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Words Are Assets Too

Jessica C. McWade
McWade Group, Inc.

See also:
The Brand Played On!

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e are drowning in rhetorical clutter these days. In a society bloated with endless claims, clich├ęs, jargon, hyperbole and ritualistic argument, it's no wonder why customers, investors, employees and voters are simply not listening anymore.

          Blame it on human nature. Blame it on the explosion of marketing and communications media. Whatever the underlying cause, it's become far too easy these days to say a great deal without saying anything. In the process, too many businesses, governments and non-profit organizations seem like randomly changing kaleidoscopes that, in Shakespearean terms, are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

          We've cheapened our language and, by doing so, we've created an epidemic of what my old high school teacher crudely called "verbal diarrhea." There are many symptoms of an illness that has been more politely called "message du jour."

          Some of these may seem painfully familiar to you:

Bullet   Finding safety in copying the competition. We want differentiation, but when in doubt we jump right back into that big pot of vanilla.

Bullet   Creating ad hoc messages for one-time situations, such as an event, speech or advertisement. How many of us have seen well-crafted, thoroughly tested messaging suddenly changed in the car while driving to a speech? Maybe we've done it ourselves.

Bullet   Using wholly unrelated (and sometimes contradictory) messages for different audiences. Do we really think that employees don't read newspapers or analysts don't hear about an internal speech?

Bullet   Allowing dominant personalities to shape our messaging and lacking the research to support or refute them. These days, loud and wrong often wins over quiet and right.

Bullet   Outsourcing to vendors who change our messages. It isn't easy getting advertising, PR, direct mail, website and design agencies to work within a messaging system. That's why many organizations are moving more work to truly integrated shops, preserving message discipline while saving time, money and frustration.

Bullet   Acting in ways that contradict our messages. Executives whose actions contravene stated company values and customer-service behaviors that corrupt our marketing claims are two regular brand killers.

          So, what's the solution? Let's start by developing and enforcing strategic expectations and quality control standards for our words. Words embody concepts. Where words fail, or where they are too easily shuffled and replaced, the underlying vision is also subject to failure. Let's treat our language assets strategically; applying the same precision we do to our financial, human, technological and real estate assets.

          Enter messaging systems. Creating a messaging system starts with a discipline-forcing challenge so simple that it renders brilliant executives speechless. Try placing your value proposition in one sentence. It's tough work, and that's why organizations make so many excuses to avoid it. Here's an excellent starting point. Just try filling in the following blanks: "We are something that does something that results in something." Easy, right?

          Sure, it's the proverbial "elevator speech." The problem with most elevator speeches, however, is that they are, in fact, speeches and not interesting and inviting insights. The typical elevator speech assumes we're traveling in a skyscraper with the benefit of several minutes or more to tell our story. In reality, given today's crowded market, a discipline-forcing, single sentence understands that we're on a mere one-flight ride.

          This one sentence often breaks into three consistent, integrated messages supported by numerous proof points. An otherwise smart executive once declared, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," invoking Ralph Waldo Emerson to undercut the value of message consistency. Alas, poor Emerson is frequently misused in this manner. He actually wrote that, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I don't know about you, but I certainly want my doctors, mechanics, pilots and bankers to be consistently good. There's nothing foolish in consistency that works.

          The best messaging systems are brief, simple, externally focused and enforceable. First, keep it short. Long, ponderous passages, complicated sentence structures, faulty logic and twisted syntax rob messaging of its power. We should find inspiration from Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address was a mere 268 words. Or how about good old Pythagoras, whose 22-word theorem changed our view of the world.

          Einstein said that, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, and no simpler." Thus the beauty of E=mc2. Think of Einstein the next time you hear somebody say their organization is too complicated to reduce to one sentence. In his book Victory, management guru Brian Tracy says, "The natural tendency in all human activities is to increase complexity." He tells us to cherish simplicity and resist the inevitable slide toward diffusion and confusion that marks human endeavor.

          Perhaps the single greatest impediment to effective messaging is forgetting that it's all about the customer, not about us. Organizations too often describe themselves, such as how they're organized and when they were founded. The understandable impulse is to look internally, but these facts are of little interest to customers. Instead, we need to condition ourselves to look externally toward the market and prescribe interesting, appealing and memorable reasons why we're worth customers' time and money.

          The process of developing a messaging system may seem daunting. It doesn't have to be so onerous. It should take a matter of weeks, not months, and the product is always worth the wait. That's because a good messaging system gives any of us worrying about that next annual report, advertisement, press release, speech or website revision a healthy running start. Indeed, in the race for brand recognition and marketshare, it's always worth remembering that words are assets too.

Jessica C. McWade is President of McWade Group, Inc., a management consulting practice specializing in strategic planning, leadership development and branding. See: Professional Profile of Jessica C. McWade


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