Communicate Until It Hurts


If you are leading, then you are communicating -- A LOT. Effective leaders know they must "communicate until it hurts." Here's how to do it.

The Principle

Kenneth W. Freeman is a former CEO of Quest Diagnostics and current Dean and Professor of Boston University School of Management. He is a man who understands the theory and practice of leadership.

In an article for Harvard Business Review Freeman shared his insights on a difficult assignment---shutting down an operation. While his words were directed to leaders in transition, they apply broadly. His admonition?

Communicate until it hurts.

Communication studies reveal that people need to hear a message at least six time to internalize it. This makes great sense when it comes to transitions. The shock of the initial announcement often prevents employees from absorbing everything they hear. As Freeman notes, "After all, their lives are begin turned upside down."[1]

Hans Finzel delivers a parallel message in his book, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. He writes, "The bigger the group, the more attention must be given to communication. Communication must be the passionate obsession of effective leadership."[2]

It was just this kind of passionate obsession that helped the United States as it entered into World War I in 1917.

How Communicating Well Helped In World War I

When the United States stepped into World War I, there was massive work to be done to prepare and outfit the military. The US also had to move its soldiers to Europe and then feed them. Providing food for the troops and the Allies was a pressing need. At home, the United States would need to simultaneously increase production and reduce consumption in order to feed those abroad.

President Woodrow Wilson turned to 43-year-old Herbert Hoover to help solve the problem. Hoover was both loved and hated, but he made his message clear. Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper, Jr provides insight on Hoover's communication:

Yet Hoover much preferred to use carrots than sticks, real or implied, in his crusade to get Americans to eat less and produce more....Housewives, grocers, and restauranteurs, as well as the public in general, became targets for relentless pep talks, posters, and advertisements--with such messages as "Food is sacred. To waste is sinful"; Wheatless days in America make sleepless nights in Germany"; and "Save beans by all means."[3]

Hoover's "relentless pep talks" were effective. Twenty million people signed a pledge to to follow Food Administration guidelines.

Communication is the passionate obsession of effective leaders. It is a passion that can be traced to the nature and character of God.

God Communicates

Opening the Scriptures we discover important truths about communication.

  • God communicates.
  • This is both basic and essential. We initiate communication because we are made in the image of a communicating God. He does not leave us in the dark to figure things out for ourselves. The Scriptures are well stocked with the initiating nature of God's communication: "And God said," "The heavens declare," "The word of the LORD came to," "God spoke to our forefathers." God communicates, so leaders--made in his image--also communicate.
  • God communicates in word and in person.
  • God did not simply "send a memo," to covey his most important message, he sent his Son. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."[4] God communicates in word and person because a message takes more than words. In the same way, leaders must embody what they say.
  • God communicates with relentless passion.
  • Examine the biblical narrative. God is relentless in his communication. He conveys his message over and over again. He uses a nation, propehts, tablets, scrolls, disciples, apostles, old men, young women, miracles; even a donkey to make his point clear. God spells out his message again and again over 1500 years, using forty authors penning some sixty-six books. The he walks among us--incarnate--dies, and rises again! Yes, God is a relentless communicator. Leaders must be as well.

Communication is important because God models it. And those who communicate well reap the benefits in their organizations.

The Benefits Of Consistent Communication

There are many benefits to consistent communication:

  • Consistent communication provides a clear "finish line." Everyone needs to know where the organization is headed. Good communication points the way.
  • Consistent communication informs. It provides your team and organization with essential information they need to be at their best.
  • Consistent communication counters the rumor mill. Rumors die out when leaders are clear about what they are thinking and where they are going.
  • Consistent communication says, "I care about you." It helps the team plan better and keep their constituents properly informed.

The more effective the communication, the more benefits that accrue to the organization. Next up, five questions I must answer to help me communicate my message more effectively.

Five Questions I Must Answer

Communicating well is an ongoing adventure. Answering these questions will help to improve the journey: 

1. What is my message?

In their bestselling book Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath argue that the idea that survives is simple. Leaders are able to convey the core of the message in a very compact manner.[5] As examples, they point to JFK's "put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade," and "It's the economy, stupid" from Clinton's run for the White House in 1992.

In twenty-five words or less, what is the message you want to communicate:


2. Why is it important?  

Let's borrow a principle from homiletics, the art of preaching. Preachers who want to capture and engage their audience know that they must answer the "compelling why." A good preacher will say, "Let me tell you WHY what I am sharing with you is so important."  In the same way, good leaders can articulate WHY the message they are communicating is absolutely essential. Think about your message, why is it important?


3. Do I believe it?

There is no sense pushing a message I don't believe. Roger Ailes, the President of Fox News Channel and presidential consultant for three decades says, "You are the message." How true. If leaders don't believe what they are saying, others won't believe them either. The message will lose traction and communication will die out.

4. Who will champion it?

Every message needs a champion, an advocate who will "fight" to get the message out. The bigger the organization the more champions are needed. Who are people who must be championing your message?


If the message is not getting out it may be a logistical issue. It may be competing messages. Or it may be that the people who should be "defending the cause" really don't believe it at their core. Leaders must assess their effectiveness in conveying the importance of the message. People only champion what they believe at their core.

5. How will we communicate it?

At the end of the day someone has to hit the "send" button. The message must go out. Here are a few things to consider when mapping out a communication strategy:  

  • Communication must be internal (within the inner workings of the organization) and external (communicated to constituents and members).
  • Communication must be initial (the big launch) and ongoing (the steady stream of information that informs, reminds, persuades, encourages, and celebrates). 
  • Communication must be informational ("Just the facts") and emotional (conveying the stories of people).  
  • Communication must be proclamational ("Y'all come!") and individual ("Will you come?").  
  • Communication must be social (Facebook, email, Twitter) and personal (old fashioned face-to-face talking and phone calls). 

It will take a team, time, and careful planning to communicate well. Who needs to be a part of this process in your organization? 

Communicate Until It Hurts

Communicating well is painful. It takes extreme ongoing efforts to formulate, communicate, and tweak the message. But it is worth the effort! Communicate until it hurts. 

"Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise."  - Proverbs 13:20 ESV   


[1] Freeman, "The Right Way To Close An Operation," Harvard Business Review, May 2009, p. 48)

[2] Finzel, 1994. The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, p. 113

[3] John Milton Cooper, Jr. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. 2009, page 406.

[4] John 1:1,14 ESV

[5] Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made To Stick, New York: Random House. 2008. Pages 25-62.