I recently came across an article in Atlantic Monthly entitled “Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children” which outlines the process Rogers and his production team used to ensure important messages were clearly communicated to children.
Written by Maxwell King, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation and author of an upcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers the article stresses how Rogers took great care in choosing words to provide clear information without reinforcing children’s fears or misunderstandings on topics from medical exams and pets to playground safety.
King writes: “…There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called ‘Freddish’…”
Communications are rarely simple or one-dimensional and there are many factors which make effective communications possible. One question remains – how can I encourage better communication – as a friend, a boss, or collectively as an organization?
The article highlights how ten years into the show producer Arthur Greenwald and a writer named Barry Head opened a bottle of whisky and coined the term Freddish.’ Over time, an actual ‘rule book’ Let’s Talk about Freddish was developed — the title itself a fine representation of Freddish in action.
I imagine they had some heated discussions about it. The phrasing of the script mattered because many children would be hanging on every word. And I’m certain it was important for every cast and crew member, not just Rogers. Even the puppets had to pass through the ‘Freddish’ filter.
Seemingly insignificant nuances in phrasing might catch the ear of Mister Rogers — ‘blow this up’ would be translated into Freddish as ‘put air into it’ so that children wouldn’t cover their ears in anticipation of a loud noise. ‘Certain playgrounds are dangerous’ might become “Listening to the important grown-ups in your life can help you find safe and fun places to play.”
Writers must’ve wondered – perhaps aloud – what all the fuss was about. Yet, it’s clear from the article, Rogers was insistent and very systematic about every detail, word and emotion. He cared how the children in his audience might react to or interpret it.
Threats to Effective Communication are Everywhere
As a leader in the digital marketing space for 15 years and working with dozens of for-profit, non-profit and startup clients, I know from experience that communications are rarely simple or one-dimensional. The threat of misunderstandings with colleagues, finger-pointing or accusations with clients, and broken or missed connections with close friends or complete strangers are easy to create but avoidable. It begins with the realization that many factors make effective communications possible.
Want to communicate better? That’s a good first step.
It’s here that Mister Rogers’ model offers a crucial insight – communicating clearly and thoughtfully starts with a true understanding of and care for your audience.
Three questions to consider:
1. Who is it for? Early in my career, a mentor challenged me on a presentation I’d given to a room full of PR professionals.“You did a good job communicating useful facts, data and humorous anecdotes but you didn’t connect in a way that anticipated the questions the audience has but may not verbalize.” I had focused so much on my mechanics – timing, body language and not reading my powerpoint deck verbatim – and looking smart – that I’d missed the primary objective. Or putting it more bluntly, ‘Was the presentation more about how I presented rather than what I presented?” Drawing on that feedback, I’ve tried to build content and presentations ever since with the audience in mind. Integrating insights and even verbal cues to try and make audience connections.
2. Is the message clear and ‘tuned’ to the frequency of our audience’s needs and wants? The need for clarity and ‘tuned’ language has never been more important. A quick metaphor – there’s a big difference between notes which are ‘off-key’ or ‘on-key’ versus lyrics that offer inspiration or empathy or a driving beat that gets you out on the dance floor. Like a memorable song, good messaging requires something that ‘grabs’ emotionally or appeals to a need/question/concern we have in the moment. Using keywords and phrases in the proper context demonstrates to your audience you are paying attention to the unique language and ecosystem they use.
3. How can we better evaluate how and what we communicate and if it’s sticking? Creating systems that measure how we’re doing and applying what we learn improves our effectiveness. For some, this means beginning to collect analytics and compile it in a meaningful way. For others, it translates into increasingly detailed dashboards and tools. For all, we at CiV Digital emphasize asking real questions of real people whenever possible, and never letting the tools ‘wag the dog.’ Our mistakes are often sins of omission (e.g., we leave someone or some group out when we roll out a new initiative without an easy on-ramp) and we have to avoid the tendency to ‘echo chamber.’ Building formal or informal focus groups to test new branding, messages, designs or a new digital initiative help us nurture valuable feedback channels over time.
Communicating well is no easy feat whether it’s with a co-worker, customer, or the person in line at Starbucks. The behind-the-scenes story of ‘Freddish’ and Mister Rogers Neighborhood hints at the strenuous effort required to consider words and their impact carefully. Granted, few of us will produce iconic children’s shows but how we speak, connect and respond matters to the people we encounter in all areas of our lives.
In an age of near-constant digital contact with each other, Fred Rogers and his team of writers and producers offer a helpful model of thought leadership and commitment to serving others well through how and what we communicate.
Reach out! Let’s connect to explore how we can engage your audience and deepen your impact.
D.J. Smith is the Founder of CiV Digital. He’s been in the digital space since gopher sites were actually a thing and writes regularly on digital brand care and strategy. A curator of beats, tones and playlists, he can often be found composing, jamming to or sharing some of his favorite tunes.