Mindful Messaging

Mindful Messaging

An Introduction

From Kristen Grimm, Spitfire President:

When I was younger, my sister would get caught sneaking out of our house. She’d get grounded. There were tears. I didn’t want to suffer the same fate but I did really want to meet a boy named Keith well after midnight one night. I knew from my lived experience what would happen if I snuck out. I decided to try something new. My father was fast asleep. I wrote a note detailing where I was and with whom, left it in the hallway, and walked out the front door. When I arrived home the following morning after a night of looking at stars, my father was pacing. “You snuck out!” he bellowed. “Au contraire,” I replied calmly. “I went out after bed, left a note with pertinent details and walked out the front door like any respectable person. I went out. I did not sneak out.” My father is a lawyer and prides himself on being a rational man. My counterargument was convincing. Despite my sister’s incredulousness that not only would I not be grounded, I would get complimented on my thoughtfulness for leaving a note, I was learning important messaging techniques that I would use later.

I have applied these same skills in my day job of messaging for important causes. And I have to say, it is actually getting harder. When I started out in communications, most messaging I did focused on facts and stats. Then came the idea of using frames and master narratives. So I enhanced my messaging to incorporate that. Then I ran into the weird phenomenon of people saying they really supported something but weren’t doing anything to support the cause. I wrote the Activation Point to give people ideas about how to approach messaging in that case. Many of those tenets still stand. But in the last eight years, we’ve learned a lot about the human brain. Behavioral economists like Dan Ariely made me think differently about incentives. Dr. Robert Cialdini gave much food for thought about what to do in pre-messaging so people are in the right frame of mind. Alexis McGill illuminated the impacts of implicit bias. Jonah Berger, the Heath brothers, Jonathan Haidt, Bobby Jones and Paul Slovic have written book after book that have left me with one clear conclusion: truly effective messaging speaks to your audience’s values, beliefs and identity.  

The brain is a bit like a pinball machine. Messages go in. Sometimes they hit the right places and trigger the preferred response (points!). Sometimes they hit the wrong spots and people are alienated and reject the messaging. Still other times, you lose the ball altogether and have to start all over again.

This is my attempt to offer advice for people who play people pinball. At Spitfire, we call this process Mindful Messaging. It helps us thoughtfully consider who we are trying to engage, anticipate how their brains might process messaging we use and keeps us from making predictable mistakes that set us back rather than propel us further. It helps facilitate two-way communication so messaging leads to useful dialogue about important issues rather than dead ends.

In this guide, I’ll walk through:

  • Getting to know your audiences better by looking at six psychographic categories;
  • Understanding what’s at play in people’s minds and anticipating responses to strengthen messaging efforts;
  • Creating a game plan by deciding which audience insights to weave into messaging; and
  • Getting inspired by others efforts to put Mindful Messaging into practice.

Keep in mind, this is a work in progress. I’d love to say I have all the answers. At this point, I mostly have good questions. Cultivating a sense of curiosity will serve you well when practicing Mindful Messaging.