When the Message Doesn’t Land

By Jeffrey Whitford
Jul 26, 2017 10:10 AM ET

I recently had a moment that perplexed me. I was talking to some colleagues, and they asked me what we were doing. In this case, that “we” was our Corporate Responsibility department at MilliporeSigma, and that question was essentially asking about our strategy. After hearing this, I had an initial moment of frustration. How could they not get what we were trying to do? Wasn’t it crystal clear? Didn’t we literally spell it out? I had a one-page document on our method that my team and I spent a lot of time drafting, refining and refining some more.

Yet, somehow the message wasn’t landing.

I didn’t get it. I’ve often had discussions about our approach with customers, and they were intrigued and got the vision. Yet colleagues—who knew me and our work well—didn’t get it.

This led me to ask, “Why?” Our business’ problem-solving model says that we need to ask “Why?” five times. However, I wanted to stop after the first time. The people in question clearly missed the boat—and it was time to return to our regularly scheduled programming. Simply reading a document and its content, including a short statement about what we set out to do, would yield the answer. Yet, diligence to the model—and giving the benefit of the doubt to my colleagues—told me to go back and ask another “Why?”

That next “Why?” led me to a bit of self-reflection—and painful self-reflection at that. I’m not sure why, but the question that kept coming to mind was, “Am I not doing a good job at communicating?” That couldn’t be the case—communicating has been a big part of what I’ve done, and, I’d thought more than somewhat successfully, for more than a decade. But something was off, so it was time to go to work to figure it out.

I’ve found timing to consistently be a fortuitous thing for me. More frequently than not, if I just pay attention an answer, a resource or information is right in front of me in plain sight. Being present to recognize and make the connection, on the other hand, takes a lot more focus than I ever realize. In this case, a friend sent me a Harvard Business Review article about Kanter’s Law, which states that “everything looks like a failure in the middle.” It got me thinking that what I was trying to make happen was more than just communicating—it was communicating with a big, fat helping of change layered on top. I had been underestimating the difficulty to digest the change of approach, from risk mitigation to potential maximization. It wasn’t only a simple communication exercise—it was getting people who have seen the start and quick stop to such efforts, time and time again (more on this in a future article).

So, after working myself through more “Whys” and reaching a conclusion of what my core problem may be, it was time to set a plan into action to begin to address it. The interesting thing is that the simplest part of this exercise is consistency. You have to first make sure that you’ve got big ideas with lasting power. Without this, the whiplash from start and stop, rinse and repeat won’t quit—and people will flare up and fizzle out, or even worse, not ignite at all. As a communicator, I’m not immune to wanting to start talking about something new.

For example, let’s take the old adage that people need to hear things at least three times before it sinks in. Just because you hit “three” doesn’t mean that the work is done. Part of our role is to resist the urge to move on to the next, simply because we think that the message has had its moment in the sun. That takes discipline and the ability to frame, reframe and maybe even remix what you’re talking about so that people see fresh content in different forms and fashion helping to reinforce what you are trying to get across. After all, we all digest things differently.

Finally, another approach I’m implementing is increasing ownership to build the advocates, champions and amplifiers. As my boss tells me, you can’t fly under the radar for the rest of your life—you’re going to have to network and align. As much as I’d like to take that advice and file it in a box for another day, the truth, at times, hurts in the short-term. The realization, though, is that if our goal is to make an impact bigger than ourselves, we have to start taking approaches that may be outside of our traditional comfort zones.

Pride in what you do can often lead to blind spots, and can become a swift and not-so-gentle reminder that our strengths can also be our weaknesses. As individual contributors, leaders or those who try to influence others, we need to pulse check often: What’s not resonating? Why isn’t it? Is there a content gap? Is a dot not connected? Have we been so insular in the development of what we do that we didn’t solicit enough input to gain broader alignment, so that we enhance the speed at which we achieve our intended outcome? Or did we spend too much time soliciting those opinions that the heart and content got watered down? Or did I simply get tired of hearing about it so I moved on?

It’s a delicate balance—one that requires both traditional and emotional intelligence to recognize when you’ve swung and missed without knowing, or when you’ve hit it out of the park.