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Laws of the Grapevine: Communicating Down and Around

Posted by Grace Lee on Aug 22, 2013 4:25:00 PM

2013 08 22 03.17.25 pm

How would your life be different if others viewed you as a phenomenal communicator?

What would happen in your work? What would happen this year? What would happen in your personal life as well?

There actually are some “best practices” around communication, and if you can master The Laws of the Grapevine, your ability to effectively communicate will increase significantly, as well as people’s respect for you as a leader.


What are the key stories that you plan to share this year?

We pose this question to encourage intentionality in your communication plan to increase your results from your annual fund, major events, special events, enrollment campaign, etc. Thinking about your messages ahead of time gives you the advantage of intentionally engaging your network to build momentum. Having your constituents on board and excited about the message will make it more impactful when the time comes to broadly share your key stories.

YABWI Question: YA but what if we shared _________ --that would really energize our grapevine to build Presence?” By Presence we mean mindshare; not a one-way message blast, but a deep two-way conversation with those in your network. If you can articulate that story and wisely craft how to share it, you have a great way to gain mindshare and marketshare!

The Laws of the Grapevine

The Grapevine represents the multiple clusters of people that are part of your community; their common connection  may be that they work together, or belong to a country club together, or go to church together--whatever it is, they cluster together and share stories and experiences and are heavy influencers in drawing new people into those clusters. That Grapevine is real, and you can learn to use it to your advantage in how you communicate and build relationships.

Your goal should be to cultivate three deep relationships with every stakeholder. If they are only engaged with one person (e.g., teacher, coach, development officer), and that person subsequently leaves or that relationship sours, then you’ve lost the connection with the stakeholder. Each person in your community should feel so deeply connected to the organization that it would be painful to lose that relationship.

As discussed in the first episode of this series, each of us has an internal grapevine and an external grapevine. How we communicate and the methods we use has a huge impact on how people perceive us and how they value our relationships. What are the top two reasons why people say relationships fail? 1) poor communication habits, and 2) conflicting expectations. Those are what we are trying to move beyond by learning The Laws of the Grapevine.

As a reminder, here are the first three laws that were presented in the first episode:

#1: Sequence - People derive the value of your relationship based on the sequence in which you share information

#2: Frequence - Mindshare is directly proportionate to the frequence of conversation

#3: Flow - A steady flow helps the grapevine grow, but a sudden flash gives the grapevine a rash


These are the next three laws that we will discuss in this session:

Law #4: Good news travels at a slower rate because it requires validation more often than bad news

If someone comes up to you and says, “Guess what happened?” and it’s a piece of bad news, that information isn’t usually verified and you will spread it quickly. But if it’s good news, your first reaction is always “No way! Did that really happen?”

People have a natural tendency to share bad news faster and more frequently than good news--mostly because of the element of surprise. When we’re sharing good news we have to repeat it at least a couple of times to complete the Grapevine cycle. Since good news needs validation and support, it will need to be shared more frequently. You may have to repeat yourself and use a few different mediums to force the message through the grapevine; whereas one short email with bad news usually spreads like wildfire! Again, planning your message ahead of time will help you move it more quickly and accomplish your communication goal.

Law #5: Surprise is the energy of the Grapevine

If you want to get people excited, it has to have at least a 5% unexpected content to it. That element of surprise is what drives people to really want to share the news with others. It’s that “What?! No way!” element that energizes communications. “Wow factors” are elements that you want to introduce into your program that people will share and energize your Grapevine. Being able to consistently offer those “Wow factors” will have an impact on word-of-mouth marketing--your best source of leads.

Law #6: The Capacity of the Grapevine is inversely proportionate to the energy level

If you’re trying to get a message out to your families, their capacity to pass on and share that information with their network is inversely proportionate to the level of what else is happening on your Grapevine. If there are other surprise elements that are happening in your community, nationally, or internationally creating a high degree of “buzz,” then you have to know that if you start sharing information at the same time your Grapevine’s capacity to repeat it will be limited. If you’re trying to get some good news out, you need to plan to share that on a day when there’s not already a lot of energy sparking the Grapevine. On the other hand, if you have news to share that’s not so good, and you’d like to be able to say you shared it but not let it go very far, a high-energy time would be a great opportunity to share that because it’s a less attractive piece of information when your Grapevine is focused on something else. Understanding the energy and capacity of the grapevine will help you in scheduling out your communications and how to share your news in the way that best supports your goals.

Up, Out, Down & Around

What do we communicate? When thinking about the sequence of your communication, remember this: Up, Out, Down & Around. Up is our first point of communication, whether that’s up to the Board, or up to your direct supervisor. The second point of communication is out to peers and advisors.


The next path for the message is Down, but not all messages will be shared Down. There are messages that you may share Up and/or Out that you would or should not share elsewhere. When it is appropriate, you will share Up to your supervisor(s) and Out to your peers for feedback and review, and then Down. The time lag between these paths differs depending on the nature of the information. As a general rule, the bigger the surprise, the longer the time lag. One of the things that can really undermine communication is when an employee shares information with clients that hasn’t already been shared Up and Out.

When you share information Down, they want to know:

  • What’s impacting me?

  • Has anything changed?

  • Can I trust your leadership?

  • Do I want to follow your leadership?

When sharing Down you want to respect any leadership roles that exist. For a school, that means starting with faculty leaders, faculty, parent leaders, parents, student leaders, and students. Sharing with the various levels of leadership before you share with the whole population gives those leaders the chance to support the message. You can’t ask parents to take on leadership roles then ignore them when it comes to sharing information. This is a way to value them and the volunteer work they do in the school. When you share with them first, you show how much value and respect them, which motivates them to defend and support you when the information is shared with the whole community. It makes a big difference when you have the constituents advocating for you! The same principle applies when sharing with students; you should always share with student leaders first.

Can you blast out information to everyone all at once (a la Twitter, email, or blog)? Absolutely! But understand that when you violate the law of sequence, the #1 Law of the Grapevine, you are actually losing relationship. That’s why we’ve titled this series, Shut Up and Start Communicating--just because you can go out and tell everyone at once doesn’t mean youshould. People derive their relationship with you based on where they fall in the sequence of your communication. If you want certain groups to feel valued, you must share with them before sharing with the whole Grapevine.


By now we’ve gone Up, Out, and Down, which is all within the organization. There is some information that you also will want to share outside the organization. After you have shared on the organization level, here is the sequence you should follow:

  • Level 1: Friends and Family

  • Level 2 & 3: These are people that are important to you--donors or other people in your network that have more value than everyone else. You can define this however you would like.

  • Level 4: Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn - This is where you share out to your connected network.

  • Level 5: Blog, Other Publications - This is where you share with the whole wide world.

If you follow this sequence, you’re going to find you are able to sustain better relationships, and they are going to feel like having a relationship with you  is valuable. Again, having the ability to blast it out doesn’t mean you should! Following the laws of sequencefrequence, and flow as well as the energy, capacity, and validation to become the master communicator that your desire.

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