To make a message stick, repeat it

We say most things just once. To make a message a signal above the noise, we need to repeat it a few more times.

diagram illustrating how repeating the message helps retention

I recently became a manager at work. Now I have a small team of 3 and I measure my success in terms of how big a multiplier effect I can have on our team's collective output. So far, one of the sharpest tools I've found in the shed is to repeat myself.

Just to be clear before we go further, this 'repeat yourself more' idea is not an original idea and neither is it only applicable to managers. The idea came to me from a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, which looked at both managers with and without formal power. I happen to think that each of us should conduct ourselves as leaders (a characteristic), so this idea certainly does not apply only to managers (a job title).

So, why repeat the message, and how does that help?

The main problem with saying things without repeating is that almost everything we say are also usually said only once. That means that for a particularly important message to stand out, you need to repeat it at least once more at a different time. Otherwise, people are unlikely to recognise that you're saying something that you believe is particularly important.

Take a company goal for example. This year, the leaders of the company I work at came up with a nice rallying slogan for 2021: Deliver Together. It's about breaking down silos by ensuring that in everything we do, we do with cross-collaboration in mind. We are growing in size and we need to make sure that one team's decisions do not inadvertently cause problems for other teams who are in the dark until an explosion lights up the virtual office.

Now, how did I remember this company goal as an employee? Well, the leadership team presented it once at a recent company-wide meeting. Then, in the company Slack workspace, they started to repeat the message. I've also noticed myself and numerous colleagues repeating the phrases "deliver together" and "cross-collaborate" whenever the situation called for it. This is the result of deliberate repetition.

Now, we can also apply this at the individual team level.

The reason I got a chance to become a 'team lead' at work was that our original team has grown significantly and we saw an opportunity to split the team into two to work in smaller, more effective groups. With this in mind, I figured that the most important thing I’d need to do as a new manager was to get the message across that we're doing this split for a reason.

“So, what's the reason?” I began asking myself.

"Because we need to work in smaller groups" isn't exactly motivating nor reflective of the deeper reason we spun off into our team. I thought about it briefly and came up with this: "Our team is going to focus much more on doing proactive work that will reduce our customers' need for additional support in the first place. We are going upstream to fix problems instead of continuing to equip the company to give amazing customer support.”

In my first week of 1-1s (one-on-one meetings) with my new direct reports, I said this to each person. Message sent.

Then, at various other meetings with the whole team in the week that followed, I repeated this once or twice more to make sure that people knew we were headed in this general direction after the split. Not just people in my team this time, but also the people in the other team that split from our original. Message repeated.

At this point, the message should be planted in people’s minds. It's clear why the split was needed and how it is going to help our now-department deliver better outcomes for the company.

One important caveat to making this 'repeat yourself' tactic effective is to not spend too much time crafting a top-down message but instead, send a good-enough message that sets the direction and then let people shape it.

For example, with my team's new mission, we have now arrived at a more succinct version that had me and a few colleagues go, “YES!” Our team is focused on creating wide-ranging solutions for the general customer base that minimises their need for additional support.

As some of my colleagues would say, boom.

So to summarise:

  1. Get the good-enough message out early to create direction
  2. Repeat it a few times at suitable occasions to help people recognise it as a signal above the noise
  3. Get down to doing the work, individually or collectively, and iterate on the message if needed

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