There’s a story about an army regiment on the front lines in the 1st world war. They sent a message back to Headquarters, “send reinforcements we’re going to advance.” By the time it went through the trenches by runner, over the land telegraph lines and telephone, the (garbled) message received at regimental Headquarters was, “Send 2 and 6 pence, we’re going to a dance”.
I don’t know if this story is apocryphal or not. But you can imagine it happening. And naturally, the army being the army – they found a cure for it. RADIO DISCIPLINE. They take young, sometimes poorly educated people, and teach them how to speak. How to spell and sound things out (Alpha Bravo Charlie). When to get on and get off the radio. They teach you how to pronounce numbers. Because the army knows, that when it comes to life and death situations, clarity and understanding are really important. All highly effective small teams, from SWAT to surgical, know this. And they practice it. They know that when you put time, technology and distance in the middle of communication, it gets really tough.
The other extreme, in terms of communication is probably being a politician. When a politician says, “jump!” the average voter does not say, “how high?” But politicians want you to do something. Every 2 to 4 years they would like you to get up off the couch and vote. So they practice MESSAGE DISCIPLINE. They know that crafting a message, honing it to is essence, putting it in very powerful, emotional language is the way to move voters. “It’s the Economy, Stupid!” from the Clinton years is a classic example of this. They stick to it, and find ways to repeat it. Think of how many times, when asked a question that you or I would answer ,”Yes” or “No” a skilled politician answers, “That’s a very good question, …” and then goes straight to whatever point they want to make. Even if it bears little connection to the question.
MESSAGE DISCIPLINE applies in your organization. Most organizations aren’t the army, they don’t run like SEAL teams. Nor do they have the distracted, uninterested populace that politicians deal with. You want the same result as the army, and politicians. You want people to do something. You get that through message discipline. Message Discipline drives Operational Discipline. Operational Discipline drives performance.
.So how do I practice message discipline? There’s a simple formula. Pick a few things. Three or four is probably enough. You cannot communicate everything. That stalls things. Overloading and Overwhelming does not drive the kind of action you need. Prioritize. Even when you are down to a few, some things are more important than others. Make that evident to people. Make priority, urgency and order clear. Otherwise it looks like everything is important, and then nothing is important. Keep it Simple. You can’t put this across in a way that is gobbledygook to someone. Make it as simple, and as understandable as possible. Don’t use corporate speak. If your high-schooler could understand, you have it at the right level. Add Emotion. Remember you are trying to move people. So clarity and understanding are not enough. Put human in the message. People respond to emotion more strongly than they do to fact.
Now you have the message. That’s the easy part, the hard part comes next. You have to Stay on Message. Flip-flopping is deadly for politicians, and deadly for you. It just creates confusion. Connect the new initiative to the old one. You can’t chop and change what you are asking people to do every month, or every quarter. And last, Keep it in Sync. The message and your behavior have to line up. Saying one thing, and doing another. Asking for some result and inspecting an unrelated metric. Doesn’t work.Don’t ask for growth by selling solutions, and measure the success of products. If you are asking for an outcome, inspect to the outcome.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.