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Helping Messages Stick

You’ve probably heard it said that messages need to be repeated three times to stick…although recent studies suggest that six repetitions would be a more reasonable number. I feel that these repetitions definitely help with recognition, but they aren’t necessarily effective for acceptance.

Storytelling can help lead to acceptance. However, it is important to remember that this method is not a panacea. It is only a step in the process.

For example, suppose that I wanted to make a presentation either supporting or opposing abortion rights (a highly sensitive topic). If I begin with a profound, emotional and persuasive story, I may engage my audience’s attention. I will immediately lose the attention of a significant percentage of my listeners, though, if I quickly follow-up with either a “Pro Life” or “Pro Choice” message.

The reason is obvious. The phrases “Pro Life” and “Pro Choice” carry a large amount of baggage with them. As soon as either phrase is uttered, the mind of the listener is programmed to react based on the emotional history that is associated with it.

If I really wanted to work for a change, it would be a multi-step process delivered over multiple sessions. Storytelling is an effective way to begin. I can use it to create an emotional link with my audience, but then I must stop. If I immediately press the point I want to make, I’ll lose many of them.

In controversial matters, stories take time to germinate. You have almost literally planted a seed that will grow into something that can be considered further. It requires time for it to take root. People will need to think about it for a while and reconnect with the emotional experience that spoke to them initially.

Most trainers who have been at the job for some time will readily admit that there is a big difference between getting a message across and having the message be accepted. Repetition can help people respond by rote, although it does little to influence practice.

If I am trying to influence a change in how a person does a task, I will have a difficult time if it appears to the person that I am replacing a system that is comfortable and works with a more challenging system. Unless I follow-up with further reinforcement, many people will return to “the way it has always been done” as soon as class is over.

To make the change stick, I need to create a motivation for a desire for change within the individual. They have to want to see it happen…and that doesn’t happen instantly.

In my job, I often counsel associates about continuing education opportunities. A frequent reason not to pursue this from an outside source is, “I can’t afford it.” This is a very, very valid reason. If I seek to dismiss it, I won’t be heard.

The best hope I have of reaching associates in that instance is to make them a part of a future success story that they truly want to see happen. They need to internalize the story and make it a part of their inner being. It needs to become a sought-after dream. Otherwise, they will default to the expense argument and the topic is dismissed.

If they will internalize the vision, the cost issue is still there. The difference is that now we can talk about how to manage the cost. If I immediately follow the desired future vision with a “Now, sign on the dotted line” statement, I’ll lose them. It takes time to accept the vision. Without accepting the vision…and the internalized story of a desired future strongly helps to do that…the internal static of the listener will drown out my words.

Again, it is important to realize that such core issues will not be resolved quickly or with one visit. People need time to absorb what they have heard, then come back and ask clarifying “What if?” questions. They need to be able to challenge what they have heard, and receive reassurances that make sense.

When you have a message that is vital to get across to your audience, throw away the checklist. Discard the approach of only repeating the message over and over again. Try making the emotional, human connection through a story to plant the seed, and let human reasoning internalize it to nurture and grow.

Thanks for reading.