Write Like you Mean it. Three Ways to Frame Communications to Show You Care

Intrinsic and extrinsic values

In the last three weeks, you've likely received messages from many companies you've done business with at some point in the past. Each message read basically the same way, something about “the CoViD-19 pandemic” making things harder and more uncertain.

For some companies, that was the one chance to show empathic imagination and say something that mattered. For example, things like “we're keeping your points to this level for one extra year” like Hilton Honors and Air New Zealand did; or “we proactively froze your membership on your behalf with no charge” like Planet Fitness did. Instead, many chose to talk about themselves.

The time window for that kind of gesture to have a positive effect is fairly short. Crises have phases, people's emotions change. Respect the phase you're in, and you have a better chance to show, not just tell that you care.

But it's not just about what you say. It's also how you say it that makes a difference. Words must mean something before they can be effective; the metaphors you use are critical.

1. Choose the right metaphor

Isn't it time we stop being at war with each other?

It's unfortunate that strategy conversations continue to be full of the language of war. Because the focus on killing, winning, and competition is permeating our language throughout organizations.

In companies groups compete for resources, people within departments compete for attention and people would kill for rewards. The war metaphor creates the wrong incentives.

A mindset of scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a train wreck waiting to happen. Competition is also keeping people stuck in their ways ― this produces different flavors of thinking about problems and separate languages.

Is this happening as each government in turn tries to tackle the global pandemic? Isn't this a border-less global crisis that involves everyone? Don't all people need support? Aren't we all responsible for limiting the impact? These kinds of questions belong to a different metaphor that of navigation.

We're in uncharted waters, yet all on the same boat. We can navigate through this and out of it, together. Then it becomes easier to see upstream and downstream effects of actions, how information could flow, and rowing in the same direction.

In Metaphors we Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say metaphors are pervasive in our everyday lives and they influence not just language, but also our thoughts and actions.

2. Adapt to the right phase

Cultural strategist Alice Sachrajda suggests using the structure of a novel to time communications by phases. Since we're writing that story together now, it's important to address feelings as well as actions.

At the beginning of a crisis, there's opportunity to show people you support them. Many airlines sent messages of reassurance about cleanliness, but completely missed the opportunity to show mutuality and generosity. A good start sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Nobody was prepared for the worst possible scenario, but some companies and leaders had the presence of mind to reveal their inner kindness, go off script a little and weave concern with candor. Acknowledge pain, communicate solidarity.

Now that we're in the thick of it in many parts of the world, messaging shifts more decisively to navigating the uncharted waters. Kindness and reciprocity could come across in the form of shared experiences.

Once we approach a situation with a spirit of generosity, it becomes easier to spot opportunities to do good. This is the phase were values turn into virtues, the things we do become more meaningful than the things we say. It's a good signal to the rest of our networks (another word for supply chain) to copy.

These signals are the figurative and practical seeds you're planting to start writing the ending. As I wrote in my letter this week, everyone wants to be indispensable, a few are essential.

The white space is to get so good at taking the perspective of others, of seeing bigger than yourself and your own needs (looking at you governments of every nation), that the intent of that gesture is already building your future.

You and your company (very likely) didn't write the beginning of this story, but you can write the ending. And you can write it as a new beginning. It's possible to do even for situations that are not this life-altering. 

Don't forget this is also an opportunity to use new metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson explain how we can think differently about certain words and change the outcome. Take for example arguing:

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground.

Imagine where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

Thus creating the ability and the freedom to structure your thinking around discourse differently. When you're busy arguing, you don't see all the other options.

3. Act on the right things

Opportunities are only such when they benefit customers, employees, and the company. In other words, think about the many communities involved. The best time to build trust in your company was years ago. The second best is right now.

When positive outcomes depend on the participation of everyone to taking certain steps, it's worth remembering (and reminding people) they're temporary. An emergency warrants a swift and coherent response. But it cannot become the new normal. A permanent solution to a temporary problem becomes a permanent problem, says @naval.

Is it also finally time to retire the generational monikers and categories? Strategists have long known that people behave differently based on psychographics or reasons why.

While organizations measure the outcomes of service in concrete terms — the flight arrived on time, the rep answered the call on the first ring — we use different variables to judge the experience. A good or positive service experience depends on intangibles like the way we felt, which is subjective.

Behavior shows what you value. Emotion is important to uncover why people do what they do, because much of our behavior comes from our subconscious mind. Emotion is thus a source of untapped insight in business.

Ask yourself, what is the right thing to do? more often as the collective story unfolds. People learn very quickly what you value by watching what you do. In a company where people going in (even if feeling sick or scared) is the only way to keep one's job, you'll have a potential hot zone in no time.

It's much easier to communicate well when actions and words are aligned. Clear communication is one of the cues we use to judge experience. In a deep analysis of nine crises I performed for Target a few years ago, I found that most of them unfolded from something a company did or didn't do — a decision, a behavior, or a disaster it caused.

A lag in response was a common thread throughout. Companies' struggles compounded because of lack of a shared purpose. Without exception, they rebounded by taking action and communicating about their action.

Essential framing

I mentioned that while everyone would like to be indispensable, some companies are not essential. It's the same with metaphors. Since the beginning, this has been a race with time. But the prevailing metaphor of time in the Western world continues to be “time is money.”

It permeates reality:

  • You're wasting my time
  • This gadget will save you hours
  • I don't have the time to give you
  • How do you spend your time these days?
  • That flat tire cost me an hour
  • I've invested a lot of time in her
  • I don't have enough time to spare for that
  • You're running out of time
  • You need to budget your time
  • Put aside some time for ping pong
  • Is that worth your while?
  • Do you have much time left?
  • He's living on borrowed time
  • You don't use your time profitably
  • I lost a lot of time when I got sick
  • Thank you for your time


Corresponding to the fact that we act as if time is a valuable commodity a limited resource, even money we conceive of time that way.

It is a relatively new metaphorical concept of our culture. “There are cultures where time is none of these things,” say Lakoff and Johnson. Globalization and access are spreading ideas, images, and goods faster and more, but our identity is still tied to many elements that are cultural.

While there's no time to waste, change is already happening. Yet, herein is the collective opportunity to find a new metaphor to shape the direction of that change.


See also, empathy and emotion as seen through the eyes of children. There's not enough talk about this.

[image via: Values Wheel and Research on Values Activation: Building Bridges]


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