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A 2021 back-to-school lesson in making your message stick


Y’all! It’s here! It’s Back-to-School time! 

Some kids have been heading back to school this week, some will head back next week. And while the 2020 back-to-school season was pretty memorable, it’s looking like this one may be fairly memorable too.

But one of the most memorable first days of school for me was when my son, Allen, headed into first grade. He helped me realize a powerful lesson in communicating a message that resonates and sticks.

In the midst of hurrying through breakfast, brushing teeth and combing hair, I wanted to pause and have an 80s sitcom special episode-worthy father and son moment. I sat down on Allen’s bed and began, “Hey buddy - before we head out, I want to talk to you about today and this school year.” He quickly responded with, “I know. I know. I need to be ENERGETIC, ENTHUSIASTIC and EXCELLENT.”

I sat there in stunned silence for a moment before saying, “Uh, that’s right. And, uh, also have fun. Good talk, son.”

At first, I felt like he had stolen my thunder. He had taken away my opportunity to drop a memorable first-day-of-school speech. Then the realization hit me that HE GOT IT! After repeating the same speech over and over on numerous occasions for the past couple of years he understood it, and he remembered it - so much that he could repeat it back to me.

The most reliable way to know your message is resonating? When your people start repeating it.

If you want your team to learn and remember something important - your mission, your team values, your big annual goal, your big message, your big idea - you HAVE to tell them more than once. You HAVE to tell them even more than once in a while. You HAVE to consistently repeat it at every opportunity.

[SPOILER ALERT! TRIGGER WARNING! I’m about to get Biblical.]

Even Jesus relied on the power of repetition to get his messages to stick. You’d think he would only need to say something one time for his disciples to get it. Au contraire. In John he told Peter to feed and take care of his sheep THREE TIMES.


When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” - John 21:15-17


Look, I know you’re proud of your message. You know its importance so much and believe that your team will have it memorized the moment it leaves your lips. Unfortunately, you suffer from “the curse of knowledge.”

You’re cursed with the deep knowledge you have of your message. You’re cursed with the long hours you spent crafting and refining your message that you know it in your head backwards and forwards. 

What about your team? Just because you spent so much time with your message, you can’t simply assume that announcing it one time will be enough for your team to know it, remember it and instill it. 


That’s the problem with the curse of knowledge. When you have so much knowledge around something you’ve created, you forget how little knowledge everyone else has around it. They don’t know it like you do. They don’t remember it like you do. They don’t care about it like you do. But they can if you give them what they need.


When you think about it, the curse of knowledge is really a lack of self-awareness. And when you suffer from it you’re not aware of the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s in others' minds.


Don’t think that this curse is rare. I’ve seen it happen to so many leaders throughout my career. It’s even happened to me. It could be a town hall, a staff meeting, an offsite, a video announcement - someone will share their new big idea, their vision, their annual strategic objectives, their core tenets. But three months later, the majority of people don’t even recall what was said.


So how do you defeat this curse? Over-communicate.


Or at least think that you’re over-communicating. Because it’s actually pretty difficult to really over-communicate according to Andy Stanley. He says that a leader’s vision doesn’t automatically stick. It actually leaks - kind of like a bucket with a hole in it. So you have to keep refilling that bucket to make sure your vision does stick.


Your people are busy. Your people are distracted. Your people are trying to juggle and prioritize everything they hear. They’re going to forget what you say. But not because they’re ignoring you and not because they want to forget. It just happens. 

When your team forgets your message or your big idea, you can’t be upset with them for not remembering it. In fact, you should be upset with yourself. If your team doesn’t know something the way you want them to, sadly that’s on you.


When leaders have the curse of knowledge, one of the biggest mistakes they make when they craft a big idea for their team is to share their big idea only one time. But no matter who you are, no matter your role and title, your big idea communication to your team can’t be a one-and-done announcement.


So they need reminders, and they need them frequently.


It doesn’t matter if you’ve said it already. You have to say it multiple times, exponentially multiple times. You’ve got to drop the hammer on the repetition gas pedal and not let up.

In order for you to make your idea stick, you have to repeat it to your audience at every chance you have. 

In order for you to make your idea stick, you have to repeat it until your mouth gets sore just from saying it. 

In order for you to make your idea stick, you have to repeat it until your audience can say it themselves. 

In order for you to make your idea stick you have to repeat it ad nauseam. If you didn’t take Latin in high school, ad nauseam is a Latin phrase here that means “referring to something that has been done or repeated so often that it has become annoying or tiresome.” But we forget how annoying or tiresome some things can be to other people. We assume people are tired of hearing something as much as we’re tired of saying it. But that’s actually not the case.


When you want to make your idea stick and you repeat it ad nauseam, you need to keep repeating it until you’re the one who’s sick and tired of hearing it. And at that point, it simply means that you’ve only started repeating it enough. When you’re sick and tired of hearing it, you’re about halfway done with how much you need to repeat it.


Then you can let off on the repetition gas pedal, but just a little bit.


Now that you understand both the curse of knowledge and how to defeat it, there are no excuses. The next time you want your people to recall your message or your big idea, remember that it’s not their fault if they don’t. It’s yours. Good thing you know how to help them.

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