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.

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.