for your family.  Professor Ellen Auster shares five common mistakes and 6 success principles for effective change communication, including embracing the politics, collective visioning, using mantras, building change fitness and focusing on relationships.


References & Links

Professor Ellen Auster

Books by Ellen Auster


Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki


Interview Transcript

 Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much for joining us, Ellen.

Professor Ellen Auster: I’m so happy to be here. Delighted to do this with you, Andrea.

AW: me too. Today we’re going to be talking about communicating change and specifically leading change. So I thought we should start with a definition. Can you define change leader for us, please?

EA: In my mind change leader is someone who inspires others, they spark their passion, and sort of unleash their potential to bring new ideas to life. It’s interesting, catalyzed by us doing this podcast, I started thinking more explicitly about change and communication and realizing that really conversation and talking are the engines of change.

AW: Wow. That’s why we’re here.

EA: That’s why we’re here. And you know, whether that’s in our families trying to enroll others to think about our next vacation or whether it’s as change leaders transforming tech in the workplace, we all do change all the time, day in and day out. Big change, little change. And really how do we get going on that? And how do we stay on track? And how do we make it happen? It’s through conversations.

AW: Exactly. Change really is so difficult yet, it’s so necessary. I’ve heard this from other podcast guests about how if you’re not changing, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’re not really living. And yet, it’s really difficult for many of us and including myself. The default is status quo, because it’s easier. Can you talk a little bit about the significance of it and why change is so difficult?

EA: I think change is difficult because we are creatures of habit. On the one hand, we love routine, we love stability. We like patterns, right? But at the same time, if we’re stuck in patterns stuck in routine, we get bored, we get disinterested, we feel like we’re not growing. So it’s this paradoxical relationship between craving both – stability and growth and with growth is usually change.

AW: You say in your book that change fitness is the critical foundational skill.

EA: Yeah, it’s interesting like 20 years ago, when you think about organizations, it was more about big leaping change that they would plan for three years and then roll out a five year plan and it was like an eight year cycle. And the reality of today’s marketplace, but also today’s life for us, just as individuals, is the change is constant. And so change fitness is really about getting comfortable with navigating all of that uncertainty and ambiguity while still finding a path and knowing when it’s too much and we need to pause but also knowing when we need more and are excited about trying new things.

AW: Completely agree. Change cycle has been truncated. It’s happening more frequently, and the output is relevant for a shorter period of time.

EA: yes, it becomes obsolete quickly, whatever we’re doing, which is why we need to go back to the idea of change fitness, build our change muscles, if you think about the analogy to physical fitness. So a lot of what we do is about helping people navigate this change on the one hand, but also build those skills and capabilities.

AW: So I definitely want to hear about all of those skills. But first, maybe it’s a little more fun to talk about what are some of the most common mistakes that people make when they’re managing change?

EA: Yeah, I do think these pitfalls work either individually or with teams or with whole organization. So one of the first ones we see is this tendency under time pressure, and the need to be more efficient to steamroll forward. So we’re all faced with tons of pressure. Rather than really understanding our context, we steamroll forward. It’s definitely one pitfall, the second is telling and selling the change rather than inspiring and engaging and whether that’s we need to move to San Francisco or whether it’s you know what, grab your basketball right now on because we’re out the door because we’re running late, that kind of directive language doesn’t resonate very well, for most of us.

AW: I say that!

EA: We all do under time pressure, and we’re trying to get out the door. And so that’s about explaining the why and really inspiring and engaging. The third one is lock and load. So we’re struggling to solve a problem or a change challenge, the first good idea that comes up, we start a lock and load on that rather than really exploring alternatives. And sometimes that makes sense. I mean, sometimes we do want to actually just do the first good thing that comes to mind for choosing a restaurant and someone has a great idea. Sure, we’ll jump on the first restaurant. But if we’re thinking about more massive organizational changes or even high impact family events, like vacations, you know, we really want to explore alternatives. The fourth one is politics. The politics are scary for most of us, we tend to think about them as taboo. We don’t talk about the politics, and we pretend they’ll go away, but they won’t. One of the things we focus on is really a systematic approach, thinking about stakeholders and various reactions to change and how we can work with people.

AW: A systematic approach to dealing with the politics specifically?

