ECG Principal Michael Vivion, PhD, discusses the difference between strategy and tactics—and why effective communication demands both.

"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

ECG's brand statement is "The Communication Strategy Company." Not surprisingly, we are frequently asked what we mean by "strategic communication."

We chose these two words carefully based on almost 30 years of experience working with professionals who largely make their livings through communication, whether they're engineers, marketers, physicians, scientists, or city planners. In this work we often see professionals with a strong belief in the power of communication but who also don't understand or use communication that is, indeed, strategic.

Perhaps this is because the word "strategy" has become a buzzword that people use to try to add importance to their activities. Which is better: "strategic thinking" or "thinking," a "strategic approach" or an "approach"?

Clearly we all understand that "strategic" as a prefix is meant to suggest something higher level, something better.

This conclusion is further illustrated by the almost total lack of strategy's essential partner—tactics. How often do we hear the terms "tactical communication" or "tactical approach"?

STRATEGY REQUIRES RHETORIC

Strategies, in general, and communication, in particular, involve rhetoric—the art of persuasion. The planner and the communicator need to understand their intentions, their goals, and their desired outcomes. They must understand the purpose of the strategy. They also must understand the participants or the audience and their positions in relationship to the desired outcomes. Are participants and audience motivated by fact, emotion, authority, self-interest, social needs, or a combination of these forces?

A strategy is what you want to achieve—a goal, a policy, a condition.

TACTICS REQUIRE ACTIONS

Tactics involve choices. What action can we take to reach our goal? What do we have to work into our writing or our presentation to engage our audience and move them to embrace our rhetorical purpose?

What structure, examples, illustrations, stories will be most effective? Which visuals? Tactics are the how of achieving a strategy.

When we work with clients preparing a presentation or a document, the first thing we ask them is about their strategy. We want to know their driving purpose, what they want their audience to understand, to accept, and, finally, to do. We then work with them to develop tactics for accomplishing their intended purpose. We ask them to consider different ways to create understanding, approaches to obtaining acceptance, and elements of persuasion strong enough to motivate their audience to action. They are successful when they unite a strongly articulated strategy with carefully designed tactics.

Strategy is the picture the painter envisions. Tactics are the brushstrokes.