Creating A Guiding Message, Part 1: Framing Your Big Why

Beautiful young woman looking through a telescope with one eye and the second narrowed, mascara, natural make-up, curiosity

Some years ago I celebrated 10 years of teaching people to write and tell their stories with a party at home. It was part party, part workshop, and ex-students – many of them friends now – came from all over the state, and one even made the hike from Sydney. I wanted to celebrate what we’d done over the past ten years, and encourage them to keep writing. As is my wont at the start of a workshop, I gave them a warm-up exercise.

It involved tubes from toilet paper rolls.

They all looked askance at me when I passed them around.

“I hope you’re not trying to tell us that our writing is crap,” one wit remarked, echoing what several of them were thinking.

But the instructions were simple: look through the tube until something catches your eye, and write about that.

It was a remarkable exercise in focus. We were on my property, what I used to call 12 acres of muss and clutter, but what came back weren’t descriptions of my property, but descriptions of entire other worlds, even universes, including the worlds and universes within the writers. But whether far away – ghostly riders sweeping along plains in the distance – or close – ants on bark like pioneers trekking through rugged canyons – it was all happening on my 12 acres.

Things we wouldn’t have noticed if not for the focus. Things we wouldn’t have paid attention to if not for the frame.

The frame told us where to look, and how to look at it.

In my last blog I began talking about guiding messages. A guiding message, also known as a core message, a controlling idea, and an umbrella statement, is absolutely essential.

“A core message is the articulation of why a company exists,” says Cambell Holt, Pacific Consumer Marketing Leader at Mercer. “Core messages act as the compass from which all employees at a company take action – a north star to the outcomes and objectives that the company has set for itself and its customers.”

And yet – as I also said in my last blog post – few businesses have them.



Do you have a guiding message? Or something else?

One reason for this – a huge one – is that many businesses are unaware of what the guiding message actually is, and actually have something else in its place. So let’s begin by talking about what a guiding message is not.


A guiding message is not a value proposition. Value propositions are all about your clients and what you can do for them. Guiding messages are bigger than that.

A guiding message is not a slogan. Slogans may be catchy – Coke adds life, yo – but it doesn’t really say anything. A guiding message says everything.

A guiding message is not a mission statement. Mission statements are public apologias, and your guiding message needn’t be shared with anyone other than the people who work with you (and in fact, I suggest you don’t).

A guiding message is not detailed. The details provide context later; the guiding message is broad, short, and very simple.

A guiding message doesn’t need to be pretty. See “It needn’t be shared with anyone”, above.

A guiding message isn’t jargony or buzzwordy. Buzzwords and jargon actually remove us from the principles that are really at stake – it’s why they’re so popular – and you cannot be removed from your guiding message. In fact, you must be absolutely and highly emotionally invested in it.


How do you create one? It all begins with a frame.


Your frame

So what is a frame? In communication terms, it’s a metaphor for what you concentrate on when you’re communicating something, and how you communicate it. Applied broadly to communicating with the world, it includes the format that will make your communication relevant to people, and influence how those people feel or think about it.

It’s not my 12 acres. It’s what in my 12 acres you choose to focus on through the circle frame of that loo paper tube. It’s how you tell me about what you can see. And it’s how I feel or what I think after you have told me.

Your guiding message is a powerful tool that drives communication (including content, natch), action – yours and your clients – and your ability to weather any change or storm that may come. A true north star, as Holt calls it. And once you have your frame, you’re most of the way to a guiding message that does exactly this. Matthew Nisbet, a professor at Northeastern University, tells us that the “most successful communicators are adept at framing”. This not only puts your frame right smack in the middle of your guiding message, but it also puts the importance of pretty words in a message into sharp perspective. (Hint: they’re somewhere between not very important, and not important at all.)


It begins with your values…

Why do you do what you do? I mean really? I’m not talking about meeting market needs – they are irrelevant here – and I’m not talking about your need to earn a crust: there is a reason you have chosen this particular way to earn one, and you need to know what it is. It’s your Big Why. (Note: it’s possible that you may not have a Big Why, even after doing the investigative exercises below. I doubt it, given that there are Big Whys for just about everything we do if we dig deep enough, but if that’s the case, get on it. Have some sessions with a great business coach, or create a Big Why that appeals to you, and live and breathe by it, over and over again, until it becomes real.)

Brian Hennesy, the founder of Thread, has a great question to start the process. “To help clients start thinking in the right direction, the question I ask now is, ‘how will the world be a better place once you become the market leader?'” Similarly, Message House gets their clients to ask themselves, “Why does our project matter in the larger scheme of things?

These are huge questions, and they should be: nothing else will do for a guiding message because it is supposed to power every single thing you say and do. So how will the world be a better place once you’re the market leader? Why does your project matter in the larger scheme of things?

OK, let’s get you a few parameters for this massive question so that we don’t end up with a Scanners-type scenario with the exploding brains. In The Art of Framing, Gail Fairhurst and Robert Sarr talk about goals, and the type of goals that may form the basis for a Big Why. These can be:


– Task Goals

– Relationship Goals

– Identity Goals

– Global Goals

– Short Term Goals

– Emergent Goals


When you know what your goals are, you can start thinking about why you set them in the first place.

