The Nuances of Effective Messaging [Podcast Episode]

Amanda Milligan
By Amanda Milligan
March 31, 2020

Think about how you’d describe your job to a colleague. Now think about how you’d describe it to someone who has no idea what digital marketing is.



The core information is the same, but the delivery needs to be different. And this matters constantly when it comes to getting buy-in from different people with different priorities.

Tamsen Webster, marketer message strategist, and founder of The Red Thread®, explains her philosophy on how you can refine your messaging to really resonate with the person you’re trying to communicate with.


In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to communicate your key messages effectively
  • The difference between activating short-term action vs. long-term action
  • How to identify the longer-term motivations to tap into sustained action
  • How to prompt people to get to the core of what they really need

Related resources/links:


Amanda: This week on the show, we have Tamsen Webster. She's a keynote speaker, message strategist, she's been a marketer for 20 years, is the go-to consultant for companies like Verizon and Johnson and Johnson, and she developed the concept of the red thread, which is a lot of what we're going to talk about today. She describes it as the link between what you do and how you see that all big ideas are built on. Welcome to the show Tamsen.

Tamsen: Oh, I am so excited to be here, and hello content marketers.

Amanda: Oh, yeah. I first saw you speak at content marketing world, and I have to say that, that keynote presentation was actually a big inspiration for this podcast overall.

Tamsen: Oh my gosh, I love that.

Amanda: So, I have to acknowledge that first and foremost, because between your talk and Joan Polansky talking about how important it was to make these types of cases internally for your work. It just dawned on me that this is something that so many people deal with on a daily basis. And why not dedicate the whole show to that effort? So, thank you.

Tamsen: Oh, my gosh, I am delighted that such a great outcome came from that. So, thank you for sharing that. 

Amanda: Of course. So, I really love, I mean, this is going to encompass a lot, but this whole idea of the red thread, and you shared a lot of stories during your presentation that you know, I'd love to hear again here, if it makes sense. But you talk about big ideas and how crucial it is to get the messaging right for those. Can you just start by elaborating on what you mean by that?

Tamsen: Sure. So, I think a lot of times we think a message and an idea are interchangeable. After all, as Agatha Christie says, I love this quote that, "Words are only the outer clothing of ideas.". And yet, if you stop to think about it, those words cannot always be the same. The way I look at it is that a message is the intersection between an idea which stays the same like, and that idea could be your product, your service, whatever it is. But it's the intersection between that idea, the outcome that you're looking for that idea to create, and the audience from whom you need to get that outcome. And so, the way to think about it is, you know, just think about like, if you're talking about your job, for instance, you're going to talk about your job as a content marketer very, very differently with another content marketer, than, if you're trying to explain it to, let's say, a six year old niece, right? Your job, the idea, doesn't change, but how you talk about it, depending on the audience, and what it is you're trying to get them to understand, is very, very different. And so, this is why I spent so much time trying to figure out what's the best way to get that messaging right, because an idea needs to have application in order to have impact, people have to act on it. That's the whole point. So, if we don't have a message that actually produces an outcome, then we haven't served our ideas well.

Amanda: That makes sense. Is it that audience portion of it that's missing the most, do you think of those three components?

Tamsen: You know, it's funny with all the work that I do, both with individuals and companies, I would say it is equally distributed where people have trouble. So, I would say, with companies and organizations, a lot of times, yeah, they haven't really gotten to a point of understanding, not what they wish their audience wanted to know, and what problems they were solving, but what problems the audience actually is trying to solve. And that's really where you have to start a message, is what does your audience want right now, and you have to respect and value where they are right now and have to appreciate why we whatever they're doing right now, that isn't the thing you want them to be doing, why it is right to them, and for them at the moment. And I think that's a place that I see companies in particular break down a lot, because they start these messages oftentimes with what they wish people wanted out of the thing or what they think that they should want. But that's not how people work, right? We're only going to pay attention to things that we actually want right now, that we actually are trying to solve for right now. And when we're talking about businesses, they're only going to pay attention to something that they've got a line item in the budget to support right now. You know, they're not looking for your why, sorry, Simon Sinek, but they're not. They're looking for the thing that they're supposed to purchase, or they're looking for the results that they're supposed to be judged on, they're looking for their KPIs. And we really have to start there. And I see a lot of companies just not starting there. They've done the kind of research on the audience that conventional wisdom has told them to, understand their psychographics and kind of like why they would buy, but they're not doing it from the perspective of what they're looking for right now. And I think that's a much more powerful place to start.

