Why Your Message Lives or Dies

You’ve got a great message. Maybe you’re marketing a needed service. Maybe you’re instructing a set of students. Maybe you’re preaching a sermon. But there’s a problem, and you can see it – the message is not making it all the way to long-term memory, and it is not leading to the desired behavior change.

Why? Why is it that what you’re saying is being filtered out by some of the recipients, and only a percentage is actually “getting” it? Why does your message live, or die, in the mind of the audience?

I’m going to outline a Theory of Message Reception for consideration and discussion. I owe the seeds and a good bit of the structure of this theory to Elliott Masie (@emasie), a training professional who founded and runs the Masie Center learning think tank in Saratoga Springs, NY. I attended a Social Learning Lab there recently, and while the discussion of social technologies applied to learning/training was interesting, what really got my mind buzzing was a theory of learning Elliott propounded using computer terms. He talked about information that learners process, using personal buffers to filter out/in what would be allowed into (write-protected) storage.

Elliott identified 3 buffers – Value-testing (short-term relevance); Truth-testing (correspondence with reality); and Indexing (does it correspond with, and fit somewhere into, my mental index of information). Something that passes through these filtering mechanisms may get written on our “hard drive.” Because of the overload of (often irrelevant) information, we all need some sort of filters to sift through and find what matters.

This general concept intrigued me, and I wondered if the basic notion might bear the weight of some extensions, and broader applications (beyond learning, into the general notion of message reception). Having mulled it over for several weeks, here’s a preliminary Theory of Message Reception. First, the terribly-executed diagram (I’m not David Armano, after all…), then the explanation.

filters

Your (marketing, instructional, motivational) message is delivered. Before it is “accepted” by the recipient as valid and worthy of remembrance and action, it needs to first pass through four filters:

  1. Source - is the person/medium delivering this message authoritative and believable?
  2. Relevance - does this matter to me, now? (Masie’s value-test)
  3. Reality - does this message seem to be in accord with what I believe to be accurate and real? (Masie’s truth-test)
  4. Core Convictions – does this message line up with my first principles – my (capital T) Truth beliefs?

Anywhere along the way, messages will be tossed out or passed along depending on alignment with these filters. Once a message is accepted, it needs to find a way to be indexed in the mind according to prior categories of knowledge/experience, and if action is called for, then behavior change may be possible.

Why is social networking effective? Because we find peer-to-peer communication more authoritative than, say, 30-second advertisements on TV, which we’ve learned to distrust and filter out. A personal recommendation more easily passes through our Source filter.

A perfectly accurate message about life insurance may bounce off the mind and heart of a 16-year old. It doesn’t pass the Relevance filter. However, a 25-year old new parent who just had a car accident may have the same message (even from a less-than-reliable source) pass right through into action because now it all lines up with relevant, existential reality!

bumblebeeSomeone might explain to you, scientifically, with all sorts of charts and graphs and formulas, that bumblebees can’t fly. But it won’t get through the Reality filter, because…well, you’ve seen them fly!

Therefore, if you are a marketer, or teacher, or preacher, or parent, your goal is going to be to get your message indexed into memory and translated into action as efficiently as possible (sounds rather six-sigma’ish – sorry). If you want your message to pass readily through the Source filter, then it needs to delivered by someone with (real or perceived) authority. Celebrity endorsements apparently work for many marketers and dupes consumers this way (the tactic does have the opposite effect for many of us, by the way). The best source, however, is going to be the recommendation of a current participant, such as we find with friends, neighbors, and trusted social media connections. Hypocrites, shysters, and unknowns may actually have a valid message, but often the message will be jettisoned because the source isn’t truly authoritative.

The Relevance filter will also be a barrier if we haven’t truly studied and come to know our audience. If a congregation has recently suffered a traumatic loss, then preaching a very true message (in line with core convictions, even!) about the historical significance of Ezekiel’s visions just may not be well-received as valuable and helpful for the immediate circumstances. And don’t get me started about the fire-hose training method used on, say, new pharmaceutical sales reps, whose heads are stuffed with an extraordinary amount of background information that generally has little day-to-day relevance. Maybe it’s true, maybe it has a certain level of importance – but short-term relevance dooms much instruction to the dustbin once the test is taken.

The Reality filter is best addressed by creative use of analogies in communicating. When trying to get new information across, by appealing to well-established facts and previously-embraced “pictures” in the mind and heart of the recipient, the way is paved for more rapid uptake. If you’re trying to sell me a fast car, don’t try to go into the physics of mass and velocity. “Remember the rush you felt when you got your first real bike, and you raced downhill at speeds you never knew before…” OK, now I see it and feel it. A great recent example of this is the Heineken “walk-in fridge” commercial.

However, we must be aware that a lot of the “rubber meets the road” filtering happens at the level of Core Convictions. There is observable reality (bumblebees fly), but there are also deeply-held perspectives that shape our worldview and determine what we will or will not “hear” and act on. If my core conviction is that paying 100K for a car is utter vanity and waste (true, by the way), then your message about why I should buy one is going to be tossed out by that filter. If, on the other hand, your conviction is that a 100K car is absolutely necessary for status projection, then every argument for economy will fall on deaf ears.

Getting into much deeper water, on various sides of the man-caused climate change/global warming debate are people with very different core (first-principle) beliefs about Man, God, the Earth, and Fate. Messages will often be filtered or received, not due to inherent and provable validity, but due to pre-existing prejudices (core convictions). And why are some people-groups committed to destroying others, ignoring all reality, reason, relevance, and moral persuasion? Because of a core conviction that “we’re better than they are” and “they are unworthy to live due to past offenses/race/religious differences and we need to eliminate them.” Some core convictions, obviously, are at war with peaceful and productive civilization.

We shouldn’t think that some core convictions cannot or should not be changed. A teacher, or parent, or pastor, or friend who can reach down into the heart and soul of someone paralyzed by a deep-seated persuasion that they are worthless and that all attempts at progress are fruitless, and begin to re-shape that filter into a more healthy state – that is one of the greatest tasks anyone can undertake. Our filters need regular maintenance and recalibration, and we should always be willing to adjust and refine and change over time. But we should always be aware that the core convictions, even if held unconsciously, will still hold tremendous sway over reception of any messages.

If we’re in the business of delivering messages, our craft is not to try to “fake out” the filters, but to authentically and effectively reach the index and the will to act with truth that resonates. If you’re a marketer, what does that mean for your approach? If a corporate trainer, how should this shape your curriculum and instructional design (and delivery)? For instance, how can spend the first few moments getting a handshake from the Source and Relevance filters, instead of immediately setting up barriers to entry?

All right, that’s a mindful. I’m not concerned here with what you think of Heineken or global warming, but let’s enjoy a robust discussion in the comments about the validity (or not) of the general principles, and how they apply to marketing, social media, learning, and life. Poke, prod, improve – chime in!

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(image credit: bumblebee)

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