The beauty of all this navel gazing is that like Fairhurst and Sarr say, the better you understand who you are, the better you will understand who “they” are. Or in storytelling terms, the more personal the story is, the more universal it is. So don’t be afraid of going big – and indeed deep – with your Big Why because the more you do, the more you will connect with others who have those same values.


And it finishes with how you tell us about it.

So you have your Big Why. The one thing about you and your business that you want me to concentrate on. How are you going to tell it to me, through your words and actions? It’s tempting to think about pretty words here, but resist it. What’s important is that you have a grip on the vehicle rather than the scenery.

According to Henessy, Chipotle’s guiding message is that even simple ingredients can have a higher calling; this message is shown to us through a frame that includes all the evidence that points to that exact thing. Likewise, your frame must include all the evidence that confirms your Big Why. How Chipotle does this, and how you do, is a matter of making the choice that best resonates with you.

Fairhurst and Sarr give us several ways to do this, including:


Through stories: a narrative frame makes a message vivid, engaging, and relatable.

Through metaphor: a conceptual frame provides layers of meaning.

Through tradition or artefact: a symbolic frame, linked to cultural mores, tells of something more meaningful than the tradition or the artefact itself.


The combination of your values with how you tell the world about them is your message. Go and write it down! I’ll wait here until you come back. Just remember to make it clear and concise: if it takes you longer than 10 seconds to read out loud in your normal voice, it’s way too long.


Be an evangelist

You have your message – now what? Well, you certainly don’t want to print it out on gorgeous paper and put it on the wall where it will never be looked at ever again. And you certainly don’t want it to get lost among the million day-to-days of the business. Messages, and frames, get stronger and stronger, and truer and truer, with repetition, which is why it’s a good idea to live and breathe by an “invented” Big Why if you’re one of the people who say they don’t have one.

Repetition doesn’t mean saying it over and over again: it means living by it. It’s not about convincing, but about conviction.

“To get the most mileage from a core message, the leaders of the business must be relentless evangelists for that message,” says Holt, “testing every action and investment across the business against the core message to see whether what’s being done furthers the companies’ pursuit of delivering on the core message or not.” To make sure the message holds true across all functions of the business, leaders must “hold themselves and everyone else to account when things aren’t aligned with the core message and purpose.”

What happens when you don’t? Well, the clue is in the pictures I’ve dotted throughout this piece. There’s the main subject of the frame… and what’s on the outer of the frame. How do you feel about the main subjects when you see what’s on the outer? What are you concentrating on when you look at the picture? Do you find that once you’ve seen what’s on the outer side of the frame, you can’t unsee it? That’s what happens when your actions don’t fit the frame. Credibility goes out the window, your message becomes worthless – laughable, even – and people’s trust in you disappears.

On the other hand, what happens when you do? Absolute power and impact. But only if you exercise one additional thing. What it is, next time.




Photo credit: © Iniraswork via Depositphotos

Your Guiding Message – Why You Must Have One, And How To Get One

Sunset lighthouse landscape ( 3d rendering)


That’s my muse, sitting at my shoulder, telling me to tell you stuff. Not that I believe in muses exactly – I believe in brains – but she’s a useful metaphor for what drives me. And anyway – I love listening to her because she’s basically Carol Kane’s character Lillian in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Anyway, my muse – let’s call her Lillian – has been at me because for the past month or so my work has taken me to businesses, both big companies and solo flyers, that are struggling with their message. Not just that, but over the course of one day I had two brilliant articles arrive in my Inbox also speaking about message. Lillian thinks it’s time for me to weigh in.

Last week I spoke about how having a powerful guiding message is the secret to great communication, whether it happens in the common room or in your content. A powerful guiding message overrides all faults you may have and hits people where it counts. Right in the feels, and right in the decision-making centres of the brain, because it’s based on principles that we are geared to respond to. A guiding message is the story of your business’s story.

Not only that, but because communication is also actions, having a powerful guiding message is also key to every decision you make in your business, whether you’re hiring staff or wondering where in the world your product is going to be manufactured. I see it over and over again, that the biggest failures in business are where there’s a disconnect between message and actions, while the biggest successes are where the message is literally lived across all functions of the business.

Guiding messages are powerful.

And yet, few businesses have them.

The problem is that many businesses think they have them.


A powerful guiding message is not about pretty words

So here’s how most of my business enquiries go. A decision maker in a company comes up to me and says the equivalent of, “Hey! You know words! Fix these!” The words are not hitting their mark, they’re not engaging, they’re not making people do anything. It must be the words! It’s because they don’t have the gift of [insert whatever you think makes words great] and they’d like me to fix them, please and thank you, and then they’ll be on their way, all problems solved.

Except that it’s seldom about the words. It’s about a clutch of vital elements that need to be in place before you even think about words and how they sound or read. The first of these elements is having a guiding message for everything you send out into the world.

Most businesses have some sort of message – the marketers and the workshopping meetings have certainly done their job – and I have certainly seen them, often hung up on a frame where everyone can see them and be Inspired. If you have one, I bet it’s gorgeous. You’ve either spent considerable time writing it so that it reads beautifully, or you’ve rehearsed it so that you can faultlessly recite it at the drop of a hat. And chances are that it says everything… and nothing. I mean really: once you scrape away all the pretty verbiage, what are you left with? An underlying message that can power a revolution, or just another value proposition?


