Why People Don’t Remember Your Message and What To Do About It

I ‘ve worn corrective lenses since I was seven. My eyes are really bad. Without contacts or glasses, I can see about the first six inches in front of my nose clearly. After that things get pretty blurry. Without my lenses on, I wouldn’t advice you to ride shotgun with me.

A lot of us leader types like to talk about vision. But I wonder if, without realizing it, we’re near-sighted. Our ideas look great to us – but what do they look like at a distance, or to the person on the other end? Sometimes we can’t see past our own nose. We see our brilliant idea only through our limited experience. And while the idea wouldn’t exist without our unique point of view, it goes nowhere without clarity. It needs to be fitted for the receiver.

When I studied communication as an undergraduate, this was a common definition for an idea’s path:


This definition is a problem because it focuses on the sender first, then on the message, and finally on the receiver. I am not sure it’s so linear. If we don’t clearly understand who the receiver is and what motivates her, then no amount of work crafting a good message matters.

I have seen this problem often while working as an acquisitions editor in the church publishing business. Recently an executive pastor at a large church wrote a book on vision. Ironically, the title of the book talked only of vision – the central feature of the book. Nothing in the title hooked the potential reader. It lacked a clear benefit. While it may be reasonable to assume the goal of the book is to encourage the reader to reassess his organization’s vision, this benefit was not clearly stated. In spite of the author’s best efforts, the book title communicates “show and tell.”

Another large church pastor submitted a manuscript on transitions in leadership. I suggested a number of subtitles with an application hook, such as “Ten Things Every New Pastor Should Do.” The author rejected each one. He didn’t like what he perceived to be a reductionist approach to a theological topic. While I can appreciate the pushback against a purely tactical approach, the problem was that the author wanted to tell his story, “and let the reader draw conclusions.” He was focused on his job as a storyteller and could not see the topic from the storyreceiver’s view. I repeatedly reminded him that you have to give the reader hooks.Every good message needs lots of hooks on which the storyreceiver can hang his or her personal experience. We are prone to too much storyteller and not enough storyreceiver.

Maybe a better definition for the path of a message would be closer to this:


The storyreceiver has a whole sphere of activity and influence, some of which crosses into ours and some of which we don’t know. If we want our message – our story – to enter into their space, the best place to start is by asking, how does what we are saying matter to this person? This sounds simple but is actually quite difficult.

Name who the story is for and what their needs are. Research their sphere with surveys and questionnaires. Learn their concerns. Marketers call this “target audience” and “felt need.” We might also call it strategic caring.

How could your idea benefit from corrective lenses?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).