Last week I was at the Inc. 500 Conference and caught a session with Michael Sheehan, CEO of Sheehan Associates. His company helps businesses, people, and government officials craft messaging. At this session he was discussing how hard it has become to get your message right and get it understood by your audience in a world where we all have information overload.

Michael stressed that your message isn't your brand. I'll admit, at first I was a bit confused by this. But he went on to give a couple of great examples, one of which was Nike. When Nike got bad press for working with overseas companies that employed young children that were barely paid, "Just Do It" was not their answer. With Coca Cola and the health debate, the "Coke Side of Life" isn't their answer to childhood obesity. So he stresses that there is a concentration on branding but not necessarily messaging.

In Michael's eyes we've got what he calls the "4 Horsemen of Contemporary Communication"; I call it "What we're up against."

  • Homogenization of Information — Translation: There are far more channels of information for your customers and prospects to access -- it's not just the newspaper anymore. You need to be defensive and offensive about all of your business communications. In my opinion, that means getting up to speed quick on Twitter to find out what your customers are saying about you in real time.
  • Tsunami-like Characteristics of Issues — Translation: We used to have time to get our messaging correct if there was an issue that arose. Now issues hit big. Think Joe Wilson. Think Obama and the Cambridge Police.
  • Speed Kill on the Informational Superhighway — Translation: Information is coming in from everywhere; things are covered as it happens. This puts pressure on businesses more than ever to respond quickly.
  • One Word or Comment is all it Takes — We need to give more attention to what we say and how we say it so there are not misunderstandings in interpretation.

Finally, first impressions are lasting. Opinions are formed quickly and take forever to change.

What We Can Do About It

Michael must like 4's because he also has 4 Principles of Bressaging (Brand + Messaging). I like that one BTW.

  • (Clutter) — This one is in parenthesis because it's negative. He quoted a stat that said the average person gets 3200 new pieces of data every day. So we need to learn to not clutter our messaging or our points.
  • Salience — By definition salience is the state or quality of an item that stands out relative to neighboring items. How can you convince your different audiences (e.g.: customers, employees, suppliers) about your message and have it clear enough to be noticed?
  • Simple — Be as straight forward as possible. Are your employees on the same page regarding what you do when they speak about your business? It needs to be simple or it won't be heard.
  • Repetition — You need to say it over and over, maybe in different ways to illustrate your message. You may have said it a million times, but there's a new person every day that hasn't heard it.

Michael ended his session with the advice to watch your language! No, he doesn't mean cursing and swearing, he means watching the specific words you use. Do you use words that calm people down or create attention? One good example was an HMO he was working with who used the term "subscriber" instead of "patient," and "provider" instead of "doctor". It was off-putting to both sets of customers, so they changed how they were communicating. Another great example was the "surge" that President Bush was touting versus the "escalation" that the Democrats were using. It all depends on the message you're trying to send.

It sounds to me like we all need to carefully watch what we write and how we speak. As entrepreneurs we're all moving so fast that from time to time we should step back (pull back the camera as Erika Andersen was telling us to do at her session) and look at our key messages to make sure they make sense to everyone we talk to. I know I'm going home to do that at my company VerticalResponse.