Your message has to move you if it’s going to move anyone else

When I talk about a revolution, I’m talking about a revolution that begins with you and then works its way outwards. This is the way that revolution begins: with personal conviction that drives action, and action that draws others with similar conviction and their own reasons for having them. Even Ché Guevara believed that a revolutionary must be guided by a great feeling of love. And if it was good enough for my man Ché, it is good enough for you and me. So. What is your great conviction? You must know, because it’s the root of your message. It’s the key to making people sit up and take notice, and eventually, follow. As I used to tell my students: your message has to move you if it’s going to move anyone else. If it doesn’t, you’ve got no business putting it out there.

What I’m talking about is your purpose. Your big Why. The all-encompassing, big-theme reason why you do what you do. Why do you do what you do?

Take some time to think about this and really feel it. Got it? Good. You’re halfway there.

Blog quote_A guiding message is the story of your business's story

Just halfway? Yes. Look – I was half lying when I mentioned those gorgeous messages just before. A lot of the time businesses do mention purpose and a big Why. Maybe yours does, too. But it’s missing the other half of the equation. The one that requires you to really go out on a limb.


Your message needs authority

Ask the average businessperson why a client or customer would go to their website – let’s use websites as a fairly common example of a channel for communication and content – and they may say something like, “information” or “to buy my product or service”. If this is you, and your answer, I can pretty much predict that your website is doing nothing much. Whatever information, product or service you have, that is not enough to either bring or keep people there, or get them to act. Not even if your big fat Why is written on letters of fire across the front page. No. Without authority, your message is just more noise.

My writing students used to be fond of summing up their year with me in precise little snippets. This is why one student, after an entire year learning about fiction and storytelling, summed up the course in a reflective piece called, “Conflict, Bloody Conflict”. And it’s why one time, teaching the same principle for the umpteenth time in a nonfiction class, I started to say my usual phrase and the students completed it for me in unison: “If you don’t have authority, you don’t have a leg to stand on”.

The same nonfiction principle applies in all your communications, including marketing communications. If you don’t have authority, you’ve got nothing. Remember that people can get information from Wikipedia. They can get any product or service from anywhere in the world. Authority in your message is everything.

Authority is the real reason why people come to you, and engage with what you’ve got to say.

When I say authority, what am I talking about? I’m talking about a particular stance, viewpoint, or platform. It’s rock-solid, and more than belief. It is sure knowledge. It says to the word, “This is the way things are, and everything I say and do proves it”. Brian Hennessy, the founder of Thread – who calls the guiding message the “controlling idea” – says that “like every movie you love, every brand you love says, ‘Life is like this‘”.


Claiming authority is a risk with a supreme reward

Saying “Life is like this” is a huge pronouncement. Making such huge pronouncements – particularly in this time and culture – is a big deal, and it’s why so many people stop short in their guiding message, getting only as far as their purpose and going no further. It’s not that no one has told them this stuff – plenty have – but that they’d rather just not do it. Why?

The first reason is the simplest: maybe there really isn’t a stance to take. Maybe your conviction about the widgets and doohickeys you make only goes so far. Fair enough. And if business is great, please, carry on. But if business isn’t great, please understand that there are people out there who not only have powerful purpose behind the widgets and doohickeys they make, but also have mighty authority leading the charge. This puts them way ahead of you, even if your widgets and doohickeys are better.

The second reason is the biggie: claiming authority is risky. As soon as you adopt a rock-solid stance, and refuse to deviate from it, you are in a position of great vulnerability. Not only do you stand to alienate a bunch of people – fear of this is a good sign that your communications and marketing strategies aren’t up to par, by the way – but you have also opened yourself up to constant scrutiny.

Scary, innit?

Maybe. What if I told you that scrutiny is exactly what you want? Because scrutiny means people are watching, reading, listening, measuring, and considering. And if that’s not engagement, then I don’t know what the heck it is. Neither does Lillian.

Next week I’ll show you how to craft your guiding message. Until then, keep sending out your communications anyway. Even if you’re at the point where you’ve only just begun to care, you’re already miles ahead of most of the noisemakers out there.



Image credit © vicnt2815 via Depositphotos

The Secret to Great Communication

Author Harper Lee smoking cigarette on porch. DONALD UHRBROCK/Getty Images

Photo credit: Author Harper Lee smoking cigarette on porch. Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Oh, it was gorgeous: a Victorian-era hotel, with gleaming wood and leather, and lots of circulating canapés, bubbles, and high heels. At a beautifully glam women-only event, I was part of a panel where seven of us addressed issues relating to women in business.

“I wonder if you would like to speak to the fact that women often hold themselves back because of the words and phrases they use,” the interviewer addressed me. “Things that belittle, or reduce the impact and value they offer. What I mean is,” she continued, “women so often apologise, or put themselves down, and say things like, ‘I just have a quick thing I want to share’ or ‘I’m probably way off track, but have you thought about?…'”

Oh, yeah. I can speak to it. And at great length. This is because it’s something that affects everyone – not just women – and because it covers one of those massive principles that few people catch sight of. Once they do, it changes the way that they communicate forever.


