As church communicators, I believe it’s fair to think of what we do as aiming at targets. Artists are often free to sit down at a canvas, piano, or Pages document and just let it flow—whatever comes out is what comes out—but your job probably doesn’t work that way. Mine doesn’t. Instead, we spend our time trying to convey specific ideas to specific people in hopes of eliciting specific responses. In other words, we aim at targets.
Our targets can range from the everyday stuff (sign up for the men’s retreat, volunteer in the nursery, etc.) to big picture (vision, direction, money, etc.). Either way we take aim. We hone in on a message. We select a medium or three (announcement, video, email, and so on). Then we fire. Usually we hit the target and men sign up for the retreat, the nursery gets just enough volunteers, and most of our people buy into the exciting new vision or whatever.
But every so often, you miss.
The message sails past the target, over the congregation’s heads, and goes flying out the back door like it’s in a hurry to beat the Methodists to lunch. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there, and it hurts. Now, lets talk about what might’ve gone wrong. Here are a few reasons why your message missed:
Your message didn’t match the audience
When I asked friends on Twitter for input on this article, this was what most people came back with. What it means is that your problem wasn’t on the delivery side. No, your audience heard you loud and clear. They just didn’t care.
Imagine trying to convince high school seniors to attend a marriage conference. Imagine trying to convince unchurched people that the ESV is the best Bible translation. Imagine trying to convince struggling middle class families to help you buy a new gold-plated hand dryer for the pastoral washroom. These are extreme examples, but in each case we’ve tried to communicate a message that has no hope of landing, regardless of how well we craft the vehicle for the message. A failure to understand your audience is a failure to communicate.
You picked the wrong medium
Speaking of vehicles, sometimes we choose the wrong ones. We send an email when a face-to-face meeting would’ve been the best choice. We shoot a two-minute video when a 30-minute message would be more appropriate.
Imagine you and your girlfriend are ready to get married, so you send a proposal in a text message. She might respond with a few fierce emojis, right? Not because she wasn’t hoping for that message, but because you picked the wrong medium. Don’t send a text message to do a heartfelt speech’s job. Don’t send a tweet to do a video’s job. Don’t send a bumper sticker or clever T-shirt to do a storyteller’s job.
Your intentions were good; your execution was not
You can have a great message, a great idea, and a great heart, but that doesn’t mean the end product won’t stink. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. Sometimes our imaginations get carried away and leave our ability to execute in the dust. In football terms, we out-kick our coverage.
I’ve always loved the Basecamp (or the artists formally known as 37signals) philosophy of Embracing Constraints. Essentially, it’s your responsibility as a leader and communicator to know your capabilities and limitations in areas like time, talent, budget, and equipment. If you can’t deliver a high quality feature-length film, don’t set out to produce one. Be creative and realistic—set your sights on something you can deliver on the mark, on time, and on budget.
Your timing was off
At my church, we’ve begun to pay attention to the busy seasons in church life and culture at-large. Why? We’re already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to communicating important messages in a noisy world, so why make it harder on ourselves by trying to cram extra messaging into frantic stretches of the calendar?
With this in mind, we dial way back on announcements and launching new things when there’s already a lot going on at church (namely, the Easter and Christmas seasons) and other aspects of life (such as school starting up in September and January). Why waste a beautiful song amid the shouting insanity of a Wall Street trading floor? Why waste a well-crafted message on an audience that’s temporarily caught in the hustle and bustle of modern life? We find that our odds of hitting the target increase when our timing is right.
You aimed at the head instead of the heart
Facts are good, but they’re unlikely to compel change on their own. For that you need a story, a good story. If you find that an important message missed the target—that the audience remained indifferent—there’s a good chance you forgot to tell a story. You Samsunged when you should’ve Appled.
Samsung has this habit of focusing on facts and features—the size of the screen, the speed of the processor, the megapixels in the camera, the low price—essentially insisting that you view their product through the frame of a spec sheet. Apple, on the other hand, has this habit of telling you a story—like that of a grandfather being introduced to his grandson over FaceTime—essentially insisting that you cry and buy their phone because life is better with FaceTime and babies and friendly old people.
Samsung aims at the head and yells, “Let’s get analytical, people!” Apple aims at the heart and whispers, “Imagine what this thing makes possible.”
There’s obviously more to say about why your message missed, but these possibilities should give you something to talk about with your team at your next postmortem. Whatever you do, whether your last message was a hit or a miss, keep aiming at those targets.