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.


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)

About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

30 Responses to Why Your Message Lives or Dies

  1. Liz Strauss says:

    Hi Steve,
    I love the think you offer here. It something we all need to be aware of. Is the message we’re sending the message that’s being received? I believe that most buying decisions are guided by a search for a “no.” Filters we use help us get there.

    I hope you don’t mind that I’d like discuss one point for clarification …

    This sentence We shouldn’t think that some core convictions cannot or should not be changed. offers me a bit of an issue. It goes past marketing into product develop and has deep implications regarding the mission of the enterprise.

    Unless the direct purpose of the message, product, or service is to change how people think or to call them to a specific action beyond buying, we’re best at serving their interests rather than trying to change them.

    Our job as marketers is to make the message clear how what we offer makes their life easer, more efficient, or more meaningful and fun — not really to change who they are. Doing that is reconfiguring out ccustomers rather than recongifuring the product to fit them. heh heh.

  2. Tom Martin says:

    Ouch my heads hurts… 😉

    I think you’re either missing a filter or maybe this belongs under the “source” filter — persuasive.

    I’ve seen speakers, content and ads that cover off all of your filters but executionally they just don’t grab me and persuade me. This is especially true of verbal (presentation) and written (reports, white papers, books) content. When it gets down to it, the Point of View just isn’t delivered in a persuasive manner and thus I delete it from my hard drive to make room for future information.

    Other than that, I can’t poke any holes here… but agree, you need Armano training on that diagram ;-).

  3. Liz, you bring up a good point. For MARKETING, I believe there is little hope of changing core convictions. I’m trying to look at the concept as something universal, including but way beyond marketing. Changing of core convictions involves far deeper (pastoral/family/societal) messaging…

    Tom, interesting riff. Is there another filter, something to do with aesthetic appeal of the message delivery? Hmmm….

  4. Pam Martin says:

    Wow, you guys have really kick started my brain this AM. A great blog post on understanding “where” your customer exists/lives/operates when they receive your message. And of the importance of identifying the “coordinates” that factor into the complex consumer GPS “reading” of where we need to meet our customers.

    Liz, you made a great point about not trying to change those coordinates. It takes too long, costs way too much money and is rarely successful. That said, I think the marketers that really “get it” understand that one doesn’t arrive somewhere without a journey. We’re all this aggregate of information that we’ve picked up and put down, bad experiences, good experiences, fears and conditioning. Great marketers get to the core of how we developed these behaviors and don’t ask us to change the way we do something. They ask us to view their product through our own unique prisms. Reality is in the eye of the beholder is an old marketing mesage, but perhaps more true today than it ever was. Great post Steve- thanks for the kick start!

  5. Xavier Petit says:

    If you look at the message only, I think the theory holds and actually make sense.
    In terms of the long term memory and the core conviction filter, I see a deeper connection where the impact might be more a matter of time. We might hear something that is against a core conviction and still store it in the long term memory. In time this might impact some of our core conviction re-calibration (acting in the same manner as having something in the back of you mind for a while and then having the epiphany…) while sometime it might actually re-inforce your conviction. Will it’s remains against the filter, you still store it for longer term processing. This actually might have deeper impact on someone’s behavior than real-time processing.

    Finally, There’s obiously (as pointed out by Tom Martin) the delivery. If the delivery does not grab, we also will filter the content out (like falling asleep during class…). Could that be part of the “source”?

  6. Deb says:

    Okay — now you got me thinking. How am I delivering my message? Am I having a conversation first to see what people’s filters are and then showing how my product can address their perceived needs? Maybe not.

    I’ll be tearing this apart today — and writing about it – and applying what I’ve learned to what I do.

    Thanks much!

  7. Tom Martin says:


    I’m not sure I agree that marketing cannot or should not change core convictions… think Green products for instance. While yes, they hold natural appeal to “tree huggers” by using marketing to change a non-tree hugger core conviction (now I actually believe that helping save the planet is important enough to include it as a decision variable) are you not by default changing my core?

    What about “badge brands” — those that speak directly to a person’s core of who they are and what they stand for… these brands absolutely leverage and in some cases change a person’s core convictions. Think Apple. They’ve made design important. As Liz accurately notes, product design had a lot to do with it but I’d submit their advertising has contributed even more as it was the advertising that first exposed many to the product. The goal of the ads wasn’t to make people appreciate design, it was to sell product. But a fortunate by product was that it did oth.

