The Messenger is the Message | Gagen MacDonald

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The Messenger is the Message

Jun 01, 2015

Who delivers the message may be as important as the message itself

Your top-notch corporate communications team has worked diligently to craft a communications strategy, with a finely honed story and message designed to engage and align employees across the globe.

How do you tell the story? Most specifically, who tells it?

Behavioral research indicates that even the best messages can be drowned out by a messenger whose qualities are perceived as less than optimal by the audience.

Here are five characteristics you may want to consider as you choose your messenger – or messengers.


Many studies have delved into what makes a source credible; the truth lies at the crossroads of real and perceived characteristics. Consider whether your messenger has the expertise to speak knowledgably about the topic. Most important: Does the audience believe she does? For example, a well-respected but old-school CEO may not be the best choice to talk about technology innovations.


This is hard to quantify, yet can dramatically affect how a message is internalized and processed. It isn’t necessarily a measure of the integrity of a person, but can be connected with an individual’s history. Imagine the VP of HR who, time and again, has been brought out to talk about the latest set of layoffs; he may not be the most trustworthy source to carry positive news. Audience expectations may be so strong that he’s going to deliver yet another dismal announcement that they will hear gloom and doom in the most sanguine content.


Think of endorsement as leveraging someone else’s clout, bearing bearing his or her seal of approval. For example, the CEO who has brought the company through a major crisis and therefore is trusted by employees, may speak before –and introduce – a CIO who is much more knowledgeable about the business impact of a data breach. The trustworthiness of the CEO and expertise of the CIO combine for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.


Politicians know this concept well, rolling up their sleeves as they meet and greet factory workers, and then donning a jacket and tie when lunching with business leaders. The audience – the receivers of the messages – are much more open to listening when the person who is talking looks like them, talks like them, acts like them, and can demonstrate shared experiences. It’s not too hard to see how this can affect message delivery; we collectively cringe when hearing about a well-paid senior executive asking employees to tighten their belts right before he drives off in his Ferrari to play golf at an exclusive club. In a corporate environment, it may mean delivering some messages through supervisors, respected managers, or business unit leaders.


Studies show that when a combination of trust and empathy are employed, oxytocin – often called the “love” hormone – is released. Creating empathy depends heavily on a harmonious blend of story and storyteller. A personal anecdote – with real consequences at stake – goes a long way toward developing that magical trust/empathy brew. An essential skill for a leader is to be a consummate communicator, able to deliver messages in a personal, authentic voice. Politicians often refer to Ronald Reagan as the Great Communicator; his authenticity came through his stories in a personable, reachable manner.

Not only do we need to understand our target audiences when we plan communications of any kind, but we must pay close attention to who delivers our messages. Taking into account credibility, trustworthiness, endorsement, identification and empathy helps determine who are the most appropriate carriers of our content, thus stacking the odds in favor of successful message delivery – and appropriate behavior change.

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