Amanda: I noticed that you said right now, in terms of what they want. That's really interesting, because I feel like I've seen that in other psychological studies where people won't do even what's best for themselves or anything if it's long term, like we just, so much more often act of what we need right now, which I think--

Tamsen: Right, yeah. This is a story and a fact, actually, that I learned back in my days as a weight watchers’ leader. So, I have been a full-time brand and message strategist for 20 years now. But for 13 of those years, overlapping on top of it on evenings and weekends, mornings even, I was a weight watcher leader, because 20 years ago, I lost 50 pounds on that program, and I just wanted to pay that forward. And what I found was that there are these motivations for what will make people act right now and what will make them act long-term. And I think, you know, this is one of the things I talked about a content marketing world, oftentimes we will, as marketers, will sacrifice the long-term action for the right now action. And that actually creates a lot of work for us in the future as content marketers, because here's the thing, it is true. Like, there's so much psychology and so much neuroscience behind the fact that you can push all sorts of levers to get somebody to act, or to buy, or to choose in the moment, you can activate that impulse purchase, you can activate the pain that makes them go, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I have to avoid that", or activate the fear of future loss or, you know, not being part of the group or whatever. But long-term, that doesn't work. And so, I make a big distinction between whether or not your program and really your ethos, a content marketing program, are you trying to seek action? Or, are you trying to seek long-term change? Are you trying to seek sustained action? And in order to do that, you need to know actually both motivations for your audience, you need to know what they're looking for right now, what is that pain point that you can lever in order to get their attention. But in order to sustain that action long-term, it has to be something that's tied to a positive, like all positive wants, longer term. You need both of them. Because if you only have the pain point now, then they're going to eventually, and usually not very slowly; they're very quickly, going to revert back to what they were always doing, because that's less painful. But if you can tie that pain point to a longer-term goal that they're looking for, then it gets a lot more difficult for them to rationalize that new behavior away. And that's really what we're trying to get too, is like, how can we get to a point where a change in behavior feels like a consistent action for the audience? And that, I think is where a lot of messaging misses the mark. Because we have a change in behavior, representing temporary change in wants and beliefs, but wants and beliefs actually don't change that quickly. 

Amanda: Yeah, those things take time. Do you have an example of something like that? Like, a short-term versus long-term change that you're trying to enact.

Tamsen: Sure. So, when I'm talking with folks about how to build a message like this, there's two questions that I have them ask, you know, one of them is okay, if you're talking to, let's say, this kind of people, let's say that you're a content marketer, and you are talking to the, kind of in house marketing department at a B2B company that builds technical products, I don't know, say something like that. So, when you're saying, Okay, all right, as your content marketer, and you're talking to B2B marketers and of technical products, first question I ask them is, what do they want to know right now? What question are they actively trying to answer? And it could be something like, "How can we get better qualified leads off of what we're putting out there?". It could be, "How can we speed up the sales cycle?". It could be, "How can we make sure that the conversation that we're having with folks leads to more conversions?", these are questions those kinds of marketers are actively asking right now. And that gets the pain point, that's what I'm talking about. Where, because you can start a message from saying, "Hey, for folks who are trying to figure out how to get more qualified leads out of their content marketing program..", because that person will go, "Oh, that's the thing I'm experiencing right now, I want to do that.". Now, where message can go wrong is if you go, "And if you don't do that, like, everything's going to go wrong, and you've got to buy our stuff and our stuff is the only way that you could possibly be successful is by doing that.". And here's the thing, for some portion of the population, that kind of messaging will work. But my experience is that it does not work long-term. 