    Ok…time for more coffee. Great post Steve. Look forward to what you, Liz and the others think of this comment.

  8. Tom and Xavier – really good points. Maybe we should include, in “long-term memory”, a buffered area where things are recalled and held (for cud-chewing), and where ideas work on our filters, including core convictions. The other area is the hard drive, where we absorb and maintain those ideas we’ve ultimately embraced…

  9. Liz Strauss says:

    Hi Tom,
    I agree with you — the example you give is a product that has the distinct purpose of changing people’s thinking. That’s the one exception I noted in my comment.

    When you set out with a call to action to change folks’s thinking and know you’re doing that you build a different kind of product and you’re taking a higher risk.

    What happens far too often is that marketers and product developers build something that think is a “good idea because they had it” and customer should change to use it because “I think it’s a good idea.” I’ve seem much more of this sort of mistake making than companies on a serious mission to educate and enable folks to new ways of thinking.

  10. Tom Martin says:


    You must have spent a lot of time in the technology industry! LOL Totally agree. Have a great day.

    – Tom

  11. katherineliew says:

    Great post, definitely a topic to get the brain working!

    Agree with Tom and Xavier that delivery is important – perhaps like advertising your buffers might come down to the idea (relevance, reality, core convictions) and the execution (source authority, how engaging the delivery is, ease of access, etc.)

    What might be missing here are two key factors in communication models: noise and feedback loops.

    I guess noise is always going to be there, but a feedback loop is particularly important for social media as we’re always going on about conversations and interaction. I think it’s the feedback loop which makes social media more effective – it engages more of our brain, we think about the message for longer and it starts to be learnt.

  12. JanisMiller says:

    Steve, this is a great post and worthy of discussion and action!

    “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.” Maybe “as effectively as possible” would be more universal. I have learned in parenting that efficient does not always mean effective. ;o)

    It bears repeating that “Source” is the first filter. No matter what our occupation we are all in “sales.” Ultimately we are the commodity. Who we are actually matters in the long run.

    Understanding your Theory of Message Reception goes well with the content of of this post: http://rarepattern.com/tags/belief-window which is about personal behavior. As we learn more about what motivates people, ourselves included, we can be more effective professionally and personally.

    We are all influencers, whether by default or by design.

  13. Brett says:

    So much to chew on here – I LOVE this post. A few immediate reactions of my own, and then some responses:

    1) I got stuck on the “Source” filter. When you think of yourself as the source, then you realize success comes when you’re viewed as a “resource.” So, what crowd can even begin to think of you that way, and how can you build on it?

    2) I think delivery is important, but can be covered by Source. Right or wrong, trust in a source is often determined by delivery style more than anything. The real question is should you change your delivery style based on the crowd?

    3) As for changing core convictions, I think it can definitely happen (universally), but you better be prepared to get filtered out exponentially more before a change occurs.

    4) Faking out the filters: this is another nugget of gold I’ll be taking away from this post. If we marketers/communicators (can’t those two titles be used interchangeably now?) choose the right crowd, then we don’t need to be concerned about faking out the filters.

    5) For the record, I’m not a big Heineken fan (I’m a Shiner Bock man), and I think global warming might be just a bit overrated.

    Really great stuff. The diagram might not be Armano-esque, but it’s still print-and-pin-it-up material for me. Your teasing tweets over the weekend actually delivered on its promise!


  14. Chris Kieff says:

    From the perspective of Marketing changing core convictions, in my mind there is no doubt. Look at cigarette smoking in the US. In the past decade it’s gone from accepted norm to unacceptable even outside in many places. And much of that was driven by marketing of PSA’s, at least to start.

    I had attached to my monitor for many months a note I’d written to my self saying “how do you filter?” This is what I think the core of marketing is all about. In the age of Google with all answers at our finger tips, we now more than ever must learn to filter- and marketers must learn to defeat those filters.

    I’m not a graphics designer so I won’t try to improve on your diagram but I also feel it’s 3D not 2D. In some ways the filters are like the layers of an onion where you must pass one to reach the next- core values is one of these that is nested inside all of the others.

    But in other respects they are like different gates that can all be tried to reach a second level of consideration, or consciousness. Any of the gates can let an idea through for further consideration.

