12 Maxims for Maximum Effect in Communication

1. Always ask: "Why?"
Time and resources are finite, so every tactic should be well reasoned and each dollar spent purposefully. Thus the first rule: know specifically what all aspects of the program seek to contribute and accomplish. That basic appreciation allows you to weigh everything you do and say—and how you are proposing to do and say it—against your goals.

2. Credibility counts, but don’t mistake it for confession.
Organizations ought to define and present themselves clearly and forthrightly. Honesty and transparency are attributes, and their easy detection renders deception and obfuscation counterproductive. Still, make a good case — as Johnny Mercer once put it, “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative.”

3. Know the audience.
Knowing whom to cultivate requires identification (market research) and analysis (audience research). Operating without research brings to mind a story an optometrist friend tells. “Doctor,” one patient said, “I don’t want an exam, just give me glasses.” To borrow another optical allusion, communicators without audience data are flying blind.

4. Integrate the approach.
Even before the presses roll, the website goes live, or the story hits the news we present ourselves in many ways from basic (such as how calls are answered and the sign on the door reads) to more advanced (how we are viewed by clients and competitors). An effective, efficient approach uses every avenue of communication and never veers from the message.

5. Watch the budget—efficiency increases effectiveness.
Remember the fellow who sent a 20-page letter because he didn’t have time to write just one page? Yes, less can be more, or at least more effective. Organizations that budget enough to get the word out but spend carefully are compelled to target audiences, focus messages, and stick to the point—all essential tenets of effective communication.

6. Keep an open mind, and don’t overlook the obvious.
Four words that bedevil communicators are, “We’ve never done that.” There may be good reason to reject a proposed departure, but dismiss it only because it just isn’t you and you might not be you much longer. One stratagem sometimes overlooked: pursue all positive publicity there for the taking that fits the endeavor, especially when it comes without cost.

7. Analyze the competition.
Before considering options and setting strategy, communicators should know the landscape and benchmark market position. An early step is to identify the competition, which is not always obvious. An organization may have one set of competitors for clients, another as it vies for public recognition, and a third in its quest for increased funding and support.

8. New is not necessarily better, trendiness often worse.
Hundreds of examples of failed products line the shelves of a museum in Ann Arbor, Mich., assembled by marketing guru Robert McMath, a testament to bad ideas of entrepreneurs and corporations (think Crystal Pepsi). Standing pat is not a good option, but neither is leaping from one new concept to another for no good reason except to appear proactive.

9. Gauge success by the destination, not the route.
This technological age has impacted few areas more than the exchange of information, so it is prudent to weigh new approaches. Yet for all the breakthroughs modern communications produce to help locate, gauge, and reach audiences, the goal remains remarkably simple: utilize the best tools at hand to tell a story and improve competitive position.

10. Hear clients out—they usually know more than you think.
While it is often true that even individuals with marketing expertise are prone to subjectivity about decisions involving their own organizations, their ideas and opinions are important. They may need an outsider to frame the issues and present workable alternatives, but communication strategies start and end with those on the ground who make them work.

11. Believe in the pitch or you won’t throw a strike.
“The advocacy of what we believe in is education,” the father of modern public relations, Edward L. Bernays, wrote in his landmark 1923 work, Crystalizing Public Opinion. “The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda.” Eschew phony or overblown pitches. Communicators and their clients are much more persuasive as educators than propagandists.

12. Pride and skepticism—yes, arrogance and cynicism—no.
Communicating value involves differentiating an organization by defining its work to add cache. Call that branding or spin, but do it without denigrating the rest of the field or playing audiences for fools. Avoid testing H. L. Mencken’s famous contention that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”