So, this is why I asked the second question. And the second question I ask of my clients is, okay, so this is a question they're asking right now, how can we get our content marketing programs to produce more qualified leads? Why are they asking that question? What are they trying to achieve? So, you can kind of fill it in the blank of, "Alright, well, I'm talking to B2B, you know, content marketers of technical organizations, they often want to know how can they get their content marketing program to generate more qualified leads, so that they can..", then you fill in that blank. So, you know, what are the higher-level motivations, those longer-term positive ones. So, they can, you know, meet the KPIs that they're being judged on. So, they can establish more firmly their place and the role of content marketing in the organization. And this, by the way, is where all your previous research into your audience could come into play, because you kind of know those wishes and hopes. But those wishes and hopes aren't the greatest driver of immediate action, but they are the greatest driver of sustained action. So, when you answer both of those questions, like what's the question they're asking right now? And what is the longer-term thing that they're trying to achieve with it, you're able to have both of those elements to weave into the message somehow.

Amanda: I like how you prompt them that way where you kind of give them the beginning of the sentence and then just say, like, fill in the blank. I think I saw that new website quite a bit, just like trying to get people to have those, develop a habit of having that train of thought.

Tamsen: Yes, exactly. Because our train of thought right now is to skip from their question or even, not even that, a lot of times, we're skipping from what we hope is their question straight to our answer. And that's actually just not how the brain works. In order for someone to act, they have to first understand, and they have to agree before they will decide to act. And that actually takes steps. And that could you know, I could mentally hear content marketers groan everywhere and going, "Oh my gosh, like, how am I supposed to do that?". Except for the fact that there's really good news is, the brain subconsciously, pre consciously, is always asking the same questions, which is how does this solve a problem for me that I have right now? How is this different than something that I've done before? Why is it different? And then you're never actually asking yourself this question, but it is something that the brain is seeking is, what is something about all of that, that I can't unhear? What is something about all of that, that makes this kind of new problem, this thing that I wasn't aware of, that's getting in the way, impossible to ignore? And what should I do about it? And a lot of times, you know, it's kind of those middle two that we skip, we talk about what's different in terms of, oftentimes what's features and benefits. But what the brain is really looking for is how is it different in perspective? How is this coming from a different approach? Because if something, you know, has like a different feature on it, but the approach that it's coming from is virtually the same as what they're doing now, long-term that little, okay, you've got an extra widget in your reporting program, great, but it's not fundamentally different than what they're doing now. And they have to see something about why it's fundamentally different than what they're doing now. That really comes to perspective. So, yeah, you're right. I love to give people those prompts. Because we unconsciously think this way, but we don't consciously think this way. And so, when I give people those prompts, it's like this little window into you know, it's a loop in the space time continuum, right? Like all of a sudden, you can like access this kind of underneath piece because if I say to someone, "Alright, who are you talking to?", "B2B technical marketers.", "What do they want to know?", "How can we get more qualified leads? So that they can meet their KPIs for the quarter.". Great.

And then you say to them in order to start answering those questions, "So, when looking for the answer, what are they often focused on?", "Well, they're often focused on, you know, let's say the frequency or the of the conversion, like number like the frequency.". Alright, let's just get the numbers. That's what their focusing on, "I need more qualified leads. So, I'm going to just focus on closing, closing, closing, closing, closing.". Great. I can say, "Well, where do you think they should be focusing on? Where do you think they should focus instead?", and they're like, "Well, maintaining those leads.", okay. "Now, why is that so important?", "Because long-term, the value of the business and the value of the program is going to be judged not by the number of leads that you get, but the number of leads that actually convert, and that requires something different.". Okay. The brain is saying, "What does that require different?". And so, you say, "So, that's why our answer is to...", and then you supply why your approach might actually builds those relationships so that you convert more leads, and that's why you've built this product. 

And so, by prompting people that way with this, "Okay, when you're talking to blank, they often want to know blank so, they can blank", that establishes the how does this solve a problem I have right now. And then when I prompt them with, "Oh, so you know, when looking for the answers, they are the market usually focuses on blank rather than blank.", that's how you can kind of pull out of people or pull out of your own brain, what is this kind of shift in perspective that our products and our idea actually represents? What's the thing that they're going to shift first before they change what they do? And that's really important because you can't actually change what somebody does until you change how they see, because how we see a situation drives what we do in it. So, that's why we're doing that piece. And then I say, "Yet, we believe...", and that's where you put in that thing, they can't unhear that ultimately, the conversion is built on a relationship and conversion is what lasts. Or I would say, sorry, I'm doing this off the top my head, I would say something like, "A conversion requires a lead plus a relationship", right? You're trying to find something that the person you're talking to, those B2B technical marketers will go, "Yeah, actually, that's true". And then you say, "So, that's why our answer is blank. And here's how we do that blank.". 