    In reality I think the answer is analog not digital. It’s that some gates will slam shut while others will close only some of the way. Any combination that adds up to the secret number will allow the idea or thought to the next level of consideration.

    Thanks for the great thought provoking post Steve!

  15. Pingback: Woodruff’s Theory of Message Reception | MarketingInProgress.com

  16. Deirdre says:

    Hi Steve, very thought provoking discussion! I think your Theory of Message Perception is great. I wonder if consumers put more weight on any one of the personal/buffer/filters. So, for example, the message might resonate with me because the source, relevance and reality are in check. However, there may be a deeper consideration when it comes to my core convictions based on my belief system, peers, past experiences, culture and accepted behavior in my community (social or physical). I would think that the message would have to pass several layers of acceptance in this filter. Excellent insight! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  17. Deidre – I definitely think that (probably on an unconscious level) various of the buffers will carry more weight or will filter with greater primacy – and probably that will be case-dependent on the type of message. I do think that Source and the related Packaging (aesthetic effectiveness and “engagedness” of delivery) will usually be first in sequence, if not in importance, simply because that’s how we’re wired…

  18. Steve-

    This is an awesome framework for messaging. I read it twice and all I kept thinking about was the impact storytelling has had on the various aspects of our lives.

    I bet if you review the stories that resonated with you, these four elements would be present. I’m reflecting back to a short story I shared at a business meeting this morning and what do you know…unbeknownst to me at the time, all four elements were there.

    How do we get “a handshake from the Source and Relevance filters, instead of immediately setting up barriers to entry?”

    Easy…tell a relevant story.

    Thanks for an inspiring post! 🙂

  19. Lois Kelly says:

    Hi Steve,

    Meaning making, an educational psychology principle, is similar to what you’re talking about, but includes a critical element you didn’t include. Needed for someone to “make meaning” of information:

    1. Context
    2. Relevance
    3. Pattern making
    4. Emotion

    Emotion is the superconductor to making meaning — understanding information, remembering it, applying it and acting on it. Too often marketing and corporate communications miss this essential element.

    I devoted a whole chapter in the marketing book “Beyond Buzz” to this topic, “Making Meaning Not Buzz.” One reason videos and digital stories are becoming so effective in business is because of their emotional power, often resonating in ways words alone can’t.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!


  20. Douglas Karr says:

    Intriguing! What’s all this have to do with the salesman buying me a round of golf and filling me with beer before I sign?

    Joking aside, I do think there’s an emotional side to this that may be missing. I hate to make your message reception even more complex, but humans feel sometimes more than we think.

    It’s why we select colors, fonts, and put faces on our messaging. We want to sometimes break through the logical message and connect directly on an emotional level. Perhaps this is the personal buffer portion!

  21. Victorseo says:

    Xavier Petit makes a good point and as noted is particularly true in environmental consciousness. The cumulative amount of noise is inherently stored in our processors and based upon the other factors mentioned, may or may not change a “Truth”.
    Lois makes the crucial point that emotion is a huge determiner but it is probable a sub category of one of the listed primaries..??
    In any event this is an absolutely GREAT topic, well presented. I am pleased to have seen it (due to following brandbuilder on tweeter who RT-ed the link)
    Brand Impact is now on my mandatory read list!

  22. Craig says:

    Pull quote: “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. ” I love that. I’m framing that!

    There’s so much to be said about the core conviction piece of this equation. I often act contrary to my core convictions. For instance I’m what one would call “environmentally conscious,” but my core convictions in this area very frequently don’t translate onto the “motivated to action” part of your (very adequate – @darmano would be proud) diagram. There’s an argument to be made that if you’re not acting on it, it’s not a core conviction, but that is a very un-nuanced view of human nature. All that to say that in my little head, I add a layer beyond or in front of core convictions. Maybe call it, “What I have energy to care about right now.”

    Anyway, thanks for the food for thought! Good stuff.

  23. Liz S says:

    Hi Steve: I’m not sure that relevance, reality and core convictions are distinct entities. In fact, I think that core convictions will often define whether or not something is relevant or real.. Additionally,
    even if I, as the consumer, am motivated to act, I’m not sure that that motivation is enough to drive a behavior change.

    So I pose this – what actually drives adoption? I think it’s a lot simpler than the theory you’ve laid out:

    Source + Value (core convictions, reality, relevance) = motivation.
    = Behavior change or adoption/engrained in long-term memory.

