Maybe calling it “message discipline” was a mistake.
“Discipline” makes staying on-message sound like a chore, and going off-message sound like a deliberate choice, an act of rebellion. I’ve had it with your message-box rules, daddy-o. I’m sticking it to The Man.
But often when I talk to a leader or spokesperson who has gone off-message, they aren’t feeling like defiant mavericks.
Either a) they don’t realize it’s happened, or b) they felt helpless in the moment to keep it from happening: “I know the message is about pensions — but before I knew it, there I was talking about giraffe mucus.”
True, we’ve seen a few deliberate acts of rebellion — some relatively harmless, some profoundly self-sabotaging. But far more often, here’s what really throws people off-message:
- Boredom: Probably the biggest factor. After the thousandth repetition, chances are you’re getting pretty tired of your message. So are the folks closest to you, and your strongest activists. You need to find ways to keep the message fresh for you, your supporters and the media; new examples, different turns of phrase and a range of validating facts can all help. And remember: repetition is key to reaching your broader audience. You may be bored silly, but your audience may be hearing this for the first time.
- Fear: It can be fear that your message will anger some people, fear that it won’t work, fear that you’ll alienate people (who aren’t actually part of your target audience), or just sheer nervousness and anxiety under pressure and scrutiny. That’s often why messages get weakened with qualifiers, “ums” and “uhs” and voices that quietly trail off into…
- Surprise: The unanticipated question can throw the best of us. “Uh, no, I hadn’t heard our headquarters was just razed to the ground by a rampaging mob of triffids.”
- Bright, shiny objects: It’s amazing how attractive an off-message topic can be just because it’s interesting. It’s what leads politicians into horse-race conversations. But as interesting as they may be to you personally, those topics aren’t what’s on your audience’s mind.
- Anger: Strong feelings can cloud your rational judgement. They can lead you to make rash statements, insult opponents and vent your frustration… none of which is helpful. (Especially when you’re off-message the next day, too, with a grovelling apology: “Having a ten-tonne bag of canine waste fall on oneself is a tragedy none of us should ever wish on another, and I deeply regret suggesting such a fate should befall my opponent.”)
- Sociability: You’re a nice person and a good conversationalist. So naturally, you want to be giving and helpful, and answer people’s questions… and oh, god, how did you end up talking about chemtrails and the gold currency standard? Or you get to chatting with a reporter, joking around and joshing, and your offhand wisecrack winds up leading the hourly news.
- Um… er… oh, right! Forgetfulness: You forget what the message actually was. Rehearsal and preparation can seem like an unaffordable luxury to busy leaders — until you’re sweating bullets and drawing blanks.
So how do you stay on message, and steer clear of those seven deadly diversions?
First, craft the right message: one that’s aligned with your core strategy, tested with your key audiences and proven to move people in the right direction. Developing that message can involve a big investment of time and money… but skimping here just leaves you with a message you’ll be tempted to abandon the moment a conversation gets tricky. A message you can’t deliver with confidence and authenticity isn’t going to convince anyone.
Second, prepare. Rehearse a wide range of circumstances and questions. How are you going to avoid being drawn into a digression, and instead bring the conversation back to your message? Never just assume you’ll be able to do it in the moment.
And third, own the message. Find several different ways to state it, using the words and tone that come most naturally to you. Find examples from your own experience that illuminate the message. And then practice repeatedly, until it becomes part of your muscle memory.
Staying on-message doesn’t mean resigning yourself to reading from scripts for the rest of your life, and surrendering your free will. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact opposite: keeping your intentions uppermost in your communications.
Now that’s sticking it to The Man.
Photo: Flickr user Theresa Thompson (flickr.com/theresasthompson). Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.