Why a mantra is the best gift for a creative team

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The digital revolution is unlocking a lot of opportunities for public radio: new programming platforms, new revenue sources, new ways to serve and connect with audiences.

As leaders of public radio stations and organizations navigate the dizzying array of choices and options these opportunities present, there is one thing above all others that they should provide their staffs as they navigate this new territory: a mantra.

A conversation I had with a former public radio colleague illustrates the need to clearly define the purpose of the work organizations do. The young woman had recently started a new job after working for a very successful public radio organization. During her time there, the staff had quickly grown from a handful of producers, story editors and sound designers to many dozens of people. The company had taken on a ton of new initiatives and expanded what they produced and how they distributed their work. When I asked her why she left her old job, she replied: “We had no idea what we were doing.”

To be clear: The editors knew how to edit, the producers knew how to find and frame stories. Pretty much all the employees knew their individual job roles. Competence wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that no one really understood why they were doing all these new initiatives.

In growing so much, so fast, the organization had lost its sense of direction. When the staff had been smaller, internal relationships and the jobs that needed to be done felt clear. As new people signed on, roles expanded and ideas piled up. No one knew what their “true north” was anymore. Directions changed; projects came and went. Everyone just kept their heads down and did their jobs. Yet they grew frustrated and upset because they didn’t know what the company was trying to achieve, or how their jobs fit into that vision. In short, they wanted to know how and why their work mattered.

The true crime in what my friend told me was how avoidable it was. All of it. The spiraling initiatives. The pervasive confusion and lack of direction. The dissatisfaction and low morale of the staff.

All it would have taken is a few simple words.

By answering the question, “What do we do?” managers and leaders can make work much simpler, productive and satisfying for both the business and its staff. This task is similar to the “onliness statement” that author Marty Neumeier advocates in his iconic branding book Zag. Neumeier challenges brand-definers to finish this sentence “Our brand is the ONLY __________ that __________.”

Here’s an example: “Our brand is the ONLY wheat distributor that sells grind-it-yourself wheat for the serious home baker.” It’s clear. It’s unique. It sets the boundary markers.

It seems so simple, yet it’s a hard exercise. Creating a strategy mantra for your organization is somewhat different from a branding exercise. It is an articulation of mission without the flowery, idealistic and sweeping language typical of mission statements. A strategy mantra is fact. It isn’t aspirational (yet devoid of any actual information) as in “We are public radio for the next generation of Missourians.” A mantra is so clear and specific that a stranger could understand exactly what you mean.

If the exercise of answering “What do we do?” proves challenging, as it often is, you can create a mantra from the answers to these two simple questions:

  1. What does the audience want?
  2. What can we provide?

Like any other definitional exercise, you will be tempted to paint in broad strokes and use the most inclusive, easy-to-navigate language possible. But inclusive language is too vague, and wastes everyone’s time. It serves no point.

Focus your answers and be specific. And don’t be a smartypants literalist with your answers.

If you produce a podcast called The Liver and Onions Show, the answer isn’t “We come to work every day to produce The Liver and Onions Show.” You need to drill down a layer. Try something like “We come to work every day to create insightful recorded conversations, share recipes and discuss the nutritional benefits of the most delicious and versatile foodstuffs in the world, namely, of course, liver and onions.”

Ideally, once you have a clear definition of what you do, then decision-making gets pretty easy. Or at least it should.

When you say, “We do X” — that also says that you don’t do anything else … or won’t do it … or at least shouldn’t do it. That means that when a staffer runs up and says, “I have a terrific idea — we should do Y!” you, as the leader, say, “No, because Y is not X.”

Your strategy mantra becomes a filtering system. You no longer pursue the most exciting idea-of-the-day, the most seemingly profitable ideas or the newest fads. You don’t even pursue the ideas that the boss wants to do. It frees you from giving subjective feedback, such as whether it’s a “good” or “bad” idea. It’s either X … or it’s not. If it’s not, then you, as the leader, say “no.”

Once you have a mantra, it simplifies a lot of things, as long as you have the discipline to stick to it.

Brand statements as mantras

The cable TV industry provides great inspiration for this discipline. In a world of hundreds of channels, how do you differentiate yourself — especially in a world where viewing choices border on instinctual and are made in fractions of a second? By having a mantra and sticking to it.

