Your message is a signal. And that’s probably why it’s not always clear.
See, when you have to choose words to capture your idea, you have to choose meaning, as well. You can’t break the two apart. Words have meaning (I know: obvs), and so the words you choose reveal what meaning those words have to you.
So when your message is unclear, or isn’t working, it’s usually because one of two things is happening:
Situation #1: You don’t actually know what you’re trying to say.
When you don’t know the meaning of what you’re trying to convey, it makes sense that you can’t find the words to capture that meaning. Sometimes the very process of trying to find the “right” words helps clarify your thinking (and there’s a great article in this week’s #swipefile about just that).
The problem? Sometimes that clarity is scary enough that you don’t actually want to be clear. That leads us to…
Situation #2: You do know what you’re trying to say… but you’re scared to say it.
I think we’ve all been there: your “inside voice” knows exactly what you want to say. You also know there are potential consequences to letting that inside voice out.
In your personal life, those consequences may not be large. But when you’re in business (or are the business), the consequences of being clear could potentially include losing both customers and the custom—to be clear: the money—that keeps your business afloat.
“What would people think?!”, you ask. But you know. Deep down, you know they won’t just think something about you, they’ll know something about you.
They’ll know what you really stand for. What you really care about. What you really value.
What usually happens in those situations is that you end up choosing words that have no real meaning, or so many meanings that it amounts to the same as having none. You choose words that could be interpreted in all sorts of ways.
You know the kind of words I mean: “excellence,” “innovation,” “transformative.” Sure, they mean something to you (maybe), but you also know that they could mean absolutely nothing to others.
And you hope that your ideas, your message, and your business, can survive in the space in between. But that’s not a space filled with life-giving air. That’s a dead space. A vacuum. A vacuum of meaning.
People connect to meaning. No meaning, no connection. No connection, no cause—no reason—to pay attention, to advocate, to act.
And guess what? People figure out what you really care about eventually, anyway. The “truth will out.” Over time, it shows up not in what you say, but in what you do. You say you’re customer-friendly, but are you? You say you’re innovative, inclusive, whatever… but are you? (And yes, you can see this in individuals, too: those who say they’re all for raising people up, but when put in a situation to actually do it, one-on-one, they tear them down, instead.)
You cannot, and will not, be able to connect long-term with those who don’t value and believe the same things you do. Meaningless words certainly won’t build that connection, nor shift those values and beliefs in your favor. Even if they sometimes can, over time, you likely don’t have that time available.
So, make meaning your mandate. Choose the words that signal, actually signal, what’s meaningful to you. Let your audiences know what you believe and stand for. (TD Bank did a fantastic job of this recently — in only four words, and on something stuck on the ground.) And your audiences and customers will know it, because they’ll know you made the choice to say something even at the risk of them knowing.
That’s powerful. That’s the power of putting actions and words together: the action of choosing words that make your position clear.
Will you “lose” some people? Sure. But (a) did you ever really have them in the first place? and (b) do you really want them if they don’t value and believe what you do?
Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Your actions will speak for you anyway.Choose words that signal, actually signal, what's meaningful to you. Let your audiences know what you believe and stand for. Click To Tweet
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If you make messages, you dream of something that’s short and sweet and does everything it’s supposed to do, but those are like finding unicorns. But guess what? I found a unicorn and that’s what we’re talking about this week on, What’s Missing from this Message.
It’s going to be a super short episode because this is a super short message and it’s one I literally stumbled upon as I was walking around at my hometown, Boston, Massachusetts. And here it is, it’s this sticker that was on the ground and it was in front of a TD Bank and it said, “Stand together by standing apart.” And here’s why I love it. A, super short. People likely to read it. B, tells you exactly what they want you to do; stand apart. And C, gives you a reason to do that. That resonates with their audience.
You may look at this and say, “I don’t care about standing together.” Great. Message isn’t for you. This is what I love about this message is that TD Bank takes a stand, not only with saying, “Hey, here’s what you want you to do,” But in the way that they ask you to do it. They say just in a super short message, we believe in a solidarity based reason to do this, that we think by standing apart, we can actually show how we stand together around what we share, what we believe, what we care about.
And again, you may not care about the same things but that helps you understand whether or not you’re a potential customer or fit with TD Bank. It also helps TD Bank know whether or not you’re a potential customer or a potential fit. This is what we would hope any message does. It helps people understand who it’s for and who it’s not for and when you’ve got that kind of clarity, you’re much, much more likely to get the audience you serve, to stand together with you.
If you want me to take a look at one of your messages of any length, preferably short, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and you may just see it here on a future episode of What’s Missing From This Message.
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