Man in suit jacket focused on hands, one hand is giving the thumbs up and the other is giving the thumbs down. Used to represent mixed messages.

Earlier this summer I found myself sitting anxiously in stopped traffic on a highway next to an empty HOV lane, newly regulated for Pan Am Games traffic. It made me think about the problem initially created by the “mixed messages” of the Pan Am Games organizers. On the one hand, Torontonians were repeatedly told how difficult the traffic would be. As citizens, it was our responsibility to “do our part” by taking vacations during the games, or by finding some other way to get to work. Then, as soon as the games began, we were asked to feel excited about the event and to be proud hosts.

Given that Toronto is a city already struggling with traffic congestion, had I been in charge of the games’ communication strategy, I wouldn’t have repeatedly told people how difficult the traffic would be during the event. It would have been better to send a message about great athletes, thrilling sports, and interesting cultural festivities. Torontonians could have been primed to be hosts for a major event of interest to people around the world. But that message (“get excited, people!”) really didn’t happen until after the games began. By that time, it was too late for me and for many other Torontonians.

Certainly ticket sales, which had been very sluggish, shot up following the games’ opening ceremony. And presumably the low bookings at Toronto hotels also improved. But anecdotally, I did not hear one single Torontonian with whom I spoke, say that they were thrilled to host the games. Toronto seemed mostly to be filled with people who were grumpy that they weren’t one of the lucky ones to get out of town, for the duration of the games.

The mixed message we received (“get out of town or else” vs. “be excited, proud hosts”) is a good example of how not to communicate effectively with an audience. In business communications, what you want to do is avoid sending mixed messages. It can be a challenge, but the following three tips are essential starting points for making sure you don’t send your audience a mixed message.

Three Keys To Avoiding Mixed Messages

1/Goal Setting: Determine your ultimate goal first. Every move you make should have that goal in mind. If the goal is “be excited,” you have to find a way to express challenges, that might stand in the way of reaching that goal, in a positive way. For

the Pan Am Games, it might have been, emphasize the exciting aspects of hosting the games, with a caveat that good hosts are patient with their guests. (In other words, “longer commute times, but it’s worth it!”)

2/Know Your Team: Who is your audience? Think about what will persuade them to “get on board”? For the Pan Am Games, it might have been, appeal to Torontonians love of sports. (Toronto is a great sports town.) It would have been better than appealing to their frustration about the commute to work.

3/Hone Your Skills: Words need to be well chosen and precise, to avoid sending a mixed message. You need to be sure you leave little room for misunderstanding. As Bob Burg says in his blog, don’t tell an employee you need something by Friday, followed by, “but don’t rush if it’s going to mean a substandard job.” In other words, don’t tell Torontonians before the Pan Am Games, “get out of town, but hey, be excited about what’s going on in town.”

Of course, the reality is, there are always some people who will take advantage and profit from a mixed message, such as Uber, the well-known international taxi network, did. They created a special carpooling service. And Mirvish Productions offered a special deal called “HOV tickets” for groups of three or more (the number required to ride in HOV lanes during the games). But as I see it, this is profiting from a mistake, rather than capitalizing on success. I am sure that most businesses would prefer to be remembered for their communication gold medals, rather than their near losses.

Tell us about your experience with mixed messages confused or frustrated and how you dealt with them. We’d luv to hear from you.

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