Some channels have that focus built into their name, like Comedy Central, Cartoon Network or DogTV. Others use positioning statements to provide a foothold for marketing, and a clean and clear expression of their programming. It’s their mantra.

USA Network is a classic example of how this works. It began as a sports network and was rather bland and forgettable, branded with a logo that featured a generic-looking flag. The network and its brand stood for nothing in particular, and its programming was equally uninspiring. The lineup was a mixture of talk shows, low-budget movies and kids’ programming sprinkled in-between sports broadcasts. The channel meandered on this way for almost 25 years.

Then USA Network kinda walked backwards into their unifying theme — which, for the record, is a totally OK way to go about it. The channel was experiencing some success with original dramatic series and its leaders decided to build their vision for the channel around those. The glue that held together these series were vivid, charming and endearing lead characters on shows like Monk, Suits and Psych. The plots of these shows put fun yet troubled characters in unusual yet optimistic situations and circumstances.

They came up with the branding tag “Characters Welcome” to frame all of this. It was a ubiquitous brand statement for USA Network that also defined the mantra for their next generation of programming choices. Network programmers greenlit only projects that also featured vivid, charming and endearing characters.

In an interview included in the book The TV Brand Builders by Andy Bryant and Charlie Mawer, USA Network’s EVP of Marketing & Digital Alexandra Shapiro said: “It wasn’t just a tagline; it was a philosophy that informed both the way we operate internally and with our partners. It informed our on-air environment, our programming strategy and our development.”

The framework proved so powerful and effective that USA Network stuck with it for 11 years (a lifetime, if not several lifetimes, in cable programming). The branding was intentful and consistent — it meant something specific to the audience, and to the staff.

In television, these taglines, mantras, brand filters — whatever you want to call them — create an expectation among viewers of what the content is about.

In their research for The TV Brand Builders, Bryant and Mawer conducted a study of several hundred TV viewers in Britain. Participants were shown the title of a new program, The Unknown Prince Charles, and asked what they thought the show was about. Those who were told it would air on the BBC expected it would be a documentary about his lesser-known accomplishments and achievements. Other survey respondents were told the show would air on the slightly spicer ITV1 channel. Those viewers expected a “tell all” featuring former girlfriends and servants. Same title and subject, but very different programs — based solely on the viewers’ understanding of the network providing it.

‘You need to stand for something’

So how can this apply to leading a creative group of audio-makers in public radio?

As the relevance of geography changes in the digital media age, and public radio organizations find themselves competing with an endless number of audio options, you need to stand for something — something that stands out not only in your local market, but nationally and globally as well. A mantra explains what your station does — and another public media organization doesn’t do.

The mantra doesn’t need to capture every nuance of your work, or explain how you arrived at that statement. If someone wants to know details about the data or process you used to define it, share those.

Most people won’t need or want all that. They’re looking for a simple marching order that tells them why we do what we do — and why it matters. It needs to be something that everyone on your team can understand, and something you can explain to a new hire or intern in a matter of minutes. Something clear, direct and true.

Like any good mantra, once you have it, repeat it over and over again.

This is exactly what I’ve done over many years. I’ve lead this exercise at radio stations where I worked, at NPR and at Audible. Once we had a mantra, I opened most staff meetings by saying it. I used it in board presentations and budget documents — basically any chance I’d get — to remind my team and those we work with what we do and why.

Nuzum

When we discussed some new undertaking, I’d tie it to the mantra. When we debated whether to take on a new initiative, we’d ask, “Is this going to help us meet our goal?” (The goal being our mantra.) We usually made decisions based on the answer to that question. You know the mantra is taking hold when your staff start making fun of you for saying it so much. The mantra works in the same way as “hit record syndrome,” when a radio station’s staff gets sick of hearing a new song just as the audience is falling in love with it.

Comedy comes from shared experiences and understanding. When a group internalizes your strategy mantra enough to tease you or others about it, you know it’s in deep.

Let’s be honest — your staff is going to make fun of you anyhow, so they might as well do it over something that expresses your values and your audience service. And it is yet another gentle reminder of why you all came together in the first place.

Eric Nuzum spent more than two decades working at public radio stations and NPR and three years at Audible, where he directed original content development as SVP. He continues to work with audio producers as a consultant while planning a new venture to launch next year.  

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