Tips to free you from mixed message mess

Have you ever had a confused conversation with someone? The sort where one person thinks they’re being clear but the other person interprets what’s said in a totally different way.

Confused conversations are something to avoid in general, particularly in business where assumptions can be costly. In the business to business sector the opportunity for confusion is higher still with multiple stakeholders involved in the conversation, lead times long and sales cycles drawn out.

Mixed messages don’t only occur between people in business, they frequently pop up in marketing collateral too. Tech companies are some of the worst offenders. It’s pretty standard for tech companies to hail innovation as one of their core values. Then without realising the contradiction, they present themselves in a conservative fashion and use imagery that is anything but innovative! Trivial you might think. But is it? Presenting your business in the way you say it is, consistent with your brand, is what clients expect. By not doing this you’re effectively playing Russian roulette and decreasing your ability to connect with your audience as intended.  When the stakes are high the potential for mixed messages translates to lost revenue, lost deals or not getting your foot in the door in the first place.

Case example: Barry Marshall

In 1984 Dr Barry Marshall, along with Dr Robin Warren, proved that Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infections caused peptic ulcers. 21 years later, they were eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005for their achievement.  Back in 1984 the response to Barry and his research was treated sceptically.

At the time this discovery challenged conventional wisdom of H. pylori , it was met with resistance from a conservative Australian medical profession, the operating surgeons and threatened the pharmaceutical industry that sold the drugs to combat ulcers.

From the perspective of the medical establishment, they saw his qualifications as shaky (not yet a qualified gastroenterologist nor legitimate researcher, not an establishment player), his manner as intensely passionate (unprofessional), his personality as unique (read odd) and manner as rough and ready. Little wonder Barry received a negative response to something you expect would be lauded.

Instead of being angry, if Barry had understood the contradictions he presented and corrected them, he might have shortened the path to acceptance. He could have tailored his message to his audience and presented it, and himself, in a way they could stomach (no pun intended). This approach would have only felt like a compromise on Barry’s part if he didn’t have the sufferers of gut diseases first and foremost on his mind.  Given his belief in his message, I expect the gain to bring this finding to market years in advance would have outweighed his discomfort at playing the game. If it’s any consolation, it took the medical profession 30 years to accept Louis Pasteur’s germ theory.

Listen and act

We can learn at lot from Barry’s example when we find it hard to get our message across or aren’t achieving our objectives. It’s wise to pay attention and accommodate some of the resistance others or the market sends us to refine our message. Rather than be defeated, value your message and understand there are other ways to share it. Listen to what you hear, come back with a new angle or rethink the approach. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling or any entrepreneur knows the setbacks only help you if you know how to use them. Imagine if J.K. Rowling had given up on her publication dream.

Tips to avoid mixed messages in business

So we know mixed messages can hamper communication between people and get in the way of doing business. From a brand perspective, you have to match what you say to the market with what you practice internally. Businesses that present themselves as something they’re not usually have a revolving employee door that’s in active service.

This means your corporate communications need to be consistent with your business brand, the values that underlie it, with its identity and the behaviours of the leadership team to start. Inconsistency on any front can make an organisation look less than authentic and feel less than authentic.

Action these tips:

·         Understand what it’s like to receive a mixed message first. Channel those feelings of confusion, frustration or distrust to evaluate your own communication style.

·         Understand that you can’t control how the recipient receives your information; you can only control how you deliver it.

·         Understand that mixed messages impede your communication and you’re not going to be heard if they exist.

·         Finally, make sure:

·         Words match words

·         Words match pictures

·         Words match behaviours

·         Behaviours match the environment.


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