People eventually believe your “weasel words”

But first, the surface problem. Yes: we use self-deprecation in our language all the time, particularly here in Australia, where humour is also dry and tall poppies tend to get cut down. We use it for all kinds of reasons that range from cultural conditioning to deliberately wanting to send a “See? I don’t have tickets on myself” message. We add what I call “weasel words” – such as apologies and qualifiers – not realising the impact that they have. Weasel words weasel themselves into our communication and undermine us most effectively: maybe not if you use them once, or twice, or even three times. But over the long haul? You betcha. The problem with weasel words is that they affect even the people who have the utmost intention of listening to you and taking you seriously.

The problem with weasel words is that eventually, people begin to believe them.

It comes from you being so good, you see. There you are: brilliant at what you do, and doing it consistently. Not only that, but you have solid ethics that you live by even when you’re home and there’s no one other than the cat watching. This means that people trust you. They trust that when you say you’ll do something you’ll do it, and they trust that when you say something, it’ll be true. So when you self-deprecate too much, people think, on a non-conscious level, “Huh. She always says the truth, so… if she’s implying that what she’s saying isn’t that important, then it probably isn’t.”

And look: I get it. I know that it’s difficult to “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes” like Maggie Kuhn said. That’s why you have to dig deeper to find the principle that’s really at stake. The one that when you get it, will change all your communications – whether written, spoken, or expressed in any way – forever, and make them hit people where it counts.


You must care more about the message than about yourself

I taught my first writing class about 21 years ago. It was in what is known as the most isolated town in Victoria, and what I know as God’s country: Tubbut, up in the high country, where the Snowy River runs. I was working as a freelance writer then, and had no idea about teaching, so I was a mass of nerves. My nerves, however, turned out to be nothing compared to the students’: sharing their work out loud and placing it under class scrutiny was something that they did in shaking voices, sometimes in tears, and sometimes after everyone else had had a go and I was blocking the exit so there was no escape. But I loved this group of writers, and wanted the best for them and their writing, so I gave them the advice that was given to me for refining and polishing, because suited the situation perfectly, and the moment they got it was the moment they truly became writers. You must care more about the piece of writing than about yourself.

Egos are fragile. They want to be liked and loved and accepted, so when the ego is at the helm, what’s at stake when you write and share your writing is just that: pleasing others. They feel good, you feel good, nobody’s put out, everybody wins! Sounds great, right? Except that it always makes for spectacularly crapful writing.

Years on, and I have proven that this is not just the key to writing, but all communication. It banishes fear, embarrassment, shame, and nerves if not forever, then at least to where they cannot interfere with what you have to say. But only if you get it. Only if you truly, truly get it.

You must care more about your message than about yourself.


 Blog quote_You must care more about the message than about yourselfA powerful message needs conviction behind it

If you’re afraid, or nervous, or embarrassed, or whatever, the problem isn’t your delivery of the message. It’s that you don’t know what the message is. Or that you know what it is, but simply don’t care enough.

The only thing that’ll get you over your powerful ego is nothing less than the most powerful conviction.

We’re not big on conviction these days. Most of us tend to be pretty moderate most of the time, and that’s great, because it allows us to be open-minded and inclusive. But your message is the one thing that you cannot possibly be moderate about. You need to know it, and have a powerful conviction of it, hammering it with nails of steel into your chest because it’s the only thing that will overcome your racing heart.

Conviction overcomes any fault

Moses had some sort of speech problem. Maybe he stuttered, maybe he was introverted and hated public speaking. We don’t know, except that at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We are told that once he accepted his call, his conviction and message were so strong that he led the captive Israeli nation out of Egypt. George VI became King of the United Kingdom by accident. It was a terrible situation for a shy, stuttering prince, and one that got worse when he was called to lead his people through the horrors of WWII. But his conviction in the greatness and resilience of the British people gave his message power, and lead them he did. Harper Lee was painfully shy. She wrote one true book – certainly one true novel, not a draft – in her life, and disappeared from public sight. But her powerful conviction that we are all equal, and we must all aspire to the highest within ourselves, influenced anyone who read To Kill A Mockingbird, and it’s the reason why I, along with countless others, mourned her when she died a couple of weeks ago, and will mourn her until the day I die, and will miss her, even though I never met her.

Imperfect people. Carried aloft by powerful messages.

And then there are the people whose delivery is oh-so-polished and beautiful, but when you scratch away to get at the message, you know it’s not there. I don’t need to tell you who these people are. You’ve met plenty of them.

Here’s a message to you if you’re one of the shy, or the nervous, or the embarrassed, or the self-apologetic: get over it. It’s not about you. It’s about the message. And if it isn’t, then sipping champagne and eating canapés is all you’ll ever do.

In Praise of The Inessential, Optional, Unrequired, and Otherwise Unnecessary

Closeup shot of stirring cherry jam with spoon in metal saucepan

I love making preserves. I am the jam, jelly, and marmalade queen, man. Beyond fancy cars, beyond jewellery, beyond a pair of handmade tango shoes from Buenos Aires, homemade preserves are where luxury is at.

What makes them luxurious? The fact that someone took old-fashioned time and care to make them. And furthermore, took time and care to make them when it really isn’t necessary. Think about it: no matter how good, a jar of jam is still a jar of jam, and it’s pretty much something that anyone can buy anywhere. And yet people like me – without orchards or even a single fruit tree – find themselves in the kitchen, thoughtfully stirring pans of sugared fruit.

