Okay, stick with us here…

After sitting down a few times to try to get our thoughts together for a blog that would help companies understand the value of effective messaging we came to a disturbing realization: It’s somewhat difficult to focus on messaging architecture when we can’t stop thinking about murder.

Disclaimer: By no means are we saying that our clients’ characteristics parallel those of a psychopath. Nor are we trying to make light of one of the darkest sides of humanity. Honestly, many of us are just fresh off David Fincher’s Mindhunter—a ten-episode Netflix series focused on exploring the behavioral psychology of serial killers and how virtuous characters are affected by their encounters with evil. If you haven’t seen the show, think back to Fincher’s Se7en or Zodiac.

If you’re not caught up, don’t worry. We won’t spoil anything and will only supply enough plot information for the (often feeble) comparisons to make sense. For a little background, the series is based on the nonfiction book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. The first season follows FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench as they to try and uncover psychological motives of a new and terrifying type of criminal on the rise during the 1970s: the serial killer. Essentially, the story focuses on the idea that apprehended serial killers are a wealth of untapped knowledge and insight. Rather than throwing them into a pit to rot, the FBI can use them to better understand and profile serial killers. Suffice it to say, interviewing convicted murderers takes its toll on the agents and those around them.

With Mindhunter on our brains (and now on yours), we thought we would use it as a vehicle to explain how we get into our clients’ minds during our messaging architecture workshops.


Get on their level and commiserate

As the series progresses, Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) begins to pride himself on his ability to code-switch between reformed society and the loathsome world of serial killers. While it is often repulsive to witness Ford at work, he is able to extract numerous confessions and crucial behavioral information by sympathizing with suspects and convicted killers.
In theory, this is no different from how you should approach a messaging workshop with a client. Come into the meeting armed with your research and ready to listen. You’re not there to judge but to empathize. Try to put yourself in their position while stakeholders explain who they are, who they aren’t, and who they want to be. An obvious difference is that the interrogation or interview process naturally puts someone, often the suspect, in a position to resist the temptation to reveal information—whereas your clients should be forthcoming and open during a workshop.

Get them to open up about their past

Another tactic agents use in Mindhunter—and that virtually every law enforcement agency and field studying behavioral psychology use—is to have killers recount their childhood traumas and gruesome acts.

Again, in theory, this is exactly how critical insights are developed during a messaging workshop. Get your clients talking about their pasts. What methods have worked for them, and what didn’t seem to pan out the way they had hoped? If you’re working with a company that currently doesn’t have messaging or doesn’t want to dwell on former mistakes, insist on evaluating past communication efforts. The fact is, if an organization exists — it communicates. One way or another, every company uses messaging and positioning to communicate its vision and product. Whether these methods are effective is another question.

One tactic we have success with is using jumbo Post-it notes. Stick a dozen or so around the room and write one, concise message on each Post-it from the client’s current materials. Now start going through the notes, one-by-one, to determine why this particular message was used, whether the message still resonates, and why.

Try to stick to a script—but adapt, if necessary

In Mindhunter, as the behavioral research progresses, the agents are joined by Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist at Boston University. Although her insights prove valuable, Carr is frustrated and constantly reminding the agents to stick to the script they developed to ensure consistency across interviews. However, as each interview progresses (or conversely stalls out), Agent Ford is forced to improvise to keep the discussion rolling.
Adaptability is crucial during a messaging workshop. Leave the canned interview questions for celebrity bios and press conferences. Sure, write a loose set of questions based on your research, but never read through them verbatim. Use them as a guideline, or crutch if you get stuck during the meeting, but be sure to remain flexible based on the client’s responses. Stakeholders (and murderers) are people, and like everyone else, they just want to be heard. So listen, clarify, and don’t be afraid to get off track. Usually, a simple question about timeline and goals can unpack a handful of questions you may not have considered in your script.

Document everything

Only about one episode in, Agent Ford quickly realizes the tremendous value of recording his interviews and interrogations. Not only do the tapes provide insight, but also recording the meetings frees the agents from taking notes, a method that has proven unreliable.
The same goes for messaging workshops and stakeholder interviews. Unless you have a few extra people in the room to take notes, we suggest recording everything. (Most of us just drop an iPhone in the middle of the room and use the Voice Memos app.)

Why Messaging Architecture Matters

Why all this advice for messaging workshops? A messaging architecture, or sometimes referred to as a messaging framework, is the sole driving force behind content strategy. Messaging is not copy—it doesn’t tell content creators which words and images to use—it’s subtext. A solid messaging foundation is a concise document containing well-polished terms, statements, and phrases arranged hierarchically to convey an organization’s priorities and reflect a common vocabulary.

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