The Power of Messaging

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By Virgil Scudder


We live in the Age of Communication-instant, global, immediately impactful. Indeed, UPS-the world’s largest and most successful transportation company-has as one of its cornerstones “the effective movement of information.”

Delivery of the message is critical to success. But, shaping the message is no less so. And, failures in the message development process often lead in the failure to communicate. The end product of such failure can range from simple misunderstandings or lost business opportunities to wars and international strife.

What, then, are the key considerations in message development? Why do two speakers of equal delivery skill get vastly different results?

Foremost considerations are clarity and simplicity. Communication is not what the speaker knows or entirely what the speaker says; it’s what the listener takes away. Education is not what the teacher knows but what the student learns. Therefore, all successful communication must be audience-directed rather than communicator-centric.

In oral communication, a limited amount of information is actually retained by the listener. But, the listener often comes away with strong impressions. These impressions lead to perceptions. People act-and react-on the basis of perceptions, not words alone. Americans elect their leaders not on a collection of facts or statistics but on the perception that Candidate A will do a better job than Candidate B. Thus, the words must be crafted in such a manner to achieve the right perceptions and thus the right action or reaction. Perceptions translate to action, reaction, or inaction. The words are merely the building blocks.

A good example is seen in UPS’s excellent television advertising campaign “what can Brown do for you?” The amount of actual information in the commercials is limited. Little is said about the huge air fleet, the ubiquitous ground fleet, the company’s leadership in logistics, the great size of its global work force, or how many warehouses it can lay its hands on. No, the message is much simpler than that: “what can Brown do for YOU?” So, while the amount of information is limited, the perception is powerful and effective: UPS can solve a wide range of business problems, including the one that is foremost in your mind. This is outstanding advertising-and an excellent demonstration of effective messaging to achieve a clearly defined result.

Effective messaging begins with an analysis of the audience. Who are they? Why are they there? What are their concerns? What are their hopes? How does your message fit into their lives and their work? In short, what does your program or your report mean to them?

Thus, a CEO reporting on a year’s performance will have widely different-though not contradictory-message points to different audiences. In addressing securities analysts, the CEO may stress such items as the company’s increasing revenues, its paydown of its debt and the fact that he or she has trimmed the work force. The key messages to shareholders may be the increasing stock price, the continuing payment of dividends, and the success of the company’s new products. To workers, the key points may be commendation for a successful year, the need to increase productivity to increase bonuses and preserve jobs, and the importance of working even smarter and harder to beat increasing competition. Three audiences; three similar but related messages, each tailored to be most relevant to that particular audience.

What were the company’s key messages to Teamster employees of UPS during last year’s contract negotiations? They were that UPS was the largest employer of Teamsters and thus the futures of the company and union members were closely linked; that UPS had to have contracts that would both reward workers and allow UPS to remain competitive with non-union competitors; and that more packages meant more Teamster jobs (conversely loss of packages to lower-cost competitors would cost jobs). The message was skilfully tailored to its audience and well delivered. The result was the successful conclusion of contract negotiations without a strike. This was an excellent demonstration of the power of effective messaging.

Note the clarity and simplicity of those messages. The language is clear and direct. The points are easy to understand. They speak directly to the interests and concerns of the labour force-job security, better pay, and a bright future.

Another key factor is that there were not ten, or twelve, or twenty points that were constantly reiterated. There were three. This is a key element of communication. People can understand, remember, and relate to three points. Thus, we try to frame our positions with three simple headline points that can then be expanded and elaborated upon as appropriate. But, the audience should always go away understanding, appreciating, and being motivated by those three summary points.

Another key factor in successful communication is taking the pulse of the audience.

What is their level of knowledge of the subject? What is their level of interest? And, what is their incoming feeling about the positions you will espouse? Until you have measured these factors, you are not ready to begin shaping the messages.

And, never forget this principle: people remember pictures far better than words. Thus, it is important to lace a presentation with visual images. Look at the Brown campaign: the pictures of are real people using UPS to meet a need. The images stick in the mind. They are an important element in selling the concept.

We can also paint pictures with words. Simply saying “for example” can lead a speaker into a spoken illustration that will make his or her points stick in the memory.

So, these are the key factors in successful message development:

  • Simplicity
  • Three key points
  • Direct language
  • Tailoring to the audience’s interests and concerns
  • Creating word pictures


To reiterate our most basic point, communication is not what the communicator knows or entirely what that person says. It is what the listener takes away. Adherence to these simple principles and use of the messaging materials we are providing will greatly increase the success ratio in any communication.

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