Ep 83: Spring Cleaning Communication Cobwebs

On this episode of Communicate for Good, Erica shares the concept of mental file folders and why it matters for your communication and branding both in the present and the future. She also talks about how and why the organization of these folders is important and how that informs your sequence of messaging so that people can file you away and easily retrieve you from their mental file folders. 

This is a transcript of Erica Mills Barnhart on the Marketing for Good podcast. You can listen to the episode here and listen to more episodes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. Enjoy!


file folder, organization, communication, kids, organizational level, talk, work, sub folders, taxes, file, fun, podcast, important, education, matter, team, equal footing, expand, water sanitation, cleaning

Welcome to the Communicate for Good podcast where leaders on a mission to make the world a better place come to talk and learn about how communication language and words can help increase awareness, revenue and impact. With less stress and more joy. I’m your host, Erica Mills Barnhart, and I’m so excited. You’re here with me. Let’s dive right in. 

Hello, and welcome to the Communicate for Good podcast, I am your host, Erica Barnhart, and I’m excited you’re here. Today we’re going to talk about a concept that I actually don’t think I’ve talked about on this podcast, or if I have, it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten and so it’s time for a revisit. That concept is mental file folders. In the last episode, Episode 82, we talked about spring cleaning, right, and because it’s spring cleaning season and April is when these are all originally going to be released. Let’s just stick with that for a second, which is, let’s assume that you have cleaned up, you know, said bye-bye to some of the dust bunnies so there’s a bit more clarity around your communication. Now the surfaces are kinda cleaner, all those things, but you’re left with the task of organizing.

If the last episode was about cleaning up and whatnot then this is about organizing. It’s also tax season, at least in the United States it’s tax season, so we can use this right now as an analogy because it has to do with file folders, right? I’m literally, I’m not kidding, looking at the stack of tax related things that have come in. Can you hear my tone of voice on tax related things? I love paying taxes, taxes mean that, you know, I’m blessed and I’ve been successful. I have nothing against taxes but I don’t like preparing for them, kind of bogs me down because there’s paperwork which bogs me down, but I’m looking over here and I’m like, Okay, I need to get all this stuff out and it needs to go into the file folders. Now, one thing to know, there’s a reason that we have both physical and electronic file folders, right? That when we transitioned to a more electronic virtual environment we kept that structure, right? Big file folder, little file folders, and it gets more granular from there. You can actually tell a lot about somebody by looking at how they file things. Oh, please don’t come look at how I file things! I mean, the basics are there, right? The basics for everybody are this idea of what’s the big idea, and you go from there.

Why does this matter for communication? Now, let me pause here for a second. If you’re new to this podcast, it’s called Communicate for Good. That’s the model that we talk about so I want to orient to which level we’re talking about. With the Communicate for Good model, it’s good for you, yourself, your team, your organization, and by extension, the world. This I mean, really mainly, at the organizational level and there’s tidbits you might apply at the other levels but this one is really about the organizational level and external communication. Okay, so where and what is the big file folder that a client, a customer, a donor, a volunteer, insert, whoever it is, that is important for you to attract to your work because you need them in order to be successful? What is it? Okay, so there’s the big folders and then there’s sub folders. Now, the question is, what’s the primary first, okay? I’ve done this so many times and in so many trainings with so many organizations, the most effective way, and honestly the most fun way that I found to do this, is to actually have this, is so cheesy sounding but trust me when I say it’s really effective, is to literally have file folders. Okay. Then you can really play with putting smaller one into a bigger one. I have brought in a file cabinet because it’s tactile. If you’re gonna do this, which actually is a fun way to do it is to bust out the office supplies. 