EA: Yeah.

AW: Okay. I love that point about politics, because you’re right, it’s, I was thinking a dirty word, but it is taboo, isn’t it? I mean, even to put it on the table as a topic of discussion will make a lot of people nervous, right?

EA:  Even on an agenda. Let’s talk about the politics of this initiative. The first reaction is usually – oh I don’t know, that seems, you know, scary and how do we do that without creating more resistance?

AW: this is a bit of a digression. But how do you define politics in that context? So I can imagine you consulting to a group and saying, okay, we need to talk about the politics here and someone says, whoa, what do you mean?

EA: Yeah, so politics really is stakeholder engagement and all the varieties of that. And that kind of definition usually makes people feel more comfortable too, right?

AW: Absolutely.

EA: But in that spectrum of reactions to change, there’s resistance, there’s jockeying for power. And so to be quite explicit about those kinds of challenges and think about also what do people need, you know, what’s in it for them? for one person, it may be the power. And so can we actually provide some power that will help enroll them. For somebody else? It might be you know, what? I just want to see an impact. I want to see that the customer is impacted by this. It’s really about also drilling down to the individual level to think about what the compelling why at the individual level.

AW: So motivations?

EA:  Yeah. And then there’s one more which is one of the common mistakes and change is just way too much change all at the same time, and overwhelming and people burnout. The change fatigue problem.

AW: Okay, so I just want to say for the listeners that we’ve now pretty quickly gone through five common mistakes, steamrolling forward telling and selling, lock and load, ignoring the politics and burning ourselves out. And all of these with notes are included in the show notes if you go to So my next question for Ellen is regarding her most recent book: STRAGILITY. What is Stragility?

EA: Yeah, good question. So Stragility actually is a word I invented early one morning when I was typing strategic agility too fast. And it wasn’t auto corrected yet. And that word popped up and I went, Ooh, I like that word, right. And so that’s its origins, but it’s really about being Strategic, which makes sense. Agile, which of course is a really common word. But the third element which we couldn’t figure out how to put into the word is really the People Powered aspect. In the end, all change is about all of us rallying to do something different. And without that people component we don’t get very far.

AW: So this is not about personal change necessarily. This is about some sort of team, some sort of unit, a corporation, family, couple, right?

EA: That’s true, although it’s funny. I’ve had MBA students circle back and say, I used to agility this morning, my car broke down on the highway, and I…

AW: really?

EA:  Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And I actually have had some nudges from people on thinking about using the same framework and approach we use for agility to map career agility.

AW: Wow.

EA: So I do think it resonates at any level of analysis, whether that’s individual, team, group, organization, the book is focused more on leading organizations. But I think a lot of the principles actually work at multiple levels.

AW:  I’m glad I asked that because I would have assumed that it was mostly focused on corporations, but then also personal but you’re right, I could overlay this. Yeah.

EA: Interesting question.

AW: So in thinking about this podcast, I am so grateful that you generated six success principles in change communication. And I’m wondering if you can take the listeners through those?

EA:  Sure, it was a fun exercise to step back, because communication is not usually my main hat that I wear, you know, and so to step back and say if the emphasis is really on communication, what would I say are some essential elements? and the first is that shared ownership piece. I am such an avid believer of enrolling, whoever is being impacted or representatives of those constituencies right from the beginning so often and change I think, whether it’s parents in their bedroom at night, planning the next whatever for their family, or the executive team of an organization, the initial steps happen behind the scenes behind closed doors, and then there’s this tendency to then roll it out and roll it out looks good from the top or as parent, but roll it out doesn’t feel so good typically for the rest of the organization and the family. So having shared ownership from the start, and what does that look like? You know, that’s really about starting the conversations very early on. It’s providing opportunity for everyone to shape and mold as we go. And everyone can get involved. That’s a whole other conversation around if we do everyone co-creating fully all the time, it’s very time-consuming. So it might be reps, there may be representatives.

AW: Yeah. So I have an off script question here for you about that. I’ve been involved in organizations at a board level or at a corporate level where they’ve been interested in initiating change. And they brought in groups and you hear this undertone of, oh, they’re just checking the box because they need a board member here. They need a whatever – an executive in this department an executive in that department and a lay person. How do you communicate that this isn’t just checking boxes?

