What’s the message?

I have been thinking about this tweet a great deal, because I often think about messaging as both intentional and unintentional actitivities, and also, I think about messaging in terms of what people actually hear and understand, not just what was said.

In my line of work—communications—I spend a great deal of time on intentional messaging. I work with a lot of smart, very dedicated people on how to develop messages that explain difficult and complex subject matter; messages that resonate with people’s hearts and brains; messages that make it sound like people are joined in common cause and want others to join in. And once we develop those messages—through research or sometimes, by pulling them out of thin air (not the recommended approach), we communicators then think about how to get those messages out in the world, to grow awareness of and caring about whatever it is we’re trying to communicate about. Sometimes, we believe those messages can help with changing narratives, across entire systems that are dysfunctional and inequitable.

That’s messaging with intention. But then there’s messaging without intention, which is messaging that often gets heard and understood by audiences in ways that we never imagine. A long time ago, during an ice-breaking exercise, someone asked me for a random “I believe” statement, and rather than go for something very profound, e.g., “I believe in social justice,” I instead said, “I believe that people’s shoes reveal a lot about who they are.” This got a laugh, but it also elicited many startled and, quite frankly, disagreeable looks. I think the unpalatable part of my comment had to do with people thinking I was being superficial and silly (for the record, NOT the first time I’ve been accused of that), and people outright disagreeing with my statement, because they believed that people’s shoes revealed nothing about them.

While I could have said something much more profound about my political or social beliefs, I actually DO believe that people’s shoes send a message about who they are, just like their clothes and their hair and their preferred forms of transportation (cars, bicycles, walking) do. Haven’t you ever walked into someone’s house for the first time and taken a look at their bookshelves? (And judged them if they didn’t have any books lying around?) Haven’t you ever deepened an impression of someone once you met their friends? All of these factors—which many deem to be superficial or somehow external to the person’s identity—count as messages that people send to others about themselves. They may be intentional messages—when I dress in vibrant colors, I do it because I’m feeling a MOOD, and I want to communicate that to others—or they may be unintentional messages, like, “I don’t care a great deal about style, so my shoes are functional and sturdy and appropriate for the weather and the setting.”

What does this have to do with the work context? Well, organizations intentionally message all the time. They message through their official communication activities—what they say on their website, what they say on their social media platforms, press releases, etc. But organizations may also be unintentionally messaging, too. What’s an example of this? Vu Le, the wonderful and hilarious leader behind the blog Nonprofit AF, has written many posts about his experiences as the [past] executive director of a grassroots community organization, and how frustrating it was to repeatedly encounter insanely complicated processes from donors and foundations on how to apply for grants. He was a strong advocate for multi-year, unrestricted operating support so nonprofit staff could actually focus on the mission and the purpose of their work, rather than devoting a shit-ton of energy to the bureaucratic processes.

In other words, organizations with terrible processes—when it comes to how they handle money, how they handle hiring and compensation, etc.—are sending messages. If their official rhetoric says, “We care deeply about the work of our grantee partners, and we celebrate their successes, and we hope to give them beaucoup more dollars,” their terrible processes send a different message which is, simply, this: “We don’t value your time. And, we think we are more important than you are, in this dynamic.”

It feels important for me to stress that many organizations don’t truly grasp how external audiences extrapolate messaging from things like process and staff rosters. Like, an organization can avow repeatedly that they care about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in fact they may believe they’re putting a great deal of effort into changing their practices and their policies around their DEI goals, but if prospective partners and employees look at their staff roster and see a mostly white, male, staff—well, then, yes, people are going to see a gap between the messaging around organization’s stated values and their actual results. (After years of hearing Big Tech companies report on their lack of progress in staff diversity, I said to myself one day, “Hmmmm. Maybe they just don’t give a shit?”)

Another example: many years ago, I worked at a large foundation staffed with, by and large, wonderful, caring, incredibly smart people. I am close friends with many of those people to this very day. But early on in my time there, the leadership team realized that our grant-making processes greatly needed improvement. The process of getting a grant approved, no matter the dollar amount, was Byzantine and laborious. And then, thank heavens, we did something about it. In fact, at the staff retreat where we kicked off our process improvement work, I devised a skit where I played the part of a grant proposal that had come in through the door and I asked my colleagues at the retreat to direct me to the appropriate departments for review, due diligence, and decision-making. The resultant confusion illustrated, with extreme clarity, how lengthy and confusing our process was. (This became known as the “Red Folder Skit,” and is an example of a highly-specific type of reputation one can develop at an organization. Literally, people would ask me for skits, workshops, songs, and this reputation followed me to other organizations, too.) And so we spent the next few months upgrading our process, our program information systems, etc.

Anyhoo, this piece is yet another chapter in what is now becoming a familiar theme in my writing on this here blog: whatever it is you think you’re trying to communicate, make sure you not only communicate with intention, but that you also maintain some level of awareness about what you may be communicating unintentionally, too. As a person, yes, your shoes send a message about who you are (even barefoot sends a message!). As an organization, every interaction that staff has with people outside the organization sends a message, too.