I’m going to run through a few examples. Let’s just start with a generic sort of Starbucks. I mean, there’s a good story here. Starbucks, what’s the big file folder? For most people, it’s going to be coffee. Now, does Starbucks sell a whole bunch of other things? Yeah, they totally do. Right. They have a lot of food. They kind of they want to be known as this community gathering place or at least Howard Schultz would like that. But really, it’s all about the coffee. And then what are the sub folders? You can have sub folders but they’re always going there. They are a coffee company. That’s their big file folder. The interesting story is now we’re used to walking into Starbucks and being like, oh, look, there’s food and some of that food now is hot. Their first experiment, or one their early experiments, I don’t know if it was first, was soup. The reason that this was a failed experiment was that the soup competed with the smell of coffee so they had to ixnay that because that would have undermined the mental file folder that people might have filed them under. Now, they’re like, wait, is this like a restaurant? What is it? And so they’re a very interesting example. One that most of us know, of is the primary file folder so nothing can really compete with that. Now, let’s talk about taxes. Let’s go there. Now, there may be a little variation, as you might do yours a little bit different but fundamentally, most people will have a file folder that says cleverly taxes. Then it’s going to be by what? By year, and then by what? By quarter, if that’s something that you need to do. Then it’s taxes, year, quarter. Now you may have your files slightly differently for taxes. If you file separately, it might be taxes by person, by year but the big file folder is always going to be taxes. Right?

Why is this so important? From an organizational communication perspective, this is about branding, right? Branding is about how our brains work, so you want to make it as easy as possible for somebody to retrieve you from their mental file folders. This isn’t necessarily just about where they put you first, where they file you away. It’s about retrieval. This is important because it becomes about word of mouth which is still one of the biggest forces of communication, success, and momentum for almost any organization but especially for nonprofits, so where are they going to file you? Okay, so maybe they file you in nonprofits, great. There are what now 1.3 million nonprofits just in the US alone. So what’s the next thing? You may be listening and be like, this is going to be so easy, and I think you might be surprised at the difference of opinion of people within the organization. That’s important to tune up because those who work for the organization are talking about the organization and so it’s a way to get alignment internally so that it drives engagement externally. 

Alright, so I’ll give you a couple examples. I was working with an organization, and they teach kids to be great readers. It’s a peer-to-peer tutoring model and fundamentally about teaching elementary school kids how to be great readers, because they believe every kid deserves to be a great reader, a wonderful organization. Now, what’s the primary file folder? Is it kids? Or is it education? Or is it reading? Right? When we did this, there was a difference of opinion but it was between those three things, nobody was like, I don’t know, like wallabies, it should be wallabies, clearly. There were these three things but the hierarchy matters. The hierarchy matters so they decided that it was going to be education first. That’s their big file folder, they are about education. Now, why would that be? It is because it was possible that down the road they might approach and  broaden what they will be doing within the education space. It is always going to be for kids, they were always gonna be K through 12. They had no aspirations of beyond but education was the main place that they were going to be and then it was K through 12. Then it was reading because it turned out that those could have been swapped, right? It could have been education, reading or literacy and then kids or students, right, so K through 12k, through 16. This is a matter of what’s the likelihood that we might expand to different subjects versus different ages of students. Every time, this is the question of what it boils down to so whatever you’re focused on you’re gonna end up with your big file folder and then it’s like, what’s next? What are the subfolders and are they on equal footing or do we need to sequence them? Why does this matter in terms of your messaging? Because this bubbles up into your sequencing of your messaging, especially in your mission, vision, values, and purpose statements – your identity statements as I like to call them. 

Let me give you another example. There is an organization and what they do is clean water for kids around the world. This organization is called Splash. They do all sorts of interesting things around water and water sanitation but their file folders, whereas the other organization which is Tea Read which started with education and literacy, Splash started with kids. When we were having this conversation, they were like, there’s no scenario where we’re going to change for whom we do this. It is always going to be kids, so then interestingly water sanitation was a sub folder of kids because there’s all sorts of ways that we may want to improve the lives of these kids and they work internationally. That’s why kids went first, water sanitation, and their ability to predict the future was pretty darn good. Great. They have expanded, they’re still mainly about cleaning water for kids around the world but then it’s like what’s the application of clean water? What are the other variables? Now it’s about water sanitation and health, right? It’s about the health, which is an outcome but there are other elements to it. Water isn’t the only thing that they’re focused on. It’s not the only thing that they’re talking about. They knew that intuitively that probably somewhere down the road they were going to want to be able to expand but it was always going to be for kids. They work in orphanages and they leverage existing systems or places where there’s already clean water and this amazing organization is always going to be about the kids for them. That’s what they want to be known for. Those are two different examples. 