EA: I think it’s the process underlying the role of those representatives. And that’s about are they given the opportunity to actually go back to their groups, whatever the nature of those groups are, and ask questions, get input and given a voice at the table, because often those reps are at the table, but they don’t really have a voice. Yes, you can have reps but behind that there should be some kind of cascading process, that iterating information back and forth from the larger group into that portal of the top executive boardroom, if it’s, you know, a board situation because otherwise you will get the pushback: How is a representative chosen and be they’re not really our spokesperson. So that’s where I also like people having an option to choose who sits at the table and it may not always be the same person, even over the course of a change. So early in the change process, it may make sense to have some individuals and later in the change process, a different set of individuals. I love having front lines in that room later on, because they’re the ones that really understand how the change will have a real impact.

AW: Yeah, right. I can see how complicated this gets.  I’m thinking of the politics.

EA: Yes, politics. It’s actually complicated but also simple in the sense of that shared ownership piece.

AW: It seems like common sense, but it’s not easy.

EA: Oh, it’s not easy and easy to forget under time pressure and deadlines and quarterly reports and ….  Around the idea of shared ownership, there’s sort of two elements. One is enrolling those we know and those beyond our inner circle to really assess the landscape, both in our industry but also on the periphery to get ideas that we might reapply. A good example is a hospital that we worked with. And so of course, they were looking at leading best practices in patient care from other hospitals, but also looking at the periphery. So what can we learn from leading hotels about how to make in this case it was kids, how to make kids feel really comfortable when they have to come back again and again, like for chronic illnesses, and also look at even beyond hotels to what can we learn about mindfulness and meditation that might help with healing and pain management. That’s about really looking externally. And usually we know people, if we if we have a circle of   whoever is the central tribe of the change, most of those people will have somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. So it’s more than just scanning conventional leading practices, you might find an industry analyst and really talking to people about how they do what they do. And then on the shared ownership from the start. The second huge element is sort of the internal diagnostics and really asking people for what are the pain points with how we currently do things? What ideas do you have for how to eliminate those pain points moving forward, as well as strengths, what do we do well, that we don’t want to destroy and change. So often in change in the process, we undermine maybe some of our key capabilities, talking to those who are going to be impacted and those who will be responsible for the change about really what are the underlying pain points and strains as well as anticipating hiccups and hurdles? Right with whatever it is.

AW:  Is it almost like doing a SWOT?

EA: Well, it is, and I like the language of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. What I don’t like about the weakness idea is often we don’t get to the underlying why behind the weakness and if we just call it out as a weakness, we can we end up solving the wrong problem. We’re treating symptoms rather than getting to the core. So if I have a sore throat, for example, and we treat the symptoms with a cough drop. But if I have a sore throat and it’s strep, if I don’t know that I never know that the underlying cause –  is this bigger disease that I need antibiotics for. And the same thing happens all the time in organizations which gets back to that pitfall around Lock and load is we lock and load before we really understand why something is a pain point or a weakness. I do like the opportunities and threats. Although the buckets I find sometimes too dichotomous, right. And I also like the idea of considering the periphery. My worry on the SWOT, is we don’t get outside our core industry to look at some of those peripheries.

AW: I think that looking on the periphery can help us in so many contexts in our life, not even just change management, which is kind of everything right? But I remember when I was a doctoral student and one of my favorite professors Jerry Zaltman would tell me to go read something in a completely different area and see how it would apply to what I was focused on and stretch my brain and my thinking that way and so I can see it from a different perspective. Yeah, that was powerful

EA: you’re right. How many times do we get good ideas doing something completely different that we then connect the dots and go, Oh, right!! That would be could be watching a movie, whether you’re working on your thesis. Wow, you read something in the New York Times Magazine and go oh, yeah, absolutely.

AW: So all senior executives should also be very well read. Well, all people. Yeah.

EA: I think it’s a little less about reading and more about taking the time to connect the dots because we’re all exposed to stimulus all day long and everything we do and it’s so easy to just compartmentalize as a way of coping with everything – the onslaught that we have to deal with an overload.

