Got an important message? Avoid this mistake.

One of my fears, when traveling abroad, is that I’ll forget my passport, or lose my passport, or else, in a desperate attempt to not lose it, I’ll lock it in a hotel safe. And then forget it.

Recently, on a business trip from Boston to Zurich, I had a different passport problem. When I went to check in, the ticket agent said I couldn’t go.

“Your passport expires in a month,” she said.

“But I’ll be returning in a few days,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter. Your passport is completely unacceptable,” she said. Her tone implied that neither she nor Switzerland was terribly disappointed.

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Although I’ve traveled abroad dozens of times, apparently it’s always been within the first 9.5 years of my 10-year passports. (Some countries, it turns out, require a six month leeway.)

Your passport may be real, but the expiration date isn’t. If milk worked this way, you’d never buy it. “This milk expires in several weeks,” you’d say. “It’s completely unacceptable.”

Later that night, after driving home, I polled some friends and colleagues: Did you know about this passport business? Some did, others not (“are you sure you didn’t do something to offend Switzerland?”).

It made me wonder: how do you and I learn things like this? Or, to flip the question, suppose you needed to communicate something like this—an important message—to a large audience. How would you do it?

Well, you could:

1) Make an announcement: The government, for example, could just send everyone a nice letter, or mention it on the passport application—or stamp it right on the passport itself: “Expiration date? SOONER than you think.”

2) Dialogue: A company could direct their corporate travel agent to ask each person about his/her passport before booking any trips.

The agent would ask, “So when do you think your passport expires?” and then say, “Hmm. Switzerland has a different opinion.”

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3) Tell a story: An ordinary person could tell a cautionary tale (like this one), and then rely on word of mouth or social media to spread the word.

Each method has limits. But too often, we assume that it’s enough to make an announcement—that if we just SAY it, others will HEAR it, and REMEMBER it.

Big mistake.

Someone must have announced something about this passport business. But I didn’t hear it. Or else I heard it, but didn’t remember it.

What’s the shelf life of an announcement? Less than milk.

Tip: When your message matters, repeat it multiple times. And multiple ways.

© Copyright 2014 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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