Tripp Frohlichstein Interview: Bring Your Message Home

Tripp Frohlichstein
Tripp Frohlichstein co-invented Message Maps.

I’m sad to report the death of Tripp Frohlichstein, co-inventor of Message Maps. 

Tripp taught thousands of people how to tell their story better with a clear, concise, consistent message, using a Message Map. He showed people how to create one consistent message that addresses the needs of customers, employees, investors and news media. 

I was lucky to learn from Tripp over the 30 years we worked together in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland and Japan. 

Here’s an interview with Tripp on how to make your message great.

What is a home base message? What makes a home base great?

“Home base is your single most important communication objective,” Frohlichstein said. “It tells your audience what you are about and what’s in it for them.

“So it answers the audience’s top question, What’s In It for Me? (WIIFM?)

“It also answers the question why you exist in terms of how you benefit your audience, as opposed to what you do or how you do it.

“Home base is simple. It is also honest. Don’t over-claim or people won’t believe you.

“Finally, make sure there’s an emotional impact to your home base. We all make decisions based on emotions. A good home base will stir those emotions, often providing more of a bond between you and your audience.

“The ideal home base appeals to virtually all audiences – customers, employees and investors. It’s important to have a home base, because home base makes it easier for people to grasp what you are all about, as well as remember you. This concept is supported by neuroscience.”

Message Map Anatomy
Your main message is home base, supported by 3 positive points.

What’s the problem with using multiple main messages, as some experts advise?

“If you start sending multiple messages, people get confused as to what you are about. People will not be able to remember all your points,” Frohlichstein said.

“The problem is twofold. First, your audience really doesn’t know your central message – what is the ultimate impact you have on your audience? Is it improving the quality of life? Making life easier? Helping your company be more successful?

“Having a single message enables the audience to see why you do what you do — to help them.

“The second reason to avoid too many messages (and too much information) comes from neuroscientist Dr. Carmen Simon, who says, ‘People don’t make decisions on what they forget.’ People decide based on what they remember. That’s so obvious, yet we forget it.”

Keep it simple
Keep your customer message simple to become buyers’ guide.

What do great home base messages have in common?

“All of the best home base messages are simple. Simple sells. One of the most successful sales people I met offered this piece of wisdom, ‘Confused customers don’t write checks.’

“Great home base messages relate to what their audiences care about. One of the worst home bases I ever heard was a company whose message was, ‘We want to be a $5 billion company within 5 years.’ Who cares?

What are some great home base messages you’ve seen?

Sticking with a simple, 2-word home base message works.

“A very effective message comes from the St. Louis United Way. While the rest of the country is using the confusing message (with no WIIFM) ‘Live United,’ St. Louis’ chapter is using a more effective message, ‘Helping people.’

“It’s simple and easy to understand, yet very effective, as the St. Louis United Way is at the top when it comes to collecting donations (on a per capita basis). I’m not even sure what ‘Live United’ even means, but helping people is personal and emotional.

“The biggest benefit of United Way’s home base is that people now know what the organization really does. Before this messaging, when asked in focus groups about what they know about the United Way, people were confused. They provided a variety of answers and talked about pieces of the organization like collecting money for agencies, but not much beyond that. Now, when asked what they know about the United Way in focus groups, they almost universally answer, ‘They’re about helping people.’

University of Missouri Message Map
This message map helped a University Extension Service lobby against looming budget cuts.

“Another great home base came from the University of Missouri Outreach and Extension program. They needed a message to lobby the state legislature after being told their budget would be cut. The home base for the legislature was ‘Improving lives for the people of Missouri.’

“Fifty university people were trained to use the message map. With a message map that supported the home base with specifics on programs, the lobbying worked. The Outreach and Extension Program was able to reduce the cuts threatened.

“Similarly, a cooperative of electric companies used a message map to lobby Congress for funds to modernize the electric grid. With the right home base and supporting positive points, electric companies argued, ‘It is vital to our way of life.’

“Another example: for years, Tellabs (since taken private), used effective corporate messaging in the B2B space by simply saying to telecom customers, ‘We help you succeed.’

“If I am a business, that is what I want – success – so it may be stating the obvious. But if you don’t, your audience may think something way different about your motives. A home base literally can change the way people look at you.

Edward Jones, the nationwide investment firm, has a home base of ‘Making a difference in people’s lives.’ What makes this special is that Edward Jones emphasizes this home base not only to external audiences, but also to internal audiences.

“Ideally, all companies should take this approach as every employee is an ambassador for your organization.

“Home base for a school district is: ‘Preparing kids to be successful in life.’ This is a distinct message, compared with many school districts who say their message is a good education.

“Education is what schools do. Instead of answering what, answer the question why is it important to provide a good education? To help kids be successful. That makes a lot more sense and it’s more emotional.

“Home base can even help you get your next job or promotion. A person may have many skills, but having a home base tells an interviewer how you benefit your potential employer. Home base might be, ‘I can contribute a great deal to help your company grow.’ Then, lay out your skills and relate it back to how the company might grow.”

Why are these home base messages so successful?

“First, they’re memorable. Second, they tell me, What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)? Third, they are usually very high-level, so a good home base is the common theme for all aspects of your organization.”

Does it matter if your home base is the same as another company’s?

“No. While a unique home base is nice, it is rare. In fact, you will often share your home base with other organizations. The difference between you and the other organizations is what and how you accomplish that home base.

“One example of different organizations that share the same home base is the St. Louis United Way and the Red Cross. Both have a home base of ‘helping people,’ but how they do it is very different. The United Way gives money to organizations to help people in a variety of circumstances. The Red Cross helps people differently by showing up at disasters and providing various forms of relief.

“Organizations may share a home base but support it with different positive points. So two telecom companies might have a home base of ‘Making customers’ lives easier.’ One company might stress its network to achieve that goal while another might say it’s the variety of easy-to-use smartphones they offer. Both can make a legitimate argument about how those features relate to the home base.”

George Stenitzer & Tripp Frohlichstein
For 30 years, Tripp and I taught Message Maps together in Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies.

Why is it important to repeat your home base? What happens when you don’t?

“There are a couple of key reasons to repeat your home base.

“First, if you say it once, it might not even be heard as your listeners’ minds wander. But even if it is heard, along with everything else you say, it may not stand out if you only say it once.

“Repeating it makes sure your home base is heard. Repetition adds importance to your home base. That said, home base should be used properly. Repeat it only when it’s relevant.

“If you ever begin to answer a question thinking, ‘How the heck am I supposed to get to my home base?’, don’t even try. Just answer the question.

“The best home bases are co-created by a group of people from various levels of an organization – to get the widest view as well as buy-in. If people own the idea of home base, they will often take responsibility to make sure the home base message is used.”

Here’s a video Tripp made to mark the 30th anniversary of his business, Media Masters.

Thanks, Tripp, for everything and everyone you taught.

We will miss you. We will remember you. We will continue your work to simplify storytelling with Message Maps.