AW: I have heard that that is actually a sign of intelligence – having that ability to connect the dots is one of the signals, I guess, of higher intellect.

EA: Yeah, and pausing. We need to pause to do that. I think that’s the other reason a lot of us don’t do it. I get them in the middle of the night sometimes, like, I’ll be sleeping, I have post-its next to my bed because I’ll be sleeping. And all of a sudden, it’s like my brain is doing that while I’m sleeping. And I’ll have some Aha, right?

AW: Yeah, I have woken up a few times in the morning and thought I know I had an epiphany last night. I have no idea what the context was.

EA: Yeah. So it’s interesting. When we think about shared ownership, one of the ways that really comes to life is grounded in what I’m thinking about is success Principle number two for communication and change. And that’s about having the conversations with our stakeholders, both externally and internally to help us assess the landscape. And so often in change, I think we don’t really take the time we need to dig deep about understanding the context before we move into visioning and solutions. And here’s where that shared ownership really comes to life because it’s about tapping into our networks, both externally and internally, to learn about opportunities and to learn about obstacles and to learn about pain points. And as we think about externally both, you know, so often we focus on the industry but not really on the periphery as well. The third key success principle for communication and change is around collective visioning. Collective visioning is hugely important in change. Because if we don’t know where we’re headed, then it’s pretty hard to figure out what we want to do and how we want to get there. It’s often skipped over and it doesn’t sometimes it can be big – it’s what I call big V visioning, which is like whole organization, what’s our vision for the future? But so often and what we do, smaller change initiatives and projects that are happening all the time all over the organization, it’s really small v visioning. It’s what’s our vision for this particular project or that particular project. We’ll see streamline technology across four different regions of the globe, for example, or this technology, or this project is all about service excellence. And that particular aspect we want to focus on. Let’s say if we’re York University it’s service to our students, and how do we keep students front of mind, in everything we do? So you can have big vision, but you can also have small vision.

AW: So is it articulating what the goal of the change project is?

EA: It’s articulating it, but I also love the language of back casting, which is imagining the future in your perfect dream world, and what does that look like? And then saying, if that’s what we’re trying to achieve, a collective aspirational vision of the future, then what do we need to be doing now and moving forward to get there.

AW: So this is an aside to but what happens when a board of directors mandates something like that?

EA: Mandates a vision or mandates a change?

AW:  mandates change.

EA: We still can do the visioning piece given that mandate. What could this look like? Right? And our best possible world? What? What would we like to see? So that is true. Often you’re getting parameters handed down from the top. And then you know, the small v might also be for my region, or for my unit, or for my level, what does that look like? Right?

AW: Right.

EA: …which might be a little bit different from whatever the higher umbrella vision is. Ok.

AW: Ok. So the next success Principle number four is my favorite: Mantras help simplify. Can you tell us what you mean by that?

EA: So a mantra is two or three words you would say meditatively, to center yourself. And I love that idea. When we’re doing change, whether it’s family or whether it’s organizational in our personal lives or professionally, change can be often be overwhelming. And there’s a lot of pieces and moving parts to change. And to have some simple two or three words that convey the essence of change really helps. And so for example, Free the Children is a local organization here in Toronto. And one of the initiatives they did, they ran this project called change for change, which was all about collecting the pennies that were becoming obsolete in our monetary system. You know, Change for change, you kind of go, Oh, I get it. Yeah, these little mantras really help do a couple things. One is the anchor the change. Second is from a communication standpoint, they make it easier to diffuse the change.  Third, is they help embed the change in the organization. Right?

AW: Right. So everybody’s literally using the same language, same words. Right. I love that one.

EA: One of the things that’s really helpful is change fitness and chunking up change into phases. That way it doesn’t feel like oh my goodness, we’re looking at like a 12 month time cycle on this. No, we’re just focusing on the first three months and what are we trying to get done in the next 12 weeks, for example?

AW: Sorry to interrupt you – people who know you know that you are very fit, and you swim a lot. And I think you used to run right? And I could imagine that this is also how you would tackle a marathon or swimming 45 lengths. You don’t think about 25 lengths right? It’s one length at a time?

