Why it can be hard to stick to a message (and how to make it easier)

Maybe calling it “message discipline” was a mistake.

“Discipline” makes staying on-message sound like a chore, and going off-message sound like a deliberate choice, an act of rebellion. I’ve had it with your message-box rules, daddy-o. I’m sticking it to The Man.

But talk to a leader or spokesperson who has gone off-message, and they usually aren’t feeling like defiant mavericks.

Either a) they don’t realize it’s happened, or b) they felt helpless in the moment to keep it from happening: “I know the message is about pensions — but before I knew it, there I was talking about giraffe mucus.”

True, we’ve seen a few deliberate acts of rebellion — some relatively harmless, some profoundly self-sabotaging. But far more often, here’s what really throws people off-message:

  • Boredom: Probably the biggest factor. After the thousandth repetition, chances are you’re getting pretty tired of your message. So are the folks closest to you, and your strongest activists. You need to find ways to keep the message fresh for you, your supporters and the media; new examples, different turns of phrase and a range of validating facts can all help. And remember: repetition is key to reaching your broader audience. You may be bored silly, but your audience may be hearing this for the first time.
  • Fear: It can be fear that your message will anger some people, fear that it won’t work, fear that you’ll alienate people (who aren’t actually part of your target audience), or just sheer nervousness and anxiety under pressure and scrutiny. That’s often why messages get weakened with qualifiers, “ums” and “uhs” and voices that quietly trail off into...
  • Surprise: The unanticipated question can throw the best of us. “Uh, no, I hadn’t heard our headquarters was just razed to the ground by a rampaging mob of triffids.”


Photo: Flickr user Theresa Thompson (flickr.com/theresasthompson). Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.

Name: NOW Communications Group

Location: Canada-wide with offices in Vancouver, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax

Bio: Full service advertising. Social marketing. Union communications. Electoral campaigns. Change marketing. NGOs & associations. Video, online & interactive. Training & coaching.


Build your own stock photo library

When you’re in a pinch and need a stock photo right now, the commercial services can do admirably. (Need a photo of a whistling tea kettle? iStock has you covered.) Read more »


Smart media buying

The best ad buy for your creative. Read more »

Read our latest blog post

For Facebook Pages,
stop thinking "news feed". Start thinking "search engine."

Facebook's algorithm is making it tougher for your Page updates to find their way to your audience. How do you adjust? With good, old-fashioned compelling content.

Read more »