There’s one rule for communicating in the Age of Distraction: Cut through the noise; don’t add to it.



By David Leibl

Marketers have long subscribed to some variation of the “rule of seven,” the idea that people need to be exposed to a message multiple times before they can recall it or be induced to take action.

Experienced communicators know there’s no single magic number, but we’d likely all agree that audiences need repeated exposure to a novel message (whether a new employee policy or a new product) before the message is internalized and understood.

But what’s the right approach in a cluttered communications climate already saturated with content? How do we ensure we’re cutting through the noise, instead of just adding to it?

More than ever, we need to be hyper-focused on improving the content and quality of our communications, and worry far less about quantity.

A memorable boss insisted the first three rules of communication were “repetition, repetition and repetition.”

I think that still holds true. But in today’s climate, repeating a message is just table stakes. Repetition isn’t strategic on its own, any more than hitting “send” is a strategic way to reply to an email.

So what’s more important than repetition?


Communicating on our audience’s terms, not our own.

Tailoring communications with our audience’s needs, values, anxieties, preferences and expectations in mind.

There’s no question it takes more time to communicate effectively than it used to.

Even 10 years ago, if you sent an email the recipient probably read it. Today, that’s far from assured, even if the message comes from a senior leader or a company with whom there’s an established relationship.

A decade ago, organizations could circulate a memo from upper management and expect that it would be read. Today, no company would take such compliance for granted.

Even seven or eight years ago, if you produced a video the viewer likely watched it at their desk where they were reasonably insulated from competing distractions. Today, we consume much of our content on mobile devices where our attention is invariably less focused.

In the Age of Distraction it’s quicker and easier than ever to disseminate a message. But effective messages, the kind that can cut through the noise and are harder for our audiences to ignore, require informed care and consideration, which generally means they take longer to craft.

In practical terms, achieving a desirable ROI on our communications requires adequate internal lead time. The goalpost is no longer, “We need to get this done.” It’s, “We need to get this right.”


Three pragmatic tactics for communicating in the Age of Distraction:

Communicate over multiple channels, not just multiple times

There’s no universality in the way we internalize information. Some of us are visual learners. Some of us aren’t. Some of us will retain information we skim on our phones while simultaneously completing other tasks. Many of us won’t. Some of us will diligently go back and read the email we didn’t have time to process when it first arrived in our inbox. Many of us will simply lose track of it, our focus instead directed to the next pressing issue.

Communicating over multiple channels is a practical means to amplify the likelihood that our message is received and understood.

For busy organizations, communicating over multiple channels begins with adding a second channel or stream to a communications rollout. Instead of distributing information over a single channel, the baseline becomes two.

Consider: Instead of a single memo to employees, also disseminate talking points to immediate supervisors to support message reinforcement. Instead of just sending a letter to customers that may end up in the recycling bin, also leverage social platforms to distribute an explainer video with links to an online FAQ.

Write for the reader, not the writer

Writing with the reader in mind seems self-evident, but our primary job as comms people is to advance our employer’s or client’s objectives, and that can make it surprisingly hard. It’s much easier, for example, to message why new financial targets are good for the organization than how they’ll benefit the people who work there. It’s intuitive how a product price increase benefits the company; less so for the buyer.

Still, it’s our job to create resonance and make people care. Writing with our target audience firmly in mind starts with asking questions and ensuring the answers are reflected in the messaging:

How will Audience X respond to this when we tell them? Will this create anxiety or worry? Is there something we can do or say now to allay those fears? If the change is likely to be viewed as negative, can we identify something that our audience will see as a win? Will our target audience understand their role in this change? What can we say that will make the change more relevant? Are we certain they’ll understand what we’re telling them? Can we make the how or why behind this change any more clear?

Invite people to be heard

Inviting a target audience to ask questions or provide feedback should be the default setting for any outbound communication.

When my clients hesitate about whether to provide clear avenues for feedback or questions, it’s usually because they fear it will create more work. They’re concerned about a deluge of inquiries or gripes.

In practice, that rarely happens. In practice, when we’ve aced the communication with a message that anticipates and acknowledges our audience’s needs, expectations and concerns, the volume of questions is remarkably low: we’ve already addressed a majority of would-be questions and anxieties in the original communication.

Any feedback we do get gives us valuable data. It gives us a barometer to evaluate where our messaging scored and where we may have missed the net. It also tells us where to focus next.

Just by asking and inviting people to engage with us we demonstrate responsiveness, transparency and genuine interest in what our audience has to say. We’ve also made future communications easier because we vastly improve the efficacy of our messaging when we’re starting from a place of goodwill and trust.

The only way to reliably reach our audience in the Age of Distraction is to make it personal. If we don’t, we’re just adding to the noise.

David Leibl is principal of Guidepost Strategies.

David Leibl