Luxury. The luxury of the unnecessary.

A luxury that’s becoming rarer every day. Why?

Well, it’s certainly not time: we actually have more leisure time now than we did 40 years ago, even if it doesn’t seem that way. (And “seem” is right: the faster pace of our lives affects how we perceive time, and how we distribute it makes us feel that there isn’t enough of it.)

But there’s another issue: that despite us seeing ourselves as modern, forward-thinking people, we still have profoundly puritanical* roots, and as many of the old virtues are set aside in this brave new world, the puritan inside us still needs expression. And the most common expression is our attitude towards our usage of time.

Truly. Most of us tend to pride ourselves on being open-minded, non-judgmental individuals, and yet when we see someone doing something we think is unnecessary, we exclaim, “How do you have time for THAT?” Rather than being sorry that we don’t have time to do that thing, we feel… well, we feel a little important. A little virtuous. Years ago in an ad for supermarket cakes, two schoolgirls compare lunches: one displays the homemade goodies her mother has made her, and then the other displays the supermarket cake and says, “My mum packed me this – because SHE has a LIFE?” And if that’s not self-righteous, or judgmental, or self-important, I’ll eat my tall, black Puritan’s hat.

Get a life, we say, meaning a life that includes only The Important Stuff. Because, in some whacky reasoning we picked up somewhere along the way, we figure that when we only do Important Stuff, that makes us Important.

Not that I’m against Important Stuff. What I’m against is that relatively few of us sit down to ask whether what we’re doing is important to us, to whether it’s someone else’s idea of important. (Take “Time is money”, for example. Is this our personal philosophy, or that of the people who first put clocks in factories in the 18th Century? And who was that money for really: the workers or the factory owners? Seriously.)

I put it to you that the Inessential, Optional, Unrequired, and Otherwise Unnecessary may not be “important” by anyone else’s standard, but it can still play a vastly important role in your life. Devoting time to the Inessential, Optional, Unrequired, and Otherwise Unnecessary can give you bountiful riches.

To understand why and how, we have to go back to talking about luxuries. How do you feel when you buy yourself a luxury? It’s an indulgence, right? And something else. Something you may not admit, particularly if you’re strapped: you feel as though you have plenty.

Here’s the beautiful irony in all this: when you spend time on the Inessential, Optional, Unrequired, and Otherwise Unnecessary, you feel as though you have plenty of time. Suddenly, the idea that that you’re time poor vanishes like the illusion it always was.

There is, however, one rule – the rule that ensures you honour your time on this planet for the gift it is: you have to do that unnecessary thing with volition. In other words, you have to choose it, and be aware why you’re choosing it.

On Valentine’s Day, I launched The Hearting Project. I’m doing it for fun, and because I think it can make a difference. It’s not a necessary thing, either to me or those who choose to do it with me. I launched it during a very busy time in my life; a time when I could be doing just about any other worthwhile thing. But because I chose to do it, and know exactly why, it is a luxury that makes me feel rich, in so many ways.

What Inessential, Optional, Unrequired, or Otherwise Unnecessary thing will you choose today?





* I don’t mean literally Puritan, or at least not necessarily; just their influence, and similar cultural influencers. Got me? OK – let’s move on.

Photo credit © Kryzhov via Depositphotos

Why you need to keep this one secret


I’m all for transparency. Transparency, unless we’re talking about David Lee Roth’s stagewear circa 1984, is a good thing: it’s a linchpin of trust and communication, and you know that at some point somewhere, no matter how many scary-looking, spiky charts the company accountant shows you, it all boils down to trust and communication.

Still, some secrets are worth keeping. Superheroes from Clark Kent to Jessica Jones keep their identities secret so that they can be left alone to save the world in peace. My mother believed that a woman should neither put on or take off her girdle in front of her husband. And me? I believe that every business, before it grabs the shiny new thing – whether it’s story, or content, or marketing communications, should have a secret message.

A secret message combines elements of your business’s core values and strategy and stands above everything you do and communicate, informing your actions and communications directly. It is a guiding principle that helps you make every decision, and helps you construct and send every message. Without it, everything you say will either fall flat, or fall in a heap when you or your business is tested.

When you keep your secret message front and foremost, it gives you precise focus, and directly influences everything you do and say, and how you do and say it.

It’s for your eyes only; not your customers’ or clients’. Why? Because first and foremost, they won’t care. All they care about is the results. This is exactly as it should be, and also good for you because of the second reason: your secret message doesn’t have to be pretty.

I have seen, time and time again, businesses get stuck on a public message, tagline, or vision/mission statement. I’m talking months here (the maximum so far is 18 of them)! Everything is in suspended animation until they get their message just so. They imagine dire consequences if they don’t megaphone exactly what they’re about to the world in the exact right words.

But it’s simply not true. With a secret, internal message guiding your decisions and communications, your clients and customers will get the message of what you’re about loud and clear.

And without it? That’s shaky ground, right there, no matter how good you are at expressing yourself. Where is your focus coming from? How are your clients and customers supposed to read your words and actions? The pretty stories you tell – what are they actually for? What is keeping your words congruent with your values?

