By Guy Higgins
The “folk wisdom” about briefing executives is that no brief should include more than three messages. I have found that to be excellent advice. It forces the briefer to be disciplined in developing and delivering the brief. I’ve found it to be equally useful in briefing any person or group. “Three messages” (or fewer) seems like an excellent mantra for developing briefs. More than three messages, and the briefer risks overwhelming the audience, failing to deliver the most important points and getting mired in trivia.
I think that leaders need to be particularly careful to adhere to the three (or fewer) messages strategy. When the leader is communicating with his team, division, organization, or company, it is extremely important to be crisp, clear and concise. The communication is important (otherwise the leader wouldn’t be delivering it), and it is, therefore, important that the message(s) be delivered without any confusion or “fuzzing up.” This is particularly true when the message is bad news or when there is some impact that is unevenly spread across the audience (e.g. exceptionally uneven annual pay raises).
There is a natural tendency to try to pack everything that needs to be communicated into a single event (or written communication for that matter). There is also a natural tendency, when there is concern that the messages will be unhappily received, to cast the messages in language that the leader (or speech writer) thinks will soften the message. Such “softening” almost always simply serves to obscure the message and will ill serve the purpose of the communication. Those tendencies must be overcome and the brief or memo or speech must be focused and the messages(s) limited and clear.
Delivering bad news is not pleasant, and I’ve never known anyone who enjoyed it. It is nonetheless necessary, even in the best-run organizations to occasionally deliver bad news. It must be done, and the three messages strategy will help leaders to it as well as it can be done.
At the same time, good news can be obscured too. When delivering good news, there can be a tendency to “gild the lily” by adding sub-messages and introducing themes that do not add to the three messages – to the core of the communication. It is just as important to deliver good news clearly and concisely, as it is to deliver bad news that way.
Bottom line – the three messages approach will help you communicate effectively whether you’re delivering good news, bad news or just news.