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5 Tips So Your Messages Succeed

(A version of this post originally appeared on the Message House blog.)

Guest Post:  Marc Fest

Whether you draft news releases for a living, or are trying to persuade a cop to not give you a speeding ticket — all of us always send messages. Here are five ways to make them more effective.

TIP #1: Get over your SELF

We have a compulsive focus on our own interests and on ourselves; this is probably the number one cause for poor communications. There are countless symptoms: a news release in which the first sentence includes the lengthy name of your new organization, even though no one has ever heard of it; the word “I” everywhere in your communications; more time spent speaking about yourself than asking questions.

Now, it is natural to communicate with our own interests at heart. But the paradox is that our messages become most effective when we try to put ourselves in the shoes of our listeners.

So if you want to announce the launch of an organization in a news release, use the first sentence to explain the useful things it will accomplish, in words everyone can understand. The second sentence can then mention the new organization’s name.

And when you respond to an attack, first express that you value whatever issues your attackers have. In the case of the cop stopping you for speeding it’s therefore probably a good idea to first express that you know what you did was wrong. Be genuine. Then try to wiggle out of the predicament.

The unselfish approach also means that you strike a balance between telling people about yourself and showing an interest in them. This makes for much more interesting cocktail conversations.

TIP #2: Cause goose bumps

We only have one chance to make a first impression. And that first impression often determines what people think, no matter what we say or do later. We also make decisions much more based on feelings than on logic. Therefore, whenever you have a chance, have your initial message create a positive, deep emotion. Often this means that you want to lead with why something matters in the larger scheme of things. Let’s say you’re applying for a job at a pharmaceutical company. You could lead with your passion for contributing to curing cancer.

TIP #3:  Avoid creating red flags

In many people’s eyes, red flags foreshadow problems down the road. So do not create red flags. One of the most frequent, and most easily averted, ones are exaggerations. Avoid them. For instance, don’t use the phrase “tipping point”, unless there truly is one. Don’t describe something as “unprecedented” or “groundbreaking” unless it is.

Typos and grammatical errors are another kind of red flag. Make a habit of reading every email one extra time before you hit the send button.

Tip #4: Measure how clear you sound

It might sound simplistic, but the overall length of your sentences and words predicts how easily people will understand you. There is a tool that measures these factors. It is called “Flesch score”. It’s so effective that Microsoft has built it into Word. There are also Web sites that allow you to easily measure the Flesch score of a text. You want to score at least above 45 (this blog post has a Flesch score of 73). There’s a great article about Flesch on the Knight Foundation Web site.

TIP #5: You’re in communications!

Lastly, understand that you are in the communications business no matter what you do for business.

I once had a doctor who was concerned about some count in a lab result. He ordered another test a month later and told me he’d personally call me within 10 days. 10 days went by and no call. I emailed his office. No reply. Two days later I called the office. The assistant said the doctor would call me before the end of the day. No call. Same thing next day. He finally talked to me the following day…

The episode reminded me of what a chief technology officer at American Airlines once told me: The airline, he said, is as much in the communications business as it is in the transportation business. That’s because for airline passengers, much of their satisfaction depends on how well the airline communicates with them (about delays, re-bookings, etc). The same is true for doctors: they are as much in the communications and information business as in the medical profession.

We’re all in the communications and information business, no matter what we do. The more clearly we realize this, the better we get at what we do.

For additional tips and guidance on how to fine-tune your messages, visit Message House — a resource that helps people, organizations and projects maximize impact through key messages and messaging discipline.

Marc Fest, who created, previously served as vice president of communications for Knight Foundation and the New World Symphony.


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