Exceptional leaders build the content of their messaging to present it in a more compelling manner.
They recognize that in order to Build Leadership Messaging a follower comprehension of their direction develops in stages. Build your message with information that moves from the simple and familiar to the more complex and less familiar.
For example, saying ‘‘We need to improve our website to make it more user-friendly’’ defines a leader’s direction in simple and familiar terms. The leader would then go into a more complex description of how and why this improvement is possible and necessary and would identify less familiar components, such as a new software package and how to use it, that are vital for achieving the end result the leader wants.
Think through the content of your leadership direction. Identify the most simple and familiar words and phrases that describe the purpose or bottom-line outcome of your course of action. Present evidence and examples to flesh out the more complex and less familiar territory you want people to accept. Build from simple and familiar to establish points of agreement. Recall that willing followers must be committed, not simply convinced.
Agreement points give followers time to warm up to your viewpoint. Simple-familiar to complex-unfamiliar also works because it explains how people learn. That is, comprehension comes by building on what people already know and accept. Build your message by repeating key refrains. Recall how the repetition of ‘‘I have a dream,’’ in Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington speech, catalyzed the crowd.
Remember Ronald Reagan’s effective use of ‘‘There you go again’’ when debating Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential race. Jesse Jackson used the word ‘‘rocks’’ each time he offered another statistic about how many people did not vote in the 1980 election.
Develop a number of phrases and sentences to use as answers to questions such as: What is special about my direction? What do people get as a result of following my lead? Repeat the phrases you develop to reinforce your message. Use contrasting phrases to build your message.
John F. Kennedy brilliantly applied this method with statements such as, ‘‘We shall never negotiate out of fear, and we shall never fear to negotiate.’’ Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’’ also demonstrates this skill. Consider the enhanced impact of the statement, ‘‘We need to improve our website to make it more user-friendly,’’ when it becomes ‘‘Webfriendly sites make friendly web customers.’’
Use a timeline to build your message.
Consider John F. Kennedy’s speech at the BerlinWall in 1963. He drew a timeline from the past to the present and into the future. He told the crowd that in the days of the Roman Empire, the ‘‘proudest boast’’ one could make was to be from Rome. He then told them how they, the citizens of Berlin, could proudly today stand as the pioneers in the fight against communism. In the future, he argued, history would look back on those in the audience as the defenders of freedom who outlasted Communist oppression.
Create a bridge of personal connection between yourself and followers. Kennedy used this technique in Berlin also. He said, ‘‘All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.
So as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ ’’ Kennedy conveyed that he was a man of Berlin, just like them. Recognize that the order in which people are given information determines how they think. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, first uncovered this fact while working for Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Luntz conducted a Detroit focus group test of three Perot television ads. Perot was unstoppably popular at that time; however, the focus group members indicated they did not like him. Luntz learned this by accident. He intended to show ads of a Perot biography, a Perot speech, and testimonials from other people about Perot. He inadvertently ran the ads in the reverse order: testimonials, speech, biography.
The focus group saw Perot’s opinions as extreme when his ideas were not presented with the biography first, which outlined his impressive rags-to-riches life story. Luntz’s findings8 indicate that if your message produces a strong opinion, no subsequent information will get people to change their minds.
Build your message to ensure you first stake out the key factor you want to resonate in the followers’ minds. You can also build your message by using the fact that people remember the beginning and the end of a message. The middle gets muddled for most people. Build your message with several beginnings and endings. Chunk your message into parts. Start and end each part in a definitive manner.
Phrases such as ‘‘Let me make another important point’’ signal to the listener that something new is coming.
Conclude by saying, ‘‘This is an important issue.’’ The best leaders also build their message with emotion. They pull emotional levers that influence followers. They know people need more than the simple logic. Your course of action may meet important business needs such as increased profits, improved service, or reduced turnover, but you need to add the emotional hook to influence others. Instead of only putting more profits in front of followers, present your idea by adding, ‘‘We will be the company Wall Street cries to own.’’
In addition to stating that your direction improves customer service, add, ‘‘We are going to serve people in ways that cause them to love us!’’ Present the ‘‘feeling’’ your direction provides. Add the element of intense passion. Demonstrate a level of oratory excellence and inspired rhetoric to take your message far above the nonspecific, bland, and sometimes unintelligible comments given by many about their vision or where they stand on certain issues.
Address key emotional forces that speak to how people want to be treated at work. People want to feel that they are in on things and fully appreciated for their work participation and results, and they like sympathy for personal problems. These factors represent ‘‘soft’’ incentives that influence action.
Demonstrate how following your lead will meet these needs. Translate your direction into an emotional appeal that strikes that inner chord followers frequently seek. Vary your message between feelings and the cold facts. ‘‘This course of action will reduce 99.99 percent of accidents’’ makes a solid case.
Consider the additional genuine emotion reflected in the statement, ‘‘We will all sleep much better at night knowing we work in a safe environment.’’ Facts provide information that people logically analyze before they follow. Emotion provides the internal interpretation people use to get comfortable with a course of action.