It’s not worth skipping your secret message, particularly when it’s so quick and easy to put one together.

Your secret message is made up of three simple things:




When you’re talking people, you’re talking about you and your team, and your clients or customers. Who are you all? Define everyone, but not too specifically: you want to leave room for creativity and the vagaries of the market.

Next is your practice. Here you need to define not only what it is that you do, but also what your clients or customers think that you do for them. It’s vital that you are able to see your practice from their point of view as well.

Finally, let’s talk why. Why do you do what you do? And also, importantly, why do your clients or customers come to you?

You can put it together in a few sentences, or in – forsooth! – dot points. It doesn’t need to be pretty, just practical.

We’re a bunch of programmers and assorted IT geeks who work for decision makers in the freight transport industry. We provide them with software that logs and tracks freight. It makes freighting a lot more efficient, and saves them time and money. We do this because we care about the impact of freight transport on the environment; the more efficient it is, the less impact it has. Also, we think trains and trucks are cool. Clients come to us because we’re reliable and available 24 hours a day, and there’s nothing we won’t do to make freight as efficient as it can be.

And that’s it. You can see how a secret message like this can impact all your messaging, whether it’s in the form of marketing, or internal or external communications, and in fact, any decision you make. Crucially, it also allows you to see where your goals and your clients’ or customers’ intersect. This makes for better communications, and better business. And that’s no secret.

The Ultimate Expert


Not me. You.

OK, me. But it’s me, telling you it’s you.

But wait – before both our brains boggle themselves into total fritz-out, let me backtrack just a tad.

Last month, and against all common sense (it was just before Christmas) I ran my inaugural Content Marketing Strategy for Small Business workshop which, by the way, was a great success as well as being brilliant. Throughout the six hours we were together, I took participants through the basic principles of content and engagement: getting to know your market and audience intimately, and planning for the content that is most useful to them, at the best time for them, in a way that will also benefit the business. And content marketing is all about getting to know that market and audience, what with the customer profiles, demographics, buyer personas, and everything short of a palm reading for every customer who walks through the door. A pretty clear message. Or so I thought. Close to the end of the workshop, one of my awesome participants asked, “So… what kind of content should I have?”

My mouth dropped, albeit briefly, because hadn’t I just spent six hours taking her through the process of getting to know her market and audience, and the content she should provide for them? I had, and after checking in with her, I realised that she got it. So what was the issue? It was that because I was delivering the workshop, and I was the “expert” in the room, she thought I would know better than she did what her market and audience would need and want.

I don’t. That’s where my expertise ends. And if you are listening to experts telling you what to do with your business, you should know, very clearly, where their expertise ends and yours begins.

The cult of the expert is everywhere, and it’s easy to slavishly follow what the expert says. But take note that the expert doesn’t know your business, or your market and audience, like you do – unless you’ve hired her to do so.

A day or two after this workshop, I was on LinkedIn where a contact shared an article about how it’s vitally important that every business’s social media strategy be mostly composed of pictures, because graphics have so much more engagement. Every business, the article said. And there’s my LinkedIn contact innocently sharing the article, not taking into account that its subtext is, “I know your market and audience better than you do”.

Sure: people like it when I put pix up on my social media. They like them, and engage with them, but are graphics really what they want and need? And more importantly for my business, does it tell them anything about me, my brand, and my ability to do the job that they might one day want me to do? Because pictures may be nice, but I’m out there earning a crust as a communication specialist: people need to know that I can write and communicate worth a damn, that I have a couple of brain cells to rub together, and that I can come up with an original idea now and then. I know my market and audience – they’re my people, and I’ve spent considerable time and energy getting to know them – far better than the expert who wrote this article. So while she may well be an expert, she’s not an expert on my people and what they need from me. That, in a nutshell, is knowing where her expertise ends, and mine begins.

Where does my expertise – and that of other “experts” – end, and yours begin?

Do you know your people? Who are they? I don’t mean just as a market and audience, but on a real, human level? Have you taken the time to get to know them – if not all, then at least a goodly number – and to ask them what they need from you? Do you keep an eye on your stats and metrics, to check what brings people to you, and what makes them run away? Have you got some buyer personas that will help you create an accessible, engaging voice your people will respond to?

If you have, and you do, you’re an expert. And if you haven’t and don’t, then become one. It’s simple, and you know what? It’s a privilege to know your people so well. When you do, even if there’s a time that you need to bring the expert in, you can work as equals, shoulder to shoulder. And that’s good for you, and good for them.

Trust me on that one. I’m an expert.


Photo credit © everett225 via DepositPhotos

Become dispensable. You heard me.

Man wearing waistcoat saluting

OK, I’m back. Did you miss me? No? Good. Why? Read on.

January blogs and posts are normally variants on “It’s a brand new start!” or “Make the new year your best year yet!” There’s nothing wrong with these – goodness knows I’ve done them before, albeit with a twist – but after being away, I’ve been thinking about being away, absent in body and mind, and most probably absent from people’s minds, and how this is a good thing.

Being dispensable is a good thing.

A good thing? Anathema!

If you are an employee – even at the highest levels of management – or if you are a business owner, I’m putting down five big ones (that’s five Chunky Kit Kats, by the way, not $5,000) that over the decades you’ve been brainwashed into believing that the secret of your success lies in being considered indispensable. People can’t do without you! They want you, you alone, and nobody else but you!