  24. Seriously thinking, based on stuff you guys have said in the last few comments, that we do need another filter called “packaging” or something that focuses on manner of delivery, including emotion, aesthetics, and storytelling… poorly structured message delivery will tend to inhibit reception, no matter how valid the message…

  25. ecairn says:

    Just wanted to share with you that I pondered on the same topic a few days ago after read a post from Tom Asacker about ‘repetitions’ don’t create memory, though you have done a more thorough analysis I think. (http://blog.ecairn.com/2009/04/08/social-media-company-best-venue-to-our-memory/).
    I like the handshake on from the source and relevant filters!
    I would love to talk more,

  26. Jeanne Male says:

    Steve, et al:

    Tremendous mix of research, street sense, and deep thoughts…Jack Handy has nothing on this group!

    Thanks for inviting me to respond to this excellent post, Steve!

    The past decade has provided an explosion of social psychology data arising from the use of functional MRI (fMRI) has generated a mind-boggling array of evidence, interpretations and applications. The works of Masie, Cialdini, Gladwell, the Heaths, and Goleman are only a sampling of how we can apply this information to marketing, sales, and training.

    Each of the previous 25 responses to this post were thought-provoking and many added new layers of complexity to a subject that we aim to simplify for our own retention and use. The single over-arching theme to me is that of emotion. Emotion (and values prejudice) judge the source in the 1st 30 – 90 seconds. Only then, if the source is “liked” can we “earn the right” to sell or teach. I believe that emotion and a simple message are why G.W. Bush won a 2nd term in office.

    As a pharmaceutical marketing alumni, I wonder how well today’s market research includes testing against these new tenets. I also respect that the best marketing can only serve as a macro or buckshot approach to meeting market needs compared with how much more personal selling can do. Conversely, “source” reigns supreme across all categories; we have all seen cases where a salesperson created positive or negative emotions that directly differentiated and won/lost an account.

    I haven’t even brought up one of the most serious obstacles to changing behavior…”hassle factor” which I would lump under reality. Similar to managing the white space of employee engagement, when someone is willing to go above and beyond (e.g. the high performing sales rep makes extra calls each day) because they like someone who needs their help (their manager not meeting quota) is a prime example of the power of emotion in creating sales, marketing, or training influence.

    As a pharma salesperson, product manager, and training entrepreneur, I’ve been following this topic for 25 years.
    In the early 90’s we had little data and direction. Among the wisest, I recall Wise and Trout’s work. Please keep up the great posts and responses. With so much to chew on, we really need to continue to “chew cud” (one of my favorite sayings) to digest all of this great fodder for discussion.

  27. Lots of insight in this post, thanks Steve. Only thing that’s probably to be considered: sometimes a message doesn’t need to pass all the filters to turn into actions, it depends on the “importance” of the action compared to the individual’s intimate beliefs, don’t you think?
    Anyway it’s food for thoughts.

  28. Tom Asacker says:

    Hi Steve,

    Great post! I really enjoyed walking through your thought process.

    I believe, however, that you are placing way too much weight on “source;” especially as the initial filter. In fact, the first filter for any nascent message or sensory stimulus is how “contextually unexpected” it is.

    My own model for message/brand reception and adoption is fairly simple:

    1. Different: To engage conscious attention
    2. Desirable: To arouse interest in the brand
    3. Real: To create believability through actions and through others
    4. Interesting: To reinforce brand choice over time

    I see relevance and core convictions as inseparable and therefore lump them together under “desirable.”

    Your reality is my “real.”

    However, I totally discount source due to the fact that people distrust source. Today, the U.S. (at least) is one big “Show Me” state.

    Sure, recommendations from trusted sources may rapidly move people to stage 2, thus the huge marketing savings by employing WOM/network/social marketing activities. And celebrity endorsements may move use straight to purchase, since we “desire” to be like our celebrities.

    However, our highly subjective and refined personal preferences – along with marketers recent ability to emotionally connect with those preferences (mass customization and market fragmentation) – demands that we each move through stages 2 – 4 on our own in order to make the “best” choice.

    Each step of my process has much more detail. If you are interested in exploring it further, please let me know. I’d both appreciate and enjoy the cogitation.

  29. In my psychology class last year, I learned a lot about what was talked about in this post. I really liked your insight towards it and also the diagram that you used. Nice Work!

  30. Great! Thank you for your post.

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