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

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

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!