The New Year is a time of recharging and starting over. For me, it’s a time for the annual purge of the files. I’m a pack-rat who never met a piece of paper I didn’t want to keep. Every year, I vow not to do this, but somehow I end up with home-office files stuffed with cable company bills, medical insurance explanations of benefits, and tons of articles I find on the internet to read later. Later never comes.
With the artic chill that engulfed the Washington region these past few weeks, it literally was too painful to go outside. Perfect for The Purge. I thought it would take an hour or two. After all, I just wanted to find the top of my desk. The reality was that in order to find a place for the files that couldn’t be thrown away, I needed to clear out the cabinet that housed my personal and professional archives. In less than 30 minutes, my office looked like a tornado had blown through a paper mill. Everything—my desk, the floor and the sofa—was covered. I felt like those people with metal detectors who search for treasure in the beach sand. Nothing I really wanted to find was visible.
My shredder started to shake, its metal jaws clenching and unclenching as it tore the bills and old reports apart. My husband again chided me for not just scanning all of this and be done with it. But it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. The fact is I behave in the cloud just as I behave in the physical world. I save everything. I don’t need five copies of work I did in college. But it’s all so hard for me to wipe it out of my life. I might need it sometime. Scanning also takes time. Shredding is so much more interesting. I might be a little addicted to the sound, the aroma of shredder oil, and an overheated motor.
For so many companies and organizations, the state of their messaging is like my cluttered home workspace. Too many enterprises bloat their websites and marketing copy with overwrought sentences, too much data and five syllable words. They bury the good stuff in a morass of malformed thoughts and ideas, and they heap on their readers and listeners piles of information that have little meaning or relevance. Too few take the time to think through why and what they want to communicate, so they confuse the people they most want to reach.
Even more important than keeping our offices or homes tidy, we need to keep our messages crisp and clean. Marie Kondo wrote a best selling book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In it, she provides a process for getting one’s house in order by removing the clutter—the things that take up space but don’t give us joy. We hang on to these things because they hold memories, because we think we should, or because others want us to keep them.
Sadly, we do the same with our corporate and organizational messages. We fail to question whether our messages are effective right now in engaging those who matter most to us. And even if we do question, the stacks and stacks of words on our websites—like the papers on my desk—need more than a cold snap to free up the time to deal with it.
Here’s how to apply Kondo’s tidying up process to create effective messaging.
To discard involves understanding what matters to your enterprise and to those served by it. That means taking the time to learn what about your product or service delights your customers. It means listening right now to your employees, investors and partners. Create lists about what they value and compare them to your messaging. This will help you determine what works and what doesn’t. By doing a 360 of your organization, you will be able to unpack the essence of what makes your enterprise tick. You will have focus. With focus, you can then start the process of shredding your old messages.
Discarding involves removing messages that distract from your focus until you are left with what’s most productive financially, intellectually and emotionally. Discarding is about deciding what you are really good at, and what makes you stand out so you can build your messaging around that. Discarding helps you get to your core value. If you are an accountant, for instance, you do many things—prepare tax returns, do financial audits, provide advice, monitor accounts, etc. But the essence of your work is helping people keep more of their hard-earned money without going to jail. Clear away the clutter to come up with the clean and essential message.
Categorize Your Messages
Once you’ve gotten rid of the filler and extras, you can hone in on the things that support the core idea and put them into categories or themes. The themes provide a way to organize all the information and ideas that are important to the people you want to reach. More than what you want to express about your products, services or cause, these “value messages” are about what they need to hear. Using our accountant example, some categories might be “Navigating Your New Path through Taxes,” “Financial Management that Makes Dollars and Sense,” or “Regulatory Compliance.”
Store Where You Can Find
Let’s go back to our “value” or “theme” messages. Each of these becomes a drawer in your well-organized message chest. Store in each of these drawers the facts, figures, case studies that support what you want to say about how and what you do. These are the proof points that back up your value statements. Typically, these are things you can count or catalog–like the amount of experience your people have, the results you’ve achieved for other clients, and so on. Don’t cram them in so you can’t see or recall what’s there. Like the neatly folded, easily visible items in a real-life drawer, you should be able to see and easily pull out these elements with ease to underscore your messages clearly.
In my office, the floor and desk finally re-merged. With the files thinned out and neatly labeled, I was able to embrace newfound clarity about a place for everything and a space for what’s to come.
The same is true for our organizational messaging. Discard what doesn’t work, Categorize what you keep and find places where it can be found and used when needed. And remember, the process is ongoing. You have to make sure your messages don’t become dusty. Ideally, this might be a task for more than once a year. But if we realize even a yearly purge, we’ll be far, far ahead of most other communicators.
Because when we find that clarity, and keep our messages organized, we open up new possibilities for growth and prosperity.
Liz Wainger is President of Wainger Group, a firm that works with executives and their teams to figure out what to say, why to say it, how to say it, and when so that they achieve what they want. Her book, The Prism of Value: Convince, Connect and Influence When It Matters Most, is due out later this year.