And so, in a lot of ways, it's kind of like for those people who are like, "Oh, it sounds kind of similar to like, Simon Sinek's, like, start with why; it actually flips the whole start with why on its head. It actually kind of starts with what is it the people are looking for right now? How are they looking at the situation right now? How do you look at the situation right now? Why do you look at it that way? So, that you're then able to say, "So, here's why we do what we do.". And I just find that that kind of that prompting accesses that subconscious answer, and the benefit is that it actually produces answers that fill in the blanks in your audience's head as well.

Amanda: Yeah. It sounds like a diversion, you're kind of meeting them where they are first, correct? 

Tamsen: Correct. 

Amanda: Like, it makes sense to me, just listening to it that somebody would get, maybe just even less defensive to start when you're about to introduce some kind of change, or, you know.

Tamsen: Yes, 100%. That's exactly what's happening. Because the thing is that the enemy of change is resistance. And it's not that we're trying to like it, lower their defense mechanism, so, we're going to go, "Ah!", like, the whole thing about this red thread approach is about finding where their red thread, you know, those questions, how they see the world, ties into yours. You are not trying to supply them with a different one. And so, one of the things that they talked about in that keynote you saw at content marketing world is that, you know, a lot of times, now you're going to hear the language, a lot of times when people are focused on changing behavior, they're focused on changing the wants and the beliefs that drive that behavior. Rather than on, how it is that the pre-existing wants and beliefs that they have can actually support a change in behavior. And so, I really believe that the key to long-term change, the key to long-term sustained action is not to challenge people's beliefs, but to uphold them. Because we already said it, wants and beliefs do not change quickly. So, the most powerful levers that we actually have available to us as marketers, are not these quick gimmicks of how I can get someone to act in the moment; it's the wants and beliefs that are sustaining their day to day action right now. And if you can tie your idea into their wants and beliefs and how they see the world right now, you have a much, much, much more stable and long-term basis for tying those two red threads together. And for them to have a reason, long-term, for them to continue to do what they're doing with you.

Amanda: I think that's a wonderful way to illustrate it. So, there's a question I ask at the end of every episode, but we probably answered like 10 times, but this might be part of the answer, which is, I ask everybody, what do they think is the biggest mistake people make when they're pitching an idea? And it sounds like this whole concept of just like trying to change the wrong things might be it. But do you have any other thoughts on that?

Tamsen: That is definitely at the core of what I believe, is that a lot of times we tell people that they have to be different to do something different. And I don't think that's the case. I think that the biggest mistake we make is realizing that somebody's rationale for choosing you is probably already there in their head. We don't have to insert anything new; we just have to do the work of building that case that they would tell themselves. So, really, that's how I would sum it up, I would say that the biggest mistake that we make is that we tell the story we want to tell. We don't tell the story that your customers and your clients will tell themselves, and therefore other people about why they've chosen you or why they're doing what you're asking them to do. And ultimately, it's the story that someone tells himself, the thing that sustains what their action is. So, if we can tell them that story, we can give them a story that feels like a story they would tell themselves, then we've done the work of not only honoring our idea and our products and services, and our company, but we've done the work of honoring our audiences too. And that's really important to me.

Amanda: Absolutely. In the case of having to make these kinds of pitches internally like, to leadership, I would imagine that for clients, you can kind of just ask them a lot of these questions, prompt them, like we're talking about. But say you don't have access to these people normally, right? Where you can't kind of pick their brains about what they're looking for, what do you suggest for people like that, where they have an idea for something they want to do and their content marketing program, and they need to understand kind of all the stakeholders and where they're coming from? What are some next steps for them? 

Tamsen: Sure. And I would argue that this information is actually out there for you to see, you just need to turn on your brain to start looking for it. And there's nothing wrong that you weren't looking for it before. But now that you start asking yourself these questions of like, what are they motivated by like, what do you have to do? So, I would always joke that in the time when I worked for companies, I would always, there's this thing that happened back then where I would come up with little rules for people like rules for my bosses, just things that I observed about them that were their motivations, right? So, one of them, I'll leave their name out, you know, where my rule for this particular boss was, they always needed to look cool. Like, that was really a driving motivation for them. And so, you can kind of just observe over time, like, what are some of those patterns, but you can also use what they say, use what they do, and use what they prioritize as saying, like, here's our goals for the quarter or for the year, here are our values. Those are the things that they are saying they're motivated by so, if you can tie into that, then you're going to be really successful. 

