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.