EA: Yeah, I actually do these mini triathlons. I don’t know if you remember this. And that’s one of the reasons I love them is because it’s forced phasing. Because you swim first and then you bike and then you run. So rather than saying, okay, you’re going to do two hours and it competitive intense fitness. It’s like, Oh, what I’m going to do is I’m going to swim first. Then I’m going to bike, then I’m going to run. So I actually never made that connection. I actually never thought about that as change fitness before.

AW: Really ? I thought that’s where you got the idea.

EA:  No, I just like all three sports. I like the fact that you do them all at the same time in some beautiful place but breaking up the two hour fitness goal. Otherwise, same idea.

AW: Yeah.

EA: So the phasing again, I like having milestones built-in. So there’s what does success look like after phase one after phase two after phase three, rather than just saying, have we attained that big vision at the end?

AW: So what do you tell your clients about celebrating milestones?

EA: I tell them it’s really important. I also think it’s really important to celebrate success as it happens. I think the tighter the link between event and celebration, the more impact it has.

AW: Sounds like good parenting advice.

EA: Yeah, concrete, specific and timely, right.  So one of the things we can do to help ensure change fitness is building in phases and milestones and other things we can do is prioritize.

AW:  this is true and families too, right?

EA: If we tell our kids to do five things, they may just go – BLAH. But if we say, you know what, what might be helpful first is blah, blah, blah, and then move to whatever or don’t even mention the second thing yet. Right? And so as leaders, it’s helpful to do the same thing, what are our top-line items and focus on that. And I love the language of must-have versus nice-to-have to help people sort. So what’s really a must have in this change? Because when people start thinking about change, you know, pretty soon there’s change scope creep, and oh, we could fold this into this, and we could fold that into this. And how about if while we’re doing this, we add this little piece on and right?

AW: like your house renovation, right?

EA: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Like a house reno. And sometimes that makes sense, you know, while you’re have some momentum, but that can also lead to change fatigue. So prioritizing is another good one for helping to ensure change fitness. A final one, maybe that I’ll mention is creating the space for pauses and reflection. And that’s true, you know, on a daily basis, weekly basis, personally, as well as professionally and these larger change projects. If we don’t build in time to step back and say, do we need to rethink this? what’s working, what’s not working? So reflection is a bit different from recovery. Reflection is more about taking the time to step back and look at what’s happened thus far in the change and say, Hmm, how do we want to move forward? Do we want to course correct; we want to change some things. What’s not working so well, what do we need to pivot on that’s a bit different from recovery. Recovery is really taking a break and that might be vacations or taking a day off. It might also be short breaks; we can just build into our day. Actually, with a colleague, we’ve just started really trying to get up and go outside the building twice a day. Right? And it sounds so trivial. But the inertia around No, I just have one more thing, I really should finish this, we’re on a bit of a deadline on that, right? That recovery piece is so important as a way to minimize change, fatigue.   And then the last success principle for change communication, focused on the relational aspects of change. It’s so easy for us to just focus on the rational elements, the strategy, the structure, the metrics, the technology. And that really takes us back to where we started around shared ownership, thinking about how we build the relationships we need to create successful change. It’s so interesting, I can’t remember where I stumbled across the idea of the Inclusive We. Years ago, I realized how often people, when talking about change, say you must. One of the things you must do as part of this change that you must doesn’t land very well on a lot of us, right, versus what do we think we might try in order to make this more successful? And so just that light shift in the words we use, and it was funny, a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to one of the convocation speakers at York’s convocation and to the students throughout the speech, the person used, you must, you must, you must, …

AW: it sounds condescending.

EA: Yes, it sounds condescending, and I thought, Wow, that was a wonderful speech. If they had just used the inclusive we throughout. Well, you know, let’s think about how thy could said that without being directive. And it was sad. And I see that all the time and organizations to with top leaders in particular, you know, there’s so much on their plates, they’re not thinking about those tiny little details around communication that make all the difference.

AW: I’ve heard the same advice for parents. Like instead of what the heck were you thinking? How about what should we do about this?

EA: Yes.

AW: And then it’s hey – my parents are helping me.

EA:  It’s a shared problem. Yeah, I always use the inclusive WE when my kids were growing up.

AW: I know I heard you say it!

Yeah. So much of what we talked about in change actually, it’s so useful for raising families.

