How do you reach a team of pilots that are not only physically distant but psychologically? Stan Heaton, Communications Program Leader at Delta Air Lines will shed some light on their methods of employee communications at the Storytelling for Internal Communications conference, March. 17-19, 2020 in Washington, D.C. To give us a sneak peek into his session and why he is a passionate communicator, Stan sat down with us and answered a few questions.
What drew you to communications and why are you passionate about this role?
I didn’t start my career in communications. I was a college teacher. I taught freshman composition and film studies, and it was the best job I ever had. Unfortunately, it’s tough to make a living as an adjunct. Life pulled me away from academia and toward internal corporate communications. I’m lucky that it did. I’m a writer at heart, so having the opportunity to use that skill to educate our employees as they connect people with their loved ones, with new experiences, with different cultures across the globe—that’s a good feeling.
What about this topic excites you personally?
I’m excited any time I have the chance to break the mold. I’ve seen so many good pieces of communications fall flat because they’re written more for subject matter experts than for our audience. It’s freeing to redefine our jobs, to say essentially that we’re frontline reporters and then to show our leaders the merits of that approach through hard data.
How does this topic connect with some of your own core values?
Every company I know has some set of cultural values they communicate to their new hires. As people put their time in with any organization, they have experiences that don’t always jive with those prescribed values. Focusing on employees makes room for the culture they actually live day today. It forces us to meet audiences where they are and take an educational approach. If I can help people using open and honest communication that improves their day, I’m all about it.
What accomplishments are you really proud of and speak to your expertise on this topic?
I was given the reins pretty early in my current role serving our pilots. When I learned we were getting a new aircraft type, I got busy. I flew a non-customer flight with the pilots aboard the brand new plane. I toured the cockpit and the crew rest facility. I interviewed the captains of that fleet for their take. I interviewed the technical manager, the flight attendants and the senior engineer for the new jet engine that powered the plane. I designed a By-the-Numbers graphic to show the plane’s capability. Everything from a pilot’s point of view. Readership numbers went through the roof. That was three months after I took the job, and in that time, news readership spiked by 18x. Since then, we’ve grown even more, all because the audience-first approach works.
What do you hope communicators will take away from this conference and your session?
I want to give people a method to return to their teams and say, “Here’s why we should prioritize our audience, and here’s the data we’ll use to counsel our leaders on why that’s the right approach.” Ultimately, for me, this is about our craft. What we do, how we do it and how we perfect it. I don’t want to come to work and be a digital secretary for other office workers. I want to understand who our audience is at their core and teach them what they need to know in order to better serve our customers and to grow in their own careers.
Recommend a book or podcast
It’s so depressing when I ask fellow communicators what they’re reading and they say “Nothing” or “I wish I had time.” Words are our lifeblood. Ya gots ta read books. I read about 30 books a year and keep a log of them. My wife reads 50+ because she’s better than me. I’d recommend Dune to anyone who hasn’t already tackled it. It’s perhaps an à propos suggestion for my talk because of the way every character is trying to anticipate the others. Think like a Dune character, and you’ll start to understand how we should be connecting with our audience’s needs.
Podcasts are cool, too. I like Hidden Brain from NPR. That’s a good one if you want to dig into how people think and behave in unexpected ways.