The upcoming 2020 election has me thinking about message discipline (yes, that’s the type of thing I think about), and the light it sheds on how companies often fail in their communication efforts.

First, a quick definition: Wikipedia defines message discipline as: the concept that politicians and other public policy advocates should talk about what is relevant to achieve their aims, and not allow themselves to be sidetracked either by their own thoughts or the questions of press or audience.

There are several points to note about this definition. First, it implies consistency: determine what your message is, and stick to it come hell or high water. Second is relevancy: ensure that the message you’re communicating is relevant to both you and your audience. Third, there is self-control: you do not stray from your messages, nor do you allow others to get you off track.

It’s said campaigns that demonstrate better message discipline are those most likely to win, and the reason for that should be obvious – that campaign clearly and consistently communicates a position that is relevant to their target demographic. The public knows what they stand for, and why that position is good for constituents.

I think you can see where I’m going in regard to message discipline in the business world. It’s an obvious truism that companies must clearly understand and communicate what they stand for, who their audience is and how their products or services benefit that audience.

The problem, however, is a general lack of self-control.

In the public speaking sphere this entails the speaker/politician going off on a tangent, either through a self-inflicted lack of awareness or because they’re genuinely trying to answer questions or concerns that take them off track. This type of “live” message discipline is hard, as you only have fleeting moments to consider your words. In fact, we do entire media training sessions that focus on helping people to recognize and build on the need for message discipline in live interviews and speaking sessions.

Ironically, though, I see individuals and organizations struggle mightily with message discipline even in their non-verbal communications, when presumably they have much greater time and ability for self-reflection. This lack of message discipline in marketing or PR content typically falls into several broad categories:

Lack of consistency. I can’t tell you the number of times that I see people flat out forget to work in a specific message, or rework the message each time to the point it eventually becomes unrecognizable. If your messages are solid, they should be repeated everywhere – website, press releases, marketing and sales collateral, slide decks, press articles, etc. When creating a new piece, make sure to use language from one of those existing sources (it’s not plagiarism if you steal from yourself). Repeat, repeat, repeat. If you don’t want to repeat your messages, it’s probably a sign that you’re not comfortable with them or believe they don’t resonate. Follow your gut go back to the drawing board to come up with something better.

Forgetting the audience. Who are you trying to reach and influence, and how is the message relevant to them? Disciplined messaging is not rote recitation. It presumes that you are selecting and tailoring your broad message to appeal to a specific target audience. Start with that audience and their needs and work backwards to the desired message – don’t just operate on autopilot.

Skipping the benefit. Messaging reflects a two-step structure: we do this, and here’s why it matters. It’s easy to get stuck on the “what we do” part of the structure and lose sight of the much more important “why it matters.” Don’t.

Chasing the irrelevant. I am a strong believer that the best writing is the tightest writing. If you can rework and rewrite something to be shorter, it’s often better. A corollary is that entire trains of thought can often be cut out without harming the overall content – and in fact will generally serve to make it better. Those irrelevant passages are the equivalent of chasing a reporter’s question rather than sticking to your story.

While I would always advocate for authentic and engaging communication over robotic recitation, when it comes to messages there’s something to be said for disciplined execution.