How Come No One Believes What You Say?

Cluttered digital media channels compete for decreasing attention spans. Companies that need to tell their own story must do so amid an often anti-business environment, where the bad behavior of a few taints all. The spread of digital misinformation is rampant.  Against this backdrop, times may never have been tougher for companies to be heard and believed. That calls for some timeless principles of communications.

In short, how companies speak—and write—has long been part of the business persuasion problem but it can also be one key to the solution. Advice abounds:  Don’t sound so “corporate.”  Don’t sound legalistic.  Be more authentic.  Get out there and say something.  Empathize.  Emote. Hit back.

Each of those is sometimes good advice.  But none is the place to start if you want people to believe your message, and remember it too. Here are 10 “trail guides” that our decades of experience suggest will produce better results.

Instead of going dark:

  1. No one cares about you, they care about themselves. So, define your audiences and speak to them, not to your fellow CEOs. If I’m a customer, I don’t care why your product isn’t working. I want you to solve my problem and quickly.  If I’m a shareholder, I want to know you have risk under control before I will listen to your growth story. If you want to open minds to the case you must make, get buy-in with a premise even your critics can agree upon.
  2. No one believes what they don’t understand.  Keep it as simple as you can.  Shorter sentences. Simpler words.  Kill the jargon. You may think jargon makes you sound smart. But when was the last time you heard Warren Buffett use jargon?
  3. Tell a Story. The great essayist Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Our brains are wired to explain the world to ourselves in stories.  Your messages need to tell a story.  Hemingway once won a bet he could write a short story in six words (You can look that up.).  Yours will be longer, but it should still be short enough it will be read from start to finish.
  4. Tell a Memorable Story. Meet a need.  Solve a problem. Overcome a hurdle. And say how you will do it in threes. For some reason, people remember best in three themes. “Of the people, by the people….”  If you can distill your messages to three, you will also have the benefit of having thought extra hard about what to say.  No one remembers a dozen talking points.  They will remember three themes that connect. For example: “We see the problem; we’re fixing it; the results will be good for you.”
  5. Be who you are. No prudent company can be entirely “transparent.”  No company can be fully “authentic,” whatever that means.  But every company can be plain, simple and honest.  Be willing to say, “We don’t know, but we’re working on it, and we’ll get back to you.”  That’s safe, but no-frills direct.
  6. Use a bromide only if you have to: Clichés, even corporate cliches, get that status because they can be a handy shorthand. Sometimes they’re unavoidable, either for legal reasons or because the cliché might appeal to a key audience.  But are companies really “laser-focused,” composed of “DNA,” ready to “leverage” everything imaginable and at just the right “cadence?” Not believably.  If clichés are unavoidable, counter-balance them with messages that aren’t over-worked.
  7. If you want to be quoted, be quotable. Media coverage isn’t the solution to persuasion. Today, more than ever, your messages can and should go direct. But if you want reporters to pick up what you’re saying, supply them with the colorful framing that will make for a more readable story. If you don’t want to be quotable, then forget about the soundbite, the analogy, the dazzling number or the Wow! claim.
  8. Turn toward the positive. This doesn’t mean whitewash bad news. But when you face tough times or fierce critics, focus on moving forward, not biting back. If you want to win over the undecided middle, present solutions, without pointing .  Playing the blame game often boomerangs and it never looks good.
  9. Play it again. And again. And again.  Repetition is as essential in a communications campaign as it is in advertising.  Just because you have gotten bored with your message, does not mean your audience has heard it enough.
  10. Finally, make sure your story fits the facts. The one thing worse than telling a story poorly, is telling a story well, only to have it fall apart because it’s not true.

None of this is easy.  Whether you’re a CEO, the head of communications, a CFO or a General Counsel, most of what large companies need to communicate is complex. Your most sophisticated audiences may seem to want you to communicate in jargon. Your “fact patterns” may cry out for hedging what you say. Sometimes they also cry out for saying nothing.  But the closer your organization can get to clear, short and simple the more likely your story will be remembered–and even believed!

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