Spitfire Strategies

Be Mindful of your Messaging

Kristen Grimm

By Kristen Grimm

Messaging is a central – maybe even THE central – element of successful communication. Over the years, we’ve learned that to create compelling messages, we must identify the audiences we want to engage and carefully pinpoint the values they hold and the messengers they trust. So, from there, how do we take our messaging up a notch to become full-on messaging ninjas? That’s when it’s time to think a bit more broadly about how people are thinking and listening.

Mindful messaging considers how people hear, process and respond to messages. This means getting a better handle on brain function and psychology to understand how people are really making decisions.

This is an important emerging field of thought in communications, and we’re going to start exploring this regularly on the Spitfire blog and in our newsletter. To get us started, here are a couple of lessons to think about:

Lesson #1 – It’s the Journey That Counts

There’s an old adage in writing and storytelling: show, don’t tell. So, for instance, a writer showing that a character is a good guy or a bad guy through his actions is more effective as a narrative device than simply saying, “This guy here: he’s the villain.”

The same is true in messaging. If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, telling them facts about why you’re right is likely not going to do the trick. Instead, have a messenger that your audience members trust – essentially someone who thinks like they do– talk about the journey that s/he went through on a topic to get from an old way of thinking to a new mindset. This works in two ways: first, describing the thought process of getting from point A to point B, and the things that changed their minds, gives your audiences a path to get where you want them to be. Second, seeing someone that they trust go through this process makes it safe for them to do the same.

Take, for example, the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Survey of LGBT Americans,” which asked those surveyed why they thought society was growing more tolerant of LGBT people. Their answers emphasized things like people knowing and interacting with someone who is LGBT, advocacy by high-profile public figures who came to support LGBT families, and LGBT adults raising families. Essentially, what we’re seeing here is that witnessing high-profile people evolve over time to become supportive of their LGBT families and friends moved other people’s perceptions as well. Witnessing those journeys was way more effective than any facts or legal arguments about equality.

The messaging takeaway: If you’re trying to change people’s mind, start by having someone they trust talk about the journey he or she went through to develop a different perspective on an issue.

Lesson #2 – Work With Your Audience’s Thought Processes, Not Against

People are funny. We do things all the time that are not in our own self-interest – in spite of what the facts tell us. People who study the brain, as well as those who translate those studies into plain English (like Shankar Vedantam of the Hidden Brain), have plenty of smart examples of this phenomenon:

  • Temporal Discounting is that thing we all do where we act against our own self-interests because the consequence is too far off on the horizon to really grasp. It’s like eating a Krispy Kreme donut even when we know that we might gain weight over time. Or it’s why smokers will pop out for an afternoon cigarette break today, even though they know that over time it’s really bad for their lungs. Messaging Win: Help your audiences see the immediate consequences or rewards of their actions – not things that are far off on the horizon.
  • Escalation of Commitment is that other thing where – once we have started in on something – we will continue to wait and wait on it because we’ve already been waiting. We have already committed by waiting five minutes, so why not wait five minutes more? Think back to the days when the Affordable Care Act was first being launched, and people had to wait on the phone with their exchanges for 45 minutes. That’s a case where Escalation of Commitment actually worked for the system – once callers had waited a little while on the phone, they were more likely to keep holding until they completed their enrollment. Messaging Win: Leverage the commitment – time, money, etc. – people have already given to encourage them to stay the course, or “We have come too far to give up now…”
  • Telescoping is that last thing, where we are better at wrapping our brains around a single person or thing as opposed to a large group. So the statement, “Thousands of animals WILL DIE,” is not nearly as effective as focusing on one fuzzy animal we can wrap our compassion around like a nice warm blanket. People go from the specific to the general more easily than from the general to the specific. Messaging Win: Make sure your messaging uses storytelling to put a specific face – not a big faceless group – on an issue to drive your point home.


There are countless psychological and brainy tricks, traps and truisms that affect how audiences interpret messages. Spitfire will continue to explore Mindful Messaging on our blog and newsletter in the coming months. We are constantly looking for ways to make messaging stronger – and sharing that information with you. Look for more mindful messaging tips on Twitter (@headspitfire and @spitfiresays).

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