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5 lessons about effective message that I have learned from being a dad

By George Hulbert, Director of The Clarity Business - and father of three.

Many people leave their 'home intelligence' behind when they set off for work in the morning. But I often find it useful to think about some of the messages that have worked on the toughest audience in the world: my children.

I'm not in any way setting myself up here as a parenting expert, but as the father of three children of 7 and under, every day brings a new challenge in trying to get the little monkeys to do what I want. This can be most difficult at bedtime when they are tired, which for some extraordinary reason means that their ears don't work.

So, here are a few lessons I have learned from home that can apply in my work as a message-focused PR practitioner who uses words to effect outcomes that build value for my clients:

Lesson 1: "Get into the bath"

Unsurprisingly, this hardly ever works. "Why do I have to go first?" they always ask. "I just want to finish this puzzle/game/drawing etc." Or: "I went first yesterday - it's not my turn." Or, any one of a thousand other variations. This can go on for ages until someone (me) gets grumpy, shortly followed by telling off/orders/them stamping feet etc.

So the other day I tried a new variant of the message: "Get into the bath first… OR you might have to sit in wee after your brother or sister." Not only did this new message work instantly, but since then everyone wants to go first to avoid the appalling horror that this might entail.

The lesson: Outcomes-focused, competitive messages are powerful.

Lesson 2: "Don't touch that"

Quite possibly the most useless message in the world of parenting, it almost screams "go on, give it a try!" However, it can be hard to stop yourself from saying it as your child wanders aimlessly but inevitably towards the fired-up barbeque/switched-on toaster/cooker/giant mud pool etc.

So, like many people, I try to paint a picture of the possible consequences. "If you touch that you will get a shock/burn" etc. I am not trying to put them into cotton wool, and I'd only use this if real danger comes close, but it can work.

The lesson: This 'consequences' message can work well and get people to think. However, sometimes people just don't listen and plough on anyway towards their date with their painful destiny.

Lesson 3: "Get into the car"

Many times a day we have to go somewhere in the car, and waiting for everyone to board the vehicle can drive me round the bend.

I found it particularly frustrating when, on a trip to the Gold Coast, it took ages to get the team into the car when we were heading off to the Dreamworld theme park. "Get into the car" was failing as usual, so the not entirely-untried variant, "get into the car or we'll leave you behind on the trip to Dreamworld" reared its head.

The instant action - and subsequent fun day on the rides - that followed showed that messages that carry reward AND threat at the same time can have real power. Of course, we had the same drama on the way out of the theme park…

Lesson 4: "Tidy your room"

Every parent on earth has battle scars from this one. It's a daily issue, particularly as my guys are like TNT, exploding dress-ups, LEGO, soldiers and millions of bits of paper all over the place every day.

Now I'm not saying that I use this often at all, but it worked well the other day: "We could go to KiwiYo for an ice cream if you tidy your rooms AND pick up all the LEGO in the sitting room." 30 minutes later I was enjoying the delicious KiwiYo experience I had wanted all along. I got more than what I wanted: they got what they wanted.

Ok, this might sound like bribery (which I'd never recommend!). However, the lesson really is that you can get more than you initially wanted from a situation if your message shows the right outcome for your audience.

Lesson 5: "I'm the best dad in the world"

Wrong. Totally wrong. For a start, I wouldn't presume to think I am the best dad in the world – not even close. I can't juggle, ride a unicycle or shoot spider webs from my hands, so I'll never even be as cool as the Spiderman who came to my son's birthday party the other day, let alone the best Dad in the world.

However, whenever my children turn to me and say (sometimes after sated at KiwiYo) "you're the best dad in the world", or give me a loving picture they have drawn of me with them, it makes me want to keep trying to get there. I will keep showing them cool stuff, taking them fishing, reading stories, teaching them to tie their shoelaces etc. because I enjoy it and I want to be the right, big part of their lives.

The lesson: there are three. Firstly, actions speak louder than words – both are messages we send. So BE what you want to appear to be if you want your audience to love you. You can't say one thing and do another if you expect anyone to believe you. Secondly, don't 'push' a message that appeals to you: you need to think of the message that will appeal to your audience. And, thirdly, keep at it: never give up.

What's the thing that unites all of this?

WIIFM – what's in it for me? (and by 'me' I mean 'them', i.e. what's in it for your audience).

I come across so many messages at work that are all about the services companies offer, and not nearly enough about how these services help their clients to achieve their goals (which is what the client actually wants to hear). This is sometimes called 'benefits', but I find it better to think of it as 'achievements': what does xyz actively achieve for your audience?

For example, a message from a mortgage broker that says "I am a mortgage broker" (the service I offer) is nowhere near as effective as "I can save you ten years and $100,000 off your mortgage by selecting the right product for you" (the value I add and what it will achieve for you).

So, I'd encourage you to think about the things that you say to your children that actually get them to do what you want, and then think about how you might use the same thought process in your working life. It could lead to a happy life of ice creams and gold stars.

For help in creating and applying messages that mean something to your audiences, please contact George on +64 (0)21 536 637.

If you enjoyed this post, click here to read another post from The Clarity Business on how the triangle helps to shape business messages.