September 19, 2013

The 5 Marks of an Influential Message

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If they don’t receive the message, then you haven’t really communicated. My old teacher and friend, Howard Hendricks, always used to say this kind of thing. Good communication is a message both sent and received.


Messages are everywhere. In 2012, CNN reported that the average 18-29 year old sends 88 text messages a day (and I’m guessing that number hasn’t dropped in the last year). Some experts estimate that we see 5,000 advertising messages daily. In 2010, 107 trillion emails were sent, and the average corporate worker sent or received 105 each day.

That’s a ton of messaging we’re part of, and I haven’t even mentioned any verbal messages—meetings, conversations, classes, speeches, etc.

Let’s talk about the sender.

Truly important and groundbreaking messages can easily get lost in the tidal wave of messaging. Tom Fishburne calls this “idea camouflage.” Check out his cartoon and blog on the topic here.


There are a lot of remarkable ideas out there that get lost because they look run-of-the-mill. It’s a combination of two needs—the message must be worth telling and it must be told well.

A few years ago, Tom Addington and I wrote a book called Clout. In the book, we suggested a five-fold test to make sure the messages you send are meaningful. We’re not looking for flashy and attention grabbing. We’re looking for meaningful.

Here’s the test:


  1. Is the message true? Mark Twain wrote, “All men are liars, partial or hiders of facts, half tellers of truths, shirks, moral sneaks. When a merely honest man appears he is a comet—his fame is eternal—needs no genius, no talent—mere honesty.” Honest messengers stand out.
  2. Is the message helpful? In my 30 years of executive coaching, one of the great things I’ve learned is that people don’t want one-liners or general principles. They want help—specific and timely help. I call this “useful strategy.”
  3. Is the message inviting? Watch the difference between the economics teacher here and the English teacher in this clip. It’s not hard to figure out which one has the inviting message.
  4. Is the message relevant? Most businesses, especially advertising companies, go through a transformation every few years brought about by asking themselves some tough questions: Are we in step with people culturally, socially, and in other ways? Do we need to adapt and adjust our message to changing needs in our audience? These questions must now be answered at warp speed as our culture is constantly shifting. Trending topics on Twitter last hours or days and then they are gone. A message that’s relevant today may be worthless in six months.
  5. Is the message clear? St. Augustine told rookie priests that one of the problems of speaking is that the mouth moves at a slower speed than the brain. You have a flash of insight but then you try to explain it and it comes out with far less beauty and clarity than it appears in your mind. Ever had that happen to you? We’ve got to take time to organize our messages in ways that lead recipients at the pace and in the direction we intend. Otherwise, we just lead them in circles.



That’s the five-fold test. Keep in mind, though, that when I say “message,” I’m not simply thinking of someone delivering a TED talk or a commencement speech.

You deliver messages every day. Yes, in the speeches you give but also in the service you offer to customers, the life you model to your children, the brand marketing you offer to the outside world, the story you tell to potential investors across the boardroom table, the way you treat your spouse.

Take a few minutes and jot down the messages you’re sending this week. Then ask yourself these five questions about each message. I’m pretty sure some action points will naturally follow. Anywhere you have a message failing the test, you should consider how to change your message (or your delivery of it).

Influence (or “clout” as I refer to it) is something to be earned and wielded—not just something to be noticed in other people. By shaping our messages, we can have more (and better) clout.

Want to think more about Clout? Check out the book here.

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