The harsh reality is that in business, nobody in this world is completely and utterly indispensable. No one wants to hear that, but there it is. We’re dispensable. You’re dispensable. Someone, somewhere, has the ability to take your place away, or to put themselves in your place. But we deny it, so entire business cultures, not just here but around the world, are constructed around the idea that we can become indispensable if we do the right things. Work harder. Work longer. Be better. Give more. Except, of course, that it doesn’t work.

So how can embracing the idea that we are indispensable be a good thing?

Simple. There is a massive difference between being considered dispensable, and considering yourself indispensable.

Knowing that you are considered dispensable can be crippling*. But considering yourself dispensable is liberating.

When you consider yourself dispensable, you suddenly feel free, and you become a lot more generous, too. A weight is off your shoulders (“Who else is going to do this if I don’t?”), and the idea that you could be gone any minute leaves you free to share of your knowledge and resources so that people could hypothetically step in.

When I was working as a trainer, I liked to tell my colleagues that I ran my training in such a way that should I happen to drop dead in the middle of a training session, one of them would be able to step in (after ringing 000, natch), look at my lesson plan, my notes, and my resources, and pick up where I left off. What this translated to, in a practical way, was being organised, transparent, and generous with what I have both in my brain and in the way of tangible resources. As it so happens, this week I heard of exactly this situation, where the teacher died, quite suddenly. Except that he had kept the material so close to his chest that no one can effectively take over from him. Dozens of his students left in the lurch, and possibly worse still, no one to carry on his work, his legacy gone before it could even exist.

When you consider yourself dispensable, you begin to truly care about the work itself, rather than your fragile ego. You concentrate on what matters rather than on playing games or climbing ladders, or on relationships that are based on suspicion rather than interdependence and trust. You share. You delegate to people who would love the opportunity to do some of what you do.

Because of all this, when you consider yourself dispensable, you’re not insecure. In fact, you’re more confident than ever: you know that the people around you, your clients and customers, the people who manage you, keep you in that position not because they have to, but because they choose to. And that is the most powerful position of all.

So the more you consider yourself dispensable, the more indispensable you seem to others. Funny, isn’t it?

You take a break from work or business and you know that everything’s going to be all right. That’s why I’m glad you didn’t miss me, and you had other stuff to be getting on with. And that’s why I hope you think you’re dispensable, too.


*Note: retrenchments, downsizings, and copies of “Who Moved My Cheese?” aside, it’s not always crippling, if wisely done. A friend, whose son is being headhunted by soccer sleuths in Europe, has told me that the young soccer players in the training programs are eminently well behaved and responsible, and unlikely to go on drug- and alcohol-fuelled benders. They are well aware that for every one of them, there are hundreds if not thousands of other equally talented players out there, waiting to be discovered and take their place.


Photo credit © luismolinero via DepositPhotos

An Opinionated Dame’s Advice On Absolutely Everything You Should Be Doing

Dear Abby


Well. Almost everything.

And the opinionated dame? Me.

Here it all is: my best advice for 2015, shortened to a few words that will get 2016 cranking for you.

  • Unless you have trust, you’re dead where you stand.
  • If you’ve gone to the trouble of creating personas, don’t just let them sit there: tell their stories.
  • Cultivate your damn voice.
  • … unless you need to make something up to someone. If you do, don’t be a jerk.
  • Also jerky: either paying for, or offering, a $15,000 program for writing your own business book. Don’t do it.
  • If you don’t know why anyone should care about what you’re trying to say, you’re just being self-indulgent. Quit it.
  • It’s never too late to make a difference in someone’s life. Start now.


See you all in 2016! Happy New Year!

What have you done?

think positive concept, only natural and soft light, selective focus on eye

Because it’s over so many loudspeakers at this time of year, I guess there’s a bunch of people who think that John Lennon’s Happy Christmas is uplifting. The fact that it’s a political song protesting the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam) isn’t lost on me, and I find it incredibly poignant. Except for one line, which is beyond poignant, and always seems directed at me:

“And what have you done?”

Suddenly, Lennon isn’t just Lennon: he’s the voice of my conscience, and he forces me to stop, and take stock on the year behind. It’s not necessarily a warm-n-fuzzy thing. For those of us who ascribe a deeper meaning to this time of the year other than celebrating, the question of “What have you done?” is laden with both responsibility and accountability. Don’t get me wrong: I celebrate plenty – mine is a happy, celebrational, at times rather silly family – but this particular kind of self-assessment is dead serious.

Whether you run your own business or work for someone else, the constant underlying theme most often is, “Do! Do! Do! Achieve! Achieve! Achieve! Succeed! Succeed! Succeed!” And when you look back on the challenges of the past year and ask yourself, “What have you done?” the answers aren’t always easy. They’re certainly not easy for me. Which is why it’s important to have more than one measuring stick.

My measuring stick of choice? Other people.

If you’re looking inside for the answer of “What have you done?” you’re only getting part of the story. Look outside you. Look around you. What impact have you had on others’ lives this year?

In my business, I have a policy that in 30 minutes I can help you solve a problem, or point you in the right direction. I’ve helped lots of people solve problems this year, or pointed them in the right direction. This is pretty cool.