So, for instance, you know, I do a lot of work with organizations sometimes having to craft these high stakes conversations with their senior leadership, and that's oftentimes a place that we start, I say, "Well, what are the most of the discussions right now happening that you're hearing about?", they're like, you know, "A lot of the focus right now is on making sure that we're expanding into new audiences", for instance, "that we're kind of accessing the millennial generation.". And this probably sounds familiar to folks, you're like, "Great. Okay.". So, if we know that expanding audience is one of their key questions, if you bring to them, like a new program that you're kind of come in, one of their first questions, because they're an executive is, "Why is this investment going to be worth more than something else?", like, "Why is this going to help us achieve our goals more than something else?". And just even from those two things, you can say, "Ah, okay, I need to start from the perspective of what they care about right now, expanding audience and I need to frame my idea through the lens of expanding the audience. And then, I need to make sure that I'm making the case for them, based on that. That this is in fact worth the investment over something else.". Does that answer your question? 

Amanda: It does. Yeah, I think it's helpful to have like those types of examples where, you know, just hypothetically what somebody could be facing, just to give it some more context. 

Tamsen: Yeah, I mean, just ask your colleagues like, "Just what are the questions that those people always want to know the answer to?". And people have these patterns, they do, they have these patterns of what they care about, what motivates them, and they leave evidence of that, there's footprints of that, either in conversations they've had with people or in the communications they put out to the rest of the company, conversations they've had with you. I mean, go back and think about like, if something hasn't been successful for you with them in the past, why not? What were their objections? So, start with their objections, because their objections are going to come from what their key questions are, and you start your planning for that case. Oftentimes, what you're going to do is, start from what you predict is going to be the biggest objection they're going to have. 

Amanda: Yeah, no, I think that's a great point. And it sounds like it's a combination of what they say is their priority and then also like you said, what you can observe of that person.

Tamsen: Correct and--

[Cross talk]

Tamsen: Yeah, absolutely. And making sure that you are always coming, and this is super key, since you were at the content marketing world talk, you heard this like, you must come, any of these conversations and these messages, from the assumption and the true belief that the person that you're talking to is smart, capable and good, or at least wants to be seen that way. And if you can start from that perspective, that anything that they're doing, anything that they're thinking, anything that they're objecting to with you is coming, because they either believe they already are smart, capable and good or want to be seen as smart, capable and good. Then what that does is it automatically puts you in a place of empathy with where they are, and it means you're much, much more likely to be able to see the situation from their perspective, because if you're saying yourself, "Okay, what are they trying to answer right now? Why would they care? How are they looking at the situation right now? Why are they focused on that? Why does that make sense to them? What else can I introduce about the situation that would still be consistent with how they look at the world, but still be something new?", the example I like to give, and I didn't talk about this in that talk, because it's a different one, is like an optical illusion where you know, if you've ever seen that old woman, young women or the two faces in the vase. My favorite one is called the rabbit duck illusion, I call it the duck bunny, you know, and it's a drawing where, depending on how you look at it, it is either a duck or bunny. And I'd like to just think about, like when we stop and think, "This person, when they look at this picture, they see a duck. Why do they see a duck? Well, I can see the duck, great. Now, but I also see a bunny. So, how can I draw their attention to the fact that there's also a bunny here? There's another perspective here that they can see for themselves is clearly in view.". Right? And they're like, "Oh, yeah.", they can validate for themselves. And now, what can I tell them about that thing that is, again, consistent with how they see the world. So, for instance, if we're talking about that program, where we know that a motivation approach that you're talking about is expanding audience access, and their concern is that investment in whatever you're talking about is going to hurt productivity or the production of, I don't know, whatever you're doing, right? You can point out that if you say something like, you know, "The more exposure that we have of our product, the more impact it will have. And therefore, it would generate the revenue that can support the additional growth in, you know, productivity or production.". That one statement of, you know, "Hey, the more exposure, the more impacts", they're going to say yes, because that's consistent with how they see the world. And as soon as they do, now, they can see why the kind of bunny point of view is just as valid, if not more valid than the duck point of view. 