AW:  It could be your next career! So in terms of focusing on the relational aspects of change, the last success principle, there’s language.

EA: It’s little things like I always try to start an email with hope you had a good weekend or how’s the start of your week going? Just a tiny little snippet of relational I care about you. Or if I know about something they did? Did you do that triathlon? How did that go? And I think that really helps. You know, especially if you have an ask in an email for somebody, you just have that relational softener, whether it’s email or whether it’s face to face, it’s so easy to just walk into somebody’s office and do the ask versus the relational check in. It’s interesting, one of the large consumer goods companies I worked with, and this may seem excessive to some people, but whenever we did our annual retreats with them, they would take literally an hour on the first morning of the retreat, to do what they call head and heart check in. Everybody that was at the retreat, they go around the circle, how’s your head, how’s your heart, and it’s like, my head is in this because I’m really excited about this retreat, what we’re trying to accomplish. My heart is a bit distracted, because my five year old is home sick today, or my head is not really in this because I’ve got this big conference call I gotta take in two hours, and I’m distracted but my heart is in this because I’m happy to be with my team here. And it was so interesting. What happened is, those snippets would bubble up throughout the three or four days. They were off site, right and people would be making connections. After I’d been through it, I was like, wow, that really does have huge benefits.

AW:  The company is actually sending an implicit message that they care about the people. Also the people that are hearing the messages have a closer link with each other.

EA: Yeah, they have insight. Insight and understanding, absolutely right about them as whole people as opposed to just their professional hat.

AW: Is there anything you want to add about the sixth success principles?

EA: maybe one thing to add is just –  with change, it’s hard to keep them all in mind all the time. But I think that’s where it’s useful, you know, even if you just if – I’m a big post-it girl, so I have post-its around that have those high level things, whether it’s success principles or mantras or things I’m trying to keep in mind.

AW: And so you may have just answered one of the rapid fire questions with that answer. So now I’m going to move on to the five rapid fire questions that I asked every guest. Are you ready?

EA: I’m ready.

AW: First question. What are your pet peeves?

EA: Probably lack of heart. You gotta show heart, whether it’s how you walk down the sidewalk, whether it’s how you treat an insect, whether it’s how you talk with colleagues at work, the lack of heart is a pet peeve. Yeah.

AW: I feel like all other pet peeves that I’ve heard now are so insignificant. Okay, second Q – what type of learner are you visual, auditory kinesthetic, or something else?


 Definitely visual. I am always drawing circles and arrows to try to understand thinking – like my own thinking other people’s thinking. Verbal directions don’t work at all for me, I need to see what it is and then it becomes so much easier.

AW: Question number three, introvert or extrovert.

EA: Leaning definitely towards extrovert I work out and figure out things through talking. But I also really need reflection time. I do that mostly multitasking through exercise, but …

AW: you mentioned that when you’re sleeping and when you’re exercising.

EA: Yeah, so I definitely need that introverted time as well.

AW: So fourth question – your communication preference for personal conversations.

EA: Probably too much emphasis on text – for efficiency. I’m not sure that’s the preferred choice or just the reality of how my life happened.

AW: Okay, last question. Is there a podcast or a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending?

EA: Supersoul Sundays I love there so many great people that Oprah has on that from so many walks of life.

AW: She’s phenomenal.

EA: Another one I really like is actually one when you shared with me, I don’t read it every day. But I certainly check in on it, especially about US politics, because I like their take. It’s called The Skimm. And I think it’s two former reporters if I’m right, but they chit chat about really heavy and deep issues, in a way that’s super accessible. And you don’t have to know the backstory because they provide a quick little summary of the backstory in case you weren’t tracking that issue.

AW: I love that. I’ll leave the link for that in the show notes as well. Is there anything else that you want to share with the listeners regarding communicating change?

EA: Maybe one last thought is the power of communication, it is all about communication. We don’t do things differently. We don’t shift. We don’t move, we don’t evolve without conversation and communication. And so thank you so much for opening my eyes to thinking through the communication side because I actually haven’t done that explicitly. And it’s been really fascinating for me and full of insights.

AW: Oh, me, too. I thank you very, very much for sharing your insights. Thank you.

EA: You’re welcome. My pleasure.


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