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Stay on message

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“What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Sum

When we stay on message, we communicate exactly what we want our audience to know. We create harmony between our words, visuals and actions and we deliver a clear, powerful and irresistible call to action.

Message discipline is the art of communicating what you set out to communicate, clearly, memorably and consistently. Everything from your talking points for an interview to the slogans on your banner to the visuals you create for an event should all align to support your core message.


It works: When you’re on message, you’re more likely to reach your audience and move them to action.

It honors your group process: You’ve worked hard with your group to determine what needs to be communicated. Staying on message honors that hard work and strategic thinking, communicating only what all of you have agreed is the right message.

Make it stick: Say one thing and say it well. The average person needs exposure to multiple sensory impressions of a message before it sinks in. When you practice message discipline, the consistency of your message helps make it stick.

Avoid static in the channel:  Anything you say or do can be used against you in the court of public opinion, so make sure your words and actions are in sync with your group’s message. Strip away any of the clutter that could be static in the channel. Remember: less is more.


In interviews: Spokesfolks should practice the ABC’s: acknowledge the question, build a bridge from the question to your talking points; and communicate your message.



“That’s a great question” or “I’m glad you asked that.”

“I think the important issue is…” or “The real question is…”

Insert your clear, concise, powerfully worded message.

In our visuals and actions: When designing your action, imagine a photo of it — image only, no caption. Could that photo communicate your message? If your audience could see you from afar but not hear you, would they get your message? How can you increase that possibility? See THEORY: Action logic.

Inventory your event: Everything your audience sees or hears at your action is inevitably a part of your message, so pay attention to details. What are your spokesfolks wearing? Are they drinking out of a Styrofoam cup? A bit of mindfulness as your event unfolds can ensure the impact you desire.

Message discipline is not the enemy of creativity. Far from it. Placards can have different messages. Each spokesperson can share a sound bite that reflects their own unique experience. But when you are “on message,” all elements reinforce your core message. Each action element or interview response stands on its own, successfully delivering a strong message to your audience with clarity, consistency and credibility.

Potential Pitfalls

A sound bite will never cover everything you want to say. It may be true that decades of financial irresponsibility or hundreds of years of colonial oppression got us into this mess, but part of the art of message discipline is taming the urge to unpack all those details each time you speak. Keep your core message simple and crisp, and recognize that it’s just the opening volley in your work on this issue.

Celia Alario is a communications strategist, spokesperson coach and seasoned troublemaker. She enjoys collaborating with grassroots organizations, filmmakers, artists and authors, and scheming about how to engage key audiences and change the world with stories, while tapping both traditional media/marketing and new media/web 2.0 tools. Alario teaches Environmental Communications Strategies and Tactics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and serves on the board of directors of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the smartMeme Training and Strategy Collective, and on the advisory boards of BEN (Business Ethics Network) and IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War).

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