I left my primary school in Argentina in Grade 4, but the impact it had on me was profound, and I owe it a debt of gratitude equal to that of my parents, for starting my life as a writer and wordsmith. When I attended, the school was straight-up middle-class, but it’s now educating children from the lowest socioeconomic sectors, and they need help. I help as much as I can. This year when I visited, a mass of beautiful smiling children, resplendent in their white smocks, surrounded me and just about climbed over each other to show off their English to me. This was extremely cool.

And Kiva, the organisation that allows me to make loans to entrepreneurs around the world, and that I bang on about to anyone who will listen, sent me this email last week.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 11.46.13 am

It made me go back and check out my portfolio over the last eight years. The stats are interesting because for the first few years I all but poked at Kiva with a stick from a safe distance, but a few years ago, I decided to increase the loans I make every single year. This added up to 36 loans in 2015. Very, very cool.

Why am I telling you this stuff? Well, certainly not to show off. I’m telling you so that you will remember that whatever you do, it’s not all about you. In fact, unless you have a serious personality disorder, it seldom is.

And more importantly, I’m telling you this to remind you that it’s never too late.

It may be too late to make your KPIs this year. It may be too late to make a profit, or even to break even. It may be too late to secure that promotion. It may be too late to get that project off the ground before year’s end.

But it’s not too late to make a difference in someone’s life.

Then, when you ask yourself what you have done, you can answer, “I’ve done good.”



Photo credit © Kuzmafoto via Depositphotos

How You Talk Is How You Act



My husband swears. Sometimes, a lot.

Most of the time, he’s eloquent and witty, but when he’s upset with a situation or some poor inanimate object, out it comes. And it’s no wonder: he was raised in a country town that’s not known for being anywhere that people mince words, and then spent decades in the film and TV industries, which aren’t exactly known for their diplomacy and tact. Because I’m eternally 14 years old on the inside, it makes me giggle (although granted, whether I giggle within earshot depends on how upset he is).

And last week, he did something that was a small thing, but it’s actually one of those Big Things.

My husband drives a lot for his business, and has increasingly been using Siri, combined with his phone’s GPS, to get him where he needs to be. Last week he decided to change its voice from female to male because “it can get pretty frustrating, and let’s face it, I’m bound to swear at it eventually”. He decided that he didn’t want to be swearing at a female persona.

Now… you can read this as something not very important, or you can read it like I do: someone truly living his values, even when there’s no one else in the car with him, and even though Siri is just a piece of software. My husband loves and respects his daughters, and his wife, and respects and likes women in general, and the thought of swearing at a female Siri – even in jest – didn’t sit well.

But it wasn’t just about the women, or just about the jest: it was about him. It was his suspicion of what subtle changes might occur in his own mind if he indulged this behaviour; they may be tiny, or even nonexistent, but he didn’t want to risk them.

Strangely enough, my husband’s decision came at the same time as Norwegian charity organization CARE released a powerful, hard-hitting film called “Dear Daddy”. It’s about words. About how words can be lies. And how sometimes, people – both boys and girls – can grow up to believe those lies, with terrible impact.

The many lies that flood our culture include sexist language and jokes, preconceived notions, biases, and attitudes. None – none – of these things are, in fact, trivial. Once upon a time aeons ago, our brains dictated that we create language; but ever since then, language has been creating us. Words can literally change our brains.

The author, psychologist, and activist Steve Biddulph reminds us that “How you talk, ultimately, is how you act.” This is backed by the research of Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman, who say that just “a single word has the power to influence the expression of [our] genes.”

It’s great science, but it still draws the line, like it’s most often drawn, separating how we talk from how we act. And I believe it shouldn’t be, because speech is an action. When we talk, we are acting. And actions have reactions. You know: effects. Consequences.

Newberg and Waldman say that we think we’re great communicators, but compared to other species, we’re actually lousy. And there’s proof, right there: that we’re the only species to not count communication as an action, and because of that, we don’t think it will have consequences. How dumb is that.

But perhaps this is all too much science. I remember when Oprah interviewed Chris Rock and asked him about his usage of “the n-word” (that’s Oprah’s term, by the way), and what he would say to the white people who felt it should give them license to use it. Chris Rock replied, “Forget why I say it. Why do you want to say it?” He went on to ask why, with all the words that white people have at their disposal to describe black people, they would want to use that word. Why they would feel their language is somehow lacking because they can’t use that one word.

Why would they? Why would you?

These are not rhetorical questions. They are important questions that each of us need to answer about the language we use.

To follow on from Chris Rock, if you call a woman any one of countless sexist epithets, why are you doing that? If you let a sexist joke go unquestioned and unchallenged, what’s your reason? What’s your purpose?

If you can’t – or won’t – answer, then stop. When one in five women have experienced sexual violence, and one in three have experienced domestic violence, and you add that to everyday sexism and discrimination, and the disparity between the male and female socioeconomic status, that is too many people believing, acting out, and perpetuating the lies. And the cost is too high. Not just to women, but to our society, and collective conscience.

Change needs to begin somewhere. And your language is the simplest way, and one of the most powerful ways, to begin.


Photo credit: © jmpaget via Depositphotos