Why almost every leader is wrong about core messages

by 29 Aug 2012

Why do so many business leaders remain fixated on core messages largely about their organisations, seemingly oblivious to their irrelevance? Geoff Kelly provides some insights to conduct internal communication more effectively.

When it comes to winning hearts and minds to an idea, most leaders and communicators are not even playing on the right field. They remain fixated on core messages largely about their organisations, seemingly oblivious to their irrelevance.

Some are aware they are not cutting through, but the temptation is to blame the receiver for just not getting it. And their remedy? Usually they shout louder and pump out more messages about themselves. Try that at your next cocktail party or social mixer and see how effective it is. Then consider that it works no better in the wider worlds of government and business.

The consequence is that too many sound ideas are dying, and too many good organisations and leaders are failing to get the support and results they deserve.

The full answer is more than would fit into this article. However, we have enough space to make a useful start, so here it is in a nutshell.

First, leaders can’t lead unless they get the attention of others. And in the world’s most over-communicated society in history, failing to get attention is the rock that wrecks many leadership boats.

They don’t realise that the attention and decision-making functions of the human brain are determined by the same parts of the brain that evolved in the age of dinosaurs. Despite hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, the old brain (specifically the amygdala) rules so much of our actions and behaviour.

This is what determines what we pay attention to. Period. It gets confused and slowed down by the abstract and the complex. And it pays no attention at all unless it can immediately see what’s in it for me. So what chance do we have with core messages that are abstract, complex and all about the sender?

Let me give you an example from one financial institution’s corporate social responsibility program: “We care about crime in low socio-economic communities and in partnership with major non Government organisations we are proud we are making a difference in their lives.”

Compare that with “Trouble loves kids with no job prospects. Last year we helped 117 young people from low income families finish a degree or trade. This year helping almost 150 still doesn’t seem enough.”

The amygdala is expert at screening out everything that doesn’t directly interest it, including stuff that is abstract, complex and about someone else. Messages like the first one above both confuse it and slow it down, so in the blink of an eye the amygdala decides to ignore them. But it has laser focus on the bright shiny object that is concrete, simple and directly addresses its current desires and interests.

Of course, keeping attention usually requires more than one or even a few simple messages. It’s a rare piece of corporate poetry that carries that kind of power. So, effective leaders and communicators develop a series of messages, nuggets, and other fascinations that keep building and maintaining interest.

Second, at some point leaders must convert this attention and curiosity to some desired action or support. Essentially, people must come to see their world or the issue at hand differently.

As much as we would like a silver bullet solution, moving people to support and action usually requires more than a few magic messages. Strong messages can start this process, but the heavy lifting needs to come from more highly crafted forms of communication. One example is a core story – perhaps the topic of a future article.

Right now ask yourself: “Are we getting the attention of those most important to us? When they hear our messages, are they asking to know more?” If you are getting attention, are you keeping it and building it? And if you don’t know, what can you do to find out?


About the author

Geoff Kelly works with leaders and executives who need others to buy-in to their ideas and projects. For a copy of the executive report 'Game-changer', which outlines how to lead with an important idea, email Geoff at gkelly@kellystrategicinfluence.com.au

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