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Message Discipline — How to get your point across.

April 4, 2023
4 min read
Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash
“Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted.”
— Groucho Marx

In war, the first casualty is truth. In business, it's communication.

Chaos. Confusion. A story from the front lines of WWI: A British Army Captain messages regimental headquarters: "Send reinforcements; we're going to advance." 

Word travels through trenches by telephone and runner, reaching a puzzled adjutant. The message is in a sorry state, indecipherable: "Send 2 and 6 pence; we're going to a dance." 

This 'slightly' exaggerated story is of the need for message discipline.

The military knows it needs clear communications; that's why they teach radio discipline. In basic training, you're trained to speak clearly, spell things out, and e·nun·ci·ate numbers. 

Because garbled communications cost lives.

Business needs the same clarity.

This is a story told to me by Bryce Hoffman.

Bryce is the author of the book, “American Icon” which chronicles The Ford Motor Company’s turnaround under Alan Mulally. Bryce shadowed Alan for months to research his book. This included a trip to New York, where Mulally presented progress on Ford’s turnaround to Wall Street.

Bryce, the story goes, was in the audience, sitting next to a gaggle of analyst types. Alan gave his guidance on the company and reviewed progress to date. 

This was the third or fourth time Mulally had spoken to financial analysts since the plan’s introduction.

Afterward, Alan asked Bryce about the audience's reaction to his presentation. 

Bryce: “Well... the feedback seems to be they’ve heard all that before. They’re looking for something new.”

When Bryce tells the next part of the story, he switches to an impersonation of Mulally’s drawl. 

Bryce (recalling Mulally): “Why would we change the plan when we’re still working the plan?”

This is the essence of Message Discipline. 

The turnaround story of Ford and Mulally’s leadership practices is a chronicle of iron-clad operational discipline.

And operational discipline is driven by message discipline.

But Message Discipline has a bad name.

It’s a favorite tactic of politicians and political consultants.

When a politician is asked a question, he or she doesn’t answer. Instead, they veer off into canned talking points. 

The non-answer answer is an abusive offspring of message discipline.

Here, it’s carefully scripted and usually deliberately obtuse. Why do they do politicians do it? They want people to do something— vote or donate. They use message discipline to craft a powerful, emotional message that resonates with “their” voters. They stick to the message, find ways to repeat it, and often ignore anything that doesn't fit. 

We must shed the bad and keep the good.

Why practice Message Discipline?

Message discipline is the fix for broken communication.

Poor communication causes a litany of ills—low productivity, employee turnover, missed deadlines, confusion and errors, reduced innovation, and poor customer service.

For these ills, there is a cure—better communication.

It’s not surprising that organizations that practice Message Discipline see benefits in clarity and focus, unity and shared purpose, improved performance, better decision-making, increased employee engagement, and better customer satisfaction.

So, how can you practice Message Discipline?

There’s a simple cocktail—four ingredients to mix in and two to serve.

First, pick a few things. 

Three or four is probably enough. You cannot communicate everything.  That’s a recipe for confusion. Overloading and overwhelming do not drive the kind of action you need.  


Even when you are down to a few, some things are more important than others.  Make that evident.  Priority, urgency, and order must be clear.  Otherwise, everything appears important, and then nothing is important.  Things stall.

Keep it Simple. 

You can’t put this across in a way that is gobbledygook to someone.  Make it as simple and as understandable as possible. Eradicate “corporate speak.”  If a middle schooler can understand, you have it at the right level. 

Add Emotion.  

Remember, you are trying to move people.  So clarity and understanding are not enough.  Put “human” in the message.  People respond to emotion more strongly than they do to fact. 

People respond to stories.

Now you have the message; the hard part comes next.  

You have to Stay on Message.  

Flip-flopping is a red flag for politicians and for you.  It creates confusion. Mixed messages. Panic.

Connect the new initiative to the old one.  Don’t chop and change what you ask people to do every month or every quarter.  This is where storytelling is a superpower. It’s like telling a joke—as long as the punchline stays the same, how you set up the message can vary depending on the audience and circumstance.

And last, Keep it in Sync.  

The message and your behavior have to line up.  Saying one thing and doing another.  Asking for some result and inspecting an unrelated metric. Doesn’t work. Don’t ask for growth with a plan to sell solutions and then measure the success of products.  If you are asking for an outcome, inspect that outcome.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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