Master Your Message

By Lisa Westerfield and Mark Webster

Organizational communication is deceptive. It seems simple – just writing or speaking to managers and employees. Yet it’s often responsible for costly losses. Change in organizations – mergers, reorganization, process change, new IT solutions — is often a big investment. In a 2008 survey of 47 global companies, two of the top three reasons for unsuccessful change initiatives were a) not articulating a “burning need” for the change, and b) poor, untimely, unclear or inconsistent communications.

Why do so many communication efforts fall flat? Or, more importantly, why is YOUR communication ineffective?

We can’t know until we examine you. Yes, we treat a communication problem like a doctor treats a patient. There are many things that need to go right, to be healthy. When it comes to communication, five things have to go right; you must understand your audience, leverage organizational culture, have the right message, deliver it the right way, and balance your “push” (pain) information with “pull” (aspirational) information.

But let’s focus on some two common ailments: developing a poor message and delivering it badly.

The Right Message

The best messages are short, simple and easy to remember. They are the 30-second elevator speech — the 30,000-foot view. They are the distillation of everything into simple, compelling, “message points” – single words, each supported by a few phrases, facts or quotes that reinforce that point.

Because most adults are visual learners, you’ll help people remember your message if you associate it with both words and pictures. Imagine drawing a box or a triangle. Now imagine each corner labeled with a major message point. Remember, message points are best if boiled down to one word. That simple visual helps those responsible for telling your story stay “onmessage.”

Successful messages invariably leave some good stuff on the cutting room floor. A message is not a treatise on everything an organization or project does. It is a tool to earn the attention of your target audience and to help align key messengers. When a busy executive meets a colleague in the hall, her ability to recall the three key words and associated facts (without relying on a PowerPoint deck!) increases the chances your audience will hear about the change in a consistent and sincere way.

Think of messages like pieces of meat used to distract the dog guarding the jewels. They are the best arguments you have to grab people’s attention, answer problems, refute weaknesses, highlight strengths – and steal the jewels – whether that is their support, their resources, their business, their financial assistance or their hearts and minds.

The Right Delivery

There is nothing magic about delivering a message in the right way, yet it so often goes wrong. A few things can improve your chances of success.

First, use a personal touch. Tell real stories that support your message. It’s important to include comments and quotes from people who are a lot like your target audience. And, in addition to referencing others like them, use experts. Third-party validation of your change, by trusted sources, is really powerful. Remember, “Four out of five dentists recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum.”

Second: repeat, repeat, repeat. Re-use facts, stories, and information. Studies show the average person must hear, see or read a message seven times before really understanding it. Once you and your team are sick of your message — when it rings in your ears at breakfast like a bad jingle – know that your audience is just starting to hear it for the first time.

Third, maintain message discipline. Each presentation, every article, public remarks, emails, etc…must be on-message. Wandering off-message is easy because your product, project or organization is about much more than the message. But talking about those other things takes you off track. It distracts from the message you’ve been repeating, over and over, to create a shared direction.

Write the Story of Your Success

Companies face many challenges when they approach change. But the right message, delivered in the right way, puts you ahead of the game. Following sound communication practices lets you tell your story – consistently, repeatedly — on your terms.