When you’ve finally got a tiger by the tail, it will be clear, won’t it? When you’ve finally found that world-changing message and you’re on a social media roll, hitting every note just right, sparking huge strings of comments every time you make an utterance, you’ll just know it, right? You’ll feel the rush. Your success will be obvious. Won’t it?
Sorry, but no.
This week I was giving one of my stock presentations (adapted of course for the audience) when the importance of this point hit me. I’ve given this particular presentation many times. Most of it is made up of what I would consider “set pieces”–3- to 5-minute riffs I can drag and drop into just about any presentation. I’ve done these riffs so many times that I’m sometimes halfway through them before I even start to think about them (it’s almost a little scary sometimes). And then I start looking at the audience and thinking, How they can stand to hear me droning on about this? I’m on autopilot, and that has to be clear to them. They can tell that I’ve said this dozens of times before; they must be falling asleep.
You would think so, but in fact, just the opposite happens: It’s then that I realize the audience is most engrossed, and I’m reminded that they’ve never heard it before at all–every part of it is new to them. They have no idea what’s coming next. And what’s more, audiences respond at exactly this moment, when you’ve got it down pat, when it’s practiced and polished.
This is a hugely counterintuitive point. We’re trained to think that compelling messages are spontaneous, original to every situation, constantly new. In fact, compelling messages are most generally polished and smoothed to streamlined perfection over a long time frame. One of the secrets of great messages is that they are good messages that are just a little bit better. The burrs and rough spots are filed down and polished. The timing of the delivery is just right…the pauses are perfectly placed. The repetitions aren’t accidental. The word choice is derived from experience. And the recipient knows it and rewards you.
This is not to say that making a good message a little bit better is in any way easy. Another of the secrets is that that the last mile of a great message is the costliest to install. Only the people at the top of their game are making the connection consistently.
I’m reminded of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth,” which evolved out of a PowerPoint presentation. It’s mentioned here not in any political context but because it’s undeniably a powerful piece of persuasive messaging and because of the way it was developed. Gore has talked about the evolution of this presentation as he gave it countless times, refining slightly each time until it became something second nature. Something like muscle memory; something like hitting a baseball. Something you do without thinking. Any great salesperson could easily describe what it’s like to work in this zone.
Great messages are ones you’ve thought about so much that you almost can’t believe others would want to hear them. They are yours — you’ve worked with them so much that you’ve internalized them. You can no longer imagine anyone else doesn’t know them.
At this point, human nature is to want to move on. We get tired of it. We’ve learned it, and we want to get on with other things. But if you want to get the point across, you’ve just started when you’re feeling sick of your message.
Social media are no different. If you look at any of the social media greats, you’ll find a similar pattern–a consistent message relentlessly iterated with slight variations. Let’s look at a few of the ways this plays out:
- Quantity. “[T]he more words a blogger posted, the more friends they had and the higher their attractiveness rating.” Don’t be scared to say what you’re saying A LOT. You’ll know when you’ve finally got it because you’ll be bored with saying it (see above). Until then, say as much as you can.
- Repetition. There’s a reason Guy Kawasaki posts his links two and three times apiece–because more people get them every time. Some people won’t listen until it’s clear that you’re serious about delivering the message. And you can’t assume when you’ve delivered a message once that you have an accurate read on what people think–you need a large sample size.
- Experimentation. You won’t know what your best message is until you know what it isn’t. That means a lot of trial and error. It means trying out variations and versions and looking at the feedback you get until you find messages that resonate.
- Marginal improvement. One of the reasons you won’t instantly know when you’ve found a truly deep and effective message is that the result will be only slightly better than the results you’ve achieved to that point. The applause will be only slightly louder, the reach only slightly further. This is a game of inches, not miles. The Success Patrol doesn’t show up at your door one day and say, You’re done. Great messaging is about making progress. To this point, Chris Voss is one of my favorites. He may be swinging for the fences, but he’s happy every time he gets a hit. And he knows there will be some strikes in there too. Chris knows it’s a game of numbers, as he once told me. It’s about your stats–not hitting one grand slam. You’re going to be practicing a lot (as much as 10,000 hours, if Malcom Gladwell is right).
- Looking ahead. One of the beauties of really knowing your message is that you can be looking ahead while you’re delivering it. In auto racing, one of the big lessons is that you constantly need to be looking down the track–thinking about the next turn, the next corner. That’s because if you’re thinking about what you’re doing right now, you’ve already lost. You can’t react that quickly. Being familiar with your message to the point of being sick of it is a similar process–while you’re working on the moment, you can be planning for what’s next without crashing right now. This makes you much better able to go with the flow.
In any case, none of this is meant to be an excuse for bad content. Social media starts with real information–it’s a given. It’s assumed. What you’re finally going to win with is a message that is uniquely yours–not necessarily a complete departure from what has come before, but something that’s purely you. This is a big part of what Seth Godin is talking about when he talks about “linchpins“–people who are indispensable because no one else can offer what they do.
What do you think? Do you give up when you get tired of hearing yourself talk, or is that a signal to you that you’re really onto something? As always, thoughts welcomed and thanks for reading.
[Flickr photo by Dimnikolov: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dimnikolov/3393357860/]