The question, and I’ll give you an example of Claxon because we did go through kind of a recent, I would say, a reorganization of the file folders being put into a larger file folder which can happen. If this resonates with you, this might be a move that you want to consider. Claxon was known as Claxon Marketing for a long number of years. We were known primarily for the work we did was at the organizational level of the Communicate for Good model. Then over time and for a variety reasons I’ve talked about but including that you really can’t separate, organizational from team from individual communication, it’s all related. Then we expand, but that work of using of Communicating for Good and use the words to change the world and workplaces. Marketing, in my world, in my brain, is a subset of communication. Now, other people don’t see it that way but in that I’m founder of the company so I get to make some choices. That is why we transitioned from Claxon Marketing to Claxon Communication which was to broaden it all, and that all roads lead back to communicate those clarity and confidence. All roads lead back but we expanded the types and the level at which we were going to work. Now a lot more of Claxon’s work is between the individual coaching with leaders training teams. That has become much more central to what we do because of moving ourselves up into a higher level file folder. Maybe it was a different file folder altogether. We could debate that a little bit but that’s the idea. It does take some effort, if you’re gonna do a shift like that, to make sure that people are like, Oh, I’m not just gonna think of Claxon when it’s about me being frustrated our mission statement? Yes, we still help organizations but the format is different. It’s down that accelerated format so that you can get the results you want a lot faster than in the past. However, that’s not the only time. That’s one application of the Claxon method that we work with our clients but that expansion took some time and it’s still in progress. Like I said, our work has shifted, we are doing that work at the team level at the individual level and it’s awesome. It’s fantastic, but it does take some intentionality to get there.

If you need to do a shift like that, I totally get it and I also get maybe some resistance to it because it’s change and change is hard. Right? Change is hard, as we’ve talked about, and we will inevitably talk about again in a future episode. So that’s how the metal file folders like make it easy. Make it easy for people to do that. Oh right, Claxon Communication. Great. You know, subfolders, organization, team, individual, those are all on equal footing but those are the sub folders for us as opposed to only being at that organizational level. What’s your main file folder? Hey, what’s your main file folder and what’s the secondary and what comes after that, but really getting that clarity at the higher levels. You can go gangbusters if you want with like, oh my gosh, all the file folders and things that we will put in the file folders and that actually can be very helpful work because, again, this informs sequencing of messaging. What’s your biggie? What’s your biggie and what comes next? This is super fun to do as a team or at the organizational level and you’ll get a lot of insight. Again, the point of this is to make it easy for the people that you come in contact with and not just to file you away, but to be able to find you because you know what, if you don’t make it easy, you’re gonna go into the miscellaneous file folder. In all the times I’ve had those, I’ve had one person who’s like, I have to confess I only have a miscellaneous, everything goes into miscellaneous but it’s not an efficient system. If you’re sticking everything in there it’s so hard to find what you want, so are people going to make the effort to remember you and your organization and the good work that you’re doing? Make it easy for them, if you can. 

All right, my friends. That’s it for today. I hope you will play with the idea of mental file folders. Do good, be well and I will see you next time. Thank you for listening to the Communicate for Good podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, I would so appreciate it if you would rate here right now. Go rate and review the podcast. Your review will help even more purpose driven leaders, teams and organizations learn how to use words to change the world. To find more ways that communication can help you increase awareness, revenue and impact, head on over to www.claxon-communication.com

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?