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