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