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How Can You Be Heard (At All)?

I recently spent a few nights in a large apartment complex.  At 3:30 am on our first night, I heard an irritating loud noise coming from the living room. My initial thought was that it was our apartment mate’s cell phone ringing at an insanely loud volume. It gradually dawned on me that no cell phone is that loud and the odds of a call at 3:30 am was low. So, I got up and investigated. 

Upon entering the living room, it was clear that it was the complex’s fire alarm. I ran back into the bedroom to rouse my wife and then headed to the other bedroom door to alert the couple with whom we were sharing the apartment. Once roused, we determined we should evacuate the apartment. 

As we waited for everyone to get ready to leave, I peeked out the door. Very few people were outside. A group that was outside commented that this was the third time the fire alarm had gone off in the middle of the night.  That news dampened my urgency. Just as we were about to step outside, the alarm stopped as mysteriously as it had begun.

In the morning as I grumbled about being rudely awakened, two thoughts struck me: (1) how hard it is to get people to pay attention to your message and (2) how a less than truthful message hurts the credibility of future messages. 

Even with a fire alarm blaring and lights flashing, it took a good ten minutes before anyone in our apartment took notice. If a fire alarm takes that long to sink into my consciousness, think about how hard it is for a leader to get her message to be heard and ultimately internalized. Messages need to be repeated over and over before they are heard. I believe it was Patrick Lencioni who once said, “when a leader is tired of repeating a message, his followers are just beginning to hear it.” True dat.

The night the fire alarm that woke me up was the third false alarm. As so few people evacuated their apartments, it was clear that the alarm had lost its credibility. If a fire alarm, where your life is in danger, can be so quickly discounted, think about if you are communicating messages that mislead either through commission or omission. Your messages will lose any impact they might have had and people will not believe any future messages from you. . 

Remember it is hard to be heard at all with so many competing messages. So when you are heard, you want to be candid and accurate. Only credible speakers will be listened to more than once. 


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