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What exactly are you trying to say?

Updated: Nov 7, 2018

In French we say ‘Noyer le poisson’ (to drown the fish) which vaguely translates as ‘to muddy the water’. When you ‘drown the fish’, you try to confuse your audience, so they don’t think about of the real issue at hand. Whether or not it is intentional, multiple topics in one message or mixed messages will lose the audience. So, what are the common pitfalls to avoid?

Muddy River and Highway Crossing - Charles O'Rear (1972) -

NARA geographical record

In the previous article, we have discussed the importance of identifying the real purpose of your communication. What you want to do next, is to nail your topic.

It’s cost savings, stupid!

Two years ago, a large company published a message on the intranet to inform employees that the free juice and soda dispensers would be removed. It would, stated the article, save the company over EUR 150.000 per year, split between the actual beverages cost and the cost of maintenance of the dispensers. The company had driven cost savings initiatives for years, so it didn’t come as a surprise. But then the article went on. An entire paragraph justified the initiative by ‘our concern for the health of our employees’. It went as far as giving examples of how much sugar a glass of soda or juice contained and healthier alternatives (Green tea! “Duh”, grunted employees).

Employees were quick to comment: ‘If you care so much about our health, why are you selling soda and crisps in the vending machines?’,’ ‘So the company was not really concerned about our health when the dispensers were introduced 5 years ago. Oh wait, we were making money back then…’, ‘Funny, that every management offsite includes a spread of sweets during breaks – double standards?’

Don’t drown the fish!

The person(s) who wrote the message had good intentions. They wanted to put a positive spin on the topic to help people swallow (what was perceived to be) a bitter pill. The reality is, tossing the juice dispensers had been suggested by numerous employees.

What the author really wanted to say was “We need to continue to save costs. Some employees have suggested we get rid of the soda and juice dispensers. It’s a good idea as it will save EUR 150,000 per year. We will implement it starting March 1st.”

On the other end of the spectrum, is the US presidential election of 1992. In an article published on, John Hurt reports that “In the spring of 1991 President George H.W. Bush looked unstoppable. Following Operation Desert Storm his approval rating hit 89 percent, the highest ever recorded by Gallup”. Yet, what presidential candidate and underdog Bill Clinton did, was to focus his messages on the main concern of the American people. Campaign strategist James Carville used “It’s the economy, stupid” to remind Bill Clinton and campaign staffers of the worries of the voters at the time the economy was lagging. Having a clear and strong ‘topic’ provided the campaign with a credible and effective red thread.

When you select your topic:

  • Check with yourself: what is my REAL topic? What does that mean for my audience? Why should they care? And be direct and honest. People are not stupid and can see through spin and excuses

  • Stick to one. Additional topics will make your message fluffy or more complex

  • Don’t try to protect your audience. People can handle the truth. “It’s for your own good” stops working after the age of 7

Do you have good / bad examples to share?

This article was first published on LinkedIn in February 2018

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