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How to get your message heard – and remembered

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Everybody communicates; few connect. Consider how important messages can be in mobilizing followers to act in ways that are consistent with your cause. Too many messages are written in invisible ink. They fail to make an impression or have a lasting impact. The right message, however, can do more in shaping behaviour and forming a tribal identity than anything else in a leader's arsenal.

Five principles follow that will help any communicator/leader make their message connect. The principles taken together form an acronym I've developed called GRABS.

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Get it: Make them understand it

Simple sticks. You lose me if you confuse me. The enemy of "getting it" is complexity. Start by stripping your message of all complexity or ornamentation.

Find the core of it, the beating heart of the message. In communication, as in architecture, less is more. Don't say, "Exercise frugal and practical use of finite financial resources." Say, "Save your money."

Stake out a clear position and own it, unapologetically. Volvo equals safety.

Maytag is dependable. If the glove don't fit, you must ... You get the idea. As Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Simplify.

Relate to it: Make them care and feel something

Which emotion (preferably one felt by your intended audience) does your message tap into? More importantly, does that emotion make recipients of the message care?

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If you want to create tribal loyalty to a message, avoid the mistake too many communicators make –trying to appeal to everyone. Find the emotion that will connect a smaller but potentially more motivated segment of the audience, and keep your focus there. It's better to be a big fish in a small pond. You can always expand the pond.

When the Mini was launched in the United States, the road was dominated by gas-guzzling SUVs. For more than eight years, small-car sales were in decline. In 1992, the ad agency hired by Mini launched the scrappy upstart with this unabashed rallying cry: "The SUV backlash officially starts now." It connected with those that cared. The launch succeeded, in a big way. Sales moved briskly.

Act on it: Help them want to act on it

At least two of the world's five best advertising campaigns, as listed by the trade publication Advertising Age, use a call to action. Volkswagen asks us to "Think small." Nike exhorts us to "Just do it." These messages move us not just to feel something but also to do something. Ditto for Apple's "Think different" campaign. They all inspire us to rebel. They remind us that we're in charge. All we need to do is act.

Believe it: Make them believers

Two things help us believe a proposition: authority (especially from trustworthy sources) and personal experience. Not that all persuasive messages have to be backed by these things. It's just that recipients of messages do a gut check against their own experience. If the gut says yes, acceptance often follows.

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"Just do it" works because we "get" it at a gut level. I know I'm the only one that stands in my own way. I'm the only one that can choose to get off the couch and make something happen. It's proof positive. Bingo. I'm in.

Surprise and delight: Make them notice

A grasshopper goes into a bar and the bartender says, "Hey, we have a drink named after you." The grasshopper says, "You have a drink named Trevor?"

Humour relies on the unexpected. A punch line breaks a pattern. That's what delights us. We don't see it coming. A bit of magic happens. Messages that connect have the same ability to delight. A little delight goes a long way in making messages stick.

I once saw this message on a T-shirt: "Feel free to evolve." It connected for me, because we don't really think of evolution as a choice but rather a process unfolding without our help. It's perky counter-intuitiveness surprised and delighted me. It empowered me as well, as though I was in charge of my own evolution. Not bad for four words.

So put your important messages – the ones you need to connect with others – to the following five-part test. Will they get it? Will they relate to it? Can they act on it? Will they believe it? Will they be surprised or delighted by it?

If you get three out of five or better, you might just have something that grabs them and moves them to embrace your cause. Be patient. And believe. The writer Roald Dahl had it right: Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.

Doug Mollenhauer is a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail. He is founder of Quantum Leap Learning, a communication-training consultancy based in Vancouver. His Writing For Results workshop has been attended by several thousand people from more than 100 organizations in Canada and the U.S. He can reached at

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