And so, it allows us to come at this from the point of view of a fellow traveler on the road, not from an expert that's already figured it out, and why haven't you figured it out? Or, and I might be getting myself in trouble here with some certain folks, but not as a guide or a mentor, either. I don't believe in that approach to messaging, where you're the guide and the mentor. Not because there's not a good motivation behind it, there is; you do have more information about a situation in certain cases than the person you're talking to. But it's the minute that you perceive yourself to be a guide or mentor, you kind of accidentally, more often than not slip into this, "Well, I know more than you do.", I've just seen it happen again and again, that like mentor language, guide language ends up being kind of condescending. And back to what we're talking about earlier, people want to feel smart, capable and good, they're not going to keep doing something or keep working with someone who makes them feel not smart. And so, I just find if you can come back and say, "Hey, I know you're looking for this, you know, and I know you see the world this way. And you know, I see the world that way too, and then I noticed this other thing, and here's why I think that thing is important. That seems consistent with what you think is important too, so, what would it look like if we actually focused on the bunny instead and did this?", and that's really kind of the flow that we're trying to get to, instead of saying, "Hey, you should do this thing because what you're doing is wrong now. Believe me because I know better. So, you know, do it.". Like, long-term, that doesn't work. Long-term, what works is validating the perspective the people already have. 

Amanda: I really love that you brought this up because it really resonated with me, the first time you talked about it when I saw you, because there's so much, I think for a lot of people frustration involved with this, right? They feel like they're not being heard, and they get defensive, and it can just turn into kind of this negative thing. And the whole construct of you have to assume that everybody either is or wants to feel smart, capable and good reframes the entire endeavor, and turns it into something that, not only will be more effective, as you're saying, but just isn't as, you know, negatively emotional too, and just allows you to collaborate better, which--

Tamsen: 100%.

Amanda: Yeah, it's kind of a great note to end this episode on because it's a little, it's encouraging, and I'm just really glad you brought it up, because I think everybody can use it a little bit more.

Tamsen: Yes, thank you. And I hope so because I'm so passionate about that piece because I mean, just think about a situation where any of us have been in, you are not willing to even entertain a different behavior until you really feel heard and validated in your current one. And that's what we have to do. It doesn't mean that your current behavior isn't negative or whatever, but honestly, it comes back to a principle that was part of my life as a weight watchers’ leader. And one of those principles was that there was a positive intention behind every behavior, you know. I've come to realize now that that positive intention is the smart, capable, good thing. But no matter what people are doing, they are trying to do something positive for themselves, in doing it, even if it's a negative behavior. And so, in order for someone to see your thing, your idea, your product and service as the right thing, you have to look at it from the lens of, "How can you link it to their positive intent?". They're going to be doing it to make themselves feel better some way and it has to be something that's going to make them feel better long-term, not just in the moment.

Amanda: Yes, absolutely love that. So, in closing, what I also ask everybody before the episode ends, well, I mean, you study this, you know so much about this, I'm really excited to ask you this question. But knowing the objective of this podcast, who else would make great future guests for the show? 

Tamsen: Oh, okay. Alright. So, one person immediately comes to mind, and I don't know if you've spoken with her yet, but a wonderful woman named Neen James. And she focuses on systems of attention, like, how is it you can systematically pay attention to the people who matter to you? From an audience perspective, from a client perspective, from a customer perspective, so that they feel seen, heard, validated, but also, you're doing that in a way that it's not creating more work for you. So, you're kind of, you know, automating, like she calls it, systemized thoughtfulness, and I think that's amazing. So, I think she would be spectacular. Yeah, she's the one that immediately like, just boom, like, right to the front of my head. I'm trying to think who else might be intriguing to talk to about this. You know, I think she's so a good fit that I'm going to leave it at that. 

Amanda: That sounds great. I have not spoken with, but I think just based on what you said, that she would make an excellent guest. And like I said, Tamsen, I really appreciate you taking the time, your message really resonates with me, and I think it'll be incredibly insightful for everybody else. So, thank you.

Tamsen: Oh, you're so welcome. My pleasure.