4 Drawers in Your Communication Toolbox

Some drawers yield more nourishing content than others

It’s worth asking how much of our work sustains those who consume it.

In a recent conversation with Kate Huebsch at Highpoint Creative, we discussed how we wish our clients could move forward. Not just with the latest technologies or social media trends but with the communication practices and mindsets that allow for loyal engagement and community-building.

The problem is that some of these communication practices come with the cost of vulnerability and loss of control, and these are price tags clients are not eager to pay.

In the imaginary toolbox, there are at least four trays: External, Forward, Community-Building, and Meaning-Making.


My toolbox has a drawer for the communications that seek customers: ads, blog posts, brochures, web pages, and white papers. Inside this drawer is a section for ongoing communication that keeps my clients’ priorities in front of the right audiences: LinkedIn, Twitter (to decreasing degree), and others. These are short messaging venues that give away information rather than sell.

The External drawer of the toolbox is the drawer we open most often. These are not typically the words that land in a deep place in our audiences—the words they remember to tell others. Instead, readers read these words to get informed about a product or service that solves a problem or meets a pressing need.


Some recent innovation work I did with a large medical device firm has me thinking about the role communication plays in helping teams move forward. This Forward drawer has slots for design fiction, team-visioning workshops, and scientific conferences. This part of the toolbox has gadgets and processes, and ideas that teams of engineers and scientists can verbally interact with to imagine a very different future. Also inside the drawer are a set of permission slips that provide the freedom to think big and to start building.

The Forward drawer of the toolbox engages the imagination and creates space for very different kinds of thinking. The words that flow from this drawer are the words a person can consume, words that give energy to a person and can power a team to create and connect. I hope to open this drawer much more frequently.


This drawer holds the communications that tell us who we are and who we aspire to be. Mission statements come to mind—but the kinds that ring true to a community. “Toward Man’s Full Life” has held the attention of thousands of Medtronic employees because of founder Earl Bakken’s focus and practice.

This community-building task is more than gathering superusers willing to tout a product or service. Tools from the Community-Building drawer guide the organization toward a position in the world: Are we truth-tellers? People fixers? Are we the kind of people that lop off 10% of our employees every year? What does our community stand for?

This drawer has a boomerang inside that hits us in the back of the head from time to time to remind us that the messages we send externally have a way of coming back to bite us/feed us.

Sections of this drawer contain communication tools that can be pointed out (toward customers) and in (toward employees). That’s because community-building is outside, it is inside, and it is ongoing, whether my client knows it or not. The part of the toolbox has a tool to adjust the tone of communication, so we can drop into the many conversations already in progress.

The Community-Building drawer produces words we want to devour because they articulate who we are and where we are going. These are nourishing words that also may draw others in. If we are honest, we’ll note our messaging and our behaviors that do not contribute to our brand and toss them in the garbage.


This drawer is opened less often because it is hard to fund. It is even hard to define because how we make meaning is personal. We make meaning when something clicks deep inside.

The kind of communication that comes from this drawer can build out the “castle-in-your-soul,” which is your personal sense of growing your internal consciousness by understanding something new about life.[i] Your favorite author exerts this capacity in your life—their scenes and dialogue, and articulations land fully formed and give you something to think about all day. Movies that go beyond entertainment help us make meaning. Recently “Nope!” opened new rooms in my soul to reconsider the dangers I think I control but don’t. These are the words that make us want to be better people or at least more conscious people.

Much that we find in the Meaning-Making drawer comes from the personal relationships we have in an organization. These friends and colleagues we interact with entertain us constantly with stories about how they make meaning in their jobs. We absorb those stories and bring elements of them into our jobs. Lots of corporate communication aims toward Meaning-Making but gets bollixed in the end because of the high cost of transparency and the refusal to speak in human.

Maybe there are hero stories and banners and balloons and pats on the back in the Meaning-Making drawer. If so, there are an equal number of stories that highlight failed-but-redeemed experiments and pointed fingers and pointed comments and lots of connect-the-dot puzzles and hushed discussions. Some of the tools from the other drawers will point us to this Meaning-Making drawer. Sometimes the tone or good humor from another drawer land here as well. The tools for designing conversations must have a slot in this drawer.

Use the Full Set of Communication Tools

There is a full set of tools available to guide our interactions. Part of our job is to realize that our communication task is much larger than getting sales, though we must do that. Using the right tools at the right time is art and science and deeply human, and potentially can nourish our spirit.


[i] Read more at “Edith Stein: Prayer and Interiority” by Terrence C. Wright, in Benson, B. E., & Wirzba, N. (2005). The Phenomenology of Prayer. Fordham Univ Press.

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