Being a transplanted southerner living in Arizona, I make a pilgrimage to the local Waffle House several times a month to satisfy my need for old-fashioned, no-frills grits. These creamy bowls of buttery goodness open up my heart and put a smile on my face.

As you know, I help businesses and non-profits increase awareness of their products and services; shape and manage their reputations and issues; and help them create and solidify relationships with customers and stakeholders. One of the ways I do this is by helping my clients with what to say, how to say it and where to say it.

A few Saturdays ago, as I nourished my southern soul at the local Waffle House, I received a lesson in effective communications that I would like to share.

If you haven’t been to a Waffle House, they are long and thin with an L-shaped counter bisecting the restaurant lengthwise creating two distinct areas—one for customers and one for employees.

The back wall of the employee area is where the food is prepped and cooked. Customers either sit at the counter, or in booths, all close enough to watch the show. Sizzling bacon, percolating coffee and machine-gun-like clattering from a whisk furiously scrambling eggs in a metal bowl provide background noise. This steady hum is broken up when a waitress calls out the latest order to the cooks.

Waitresses — when they are not serving customers or scurrying around to refill half-full cups of coffee — are loading and unloading the dishwasher. The dishwasher is located underneath the counter, but out of visual sightlines of customers. Once clean, the dishes are placed on a shelf next to the cooking area. Getting the dishes from the dishwashing area to the cooking area requires lifting, pivoting 180 degrees, taking three steps and placing them on the shelf.

Most of the time, this mundane task is done with relative ease. But on a busy Saturday morning, like the one when I received my lesson, four cooks and a half-dozen waitresses running back and forth in the dedicated employee area makes this task a real-life Frogger video game.

Thomas, the Waffle House manager, was responsible that morning for cooking the restaurant’s namesake. He diligently poured the thick, gooey batter into the irons, waited and then carefully lifted out the golden saucers of steaming carbohydrates. During a pause in the action, when all of the irons were full of batter, he noticed his inventory of clean plates getting low. He immediately turned and took a few steps to the dishwashing area.

As anyone who’s worked in a restaurant kitchen knows, verbal communication is key to avoiding a collision and a shower of hot food from raining down. After picking up a stack of still-steaming warm dishes — and before beginning his Frogger adventure — the 20-plus-year veteran of a Waffle House kitchen, calls out, “Two-hundred dollars’ worth of plates coming through!”

When asked later why he verbalized the value of the plates when he wanted to warn everyone, he answered matter-of-factly, “Because that is how much we would have paid to replace them.”

He did not realize, but I did as a professional communicator, that his exclamation encapsulated several best practices that everyone should keep in mind when they are communicating to create awareness, develop understanding, shape opinion or to motivate someone to action.

Getting people’s attention before providing information – In today’s world of non-stop information overload, sometimes it takes a snap of the fingers or a shake of the body to get people to focus on you and what you’re communicating. I call this flagging. It tells people to stop what they are doing, either physically or mentally, and pay attention. Thomas does this by first exclaiming, “Watch out!”

Leverage frame of reference – When communicating you should always remember the receiver of the information will benchmark what is read or heard by something in their past. This subconscious act helps us to create meaning from information received. If Thomas would have said, “Expensive dishes coming through,” he would have been leaving the frame of reference to chance. By providing a dollar value, he controlled what his audience was thinking after he communicated.

Creating emotions – With about 90 percent of behavior driven by emotions, it only makes sense that if you want to influence people’s behaviors, you need to create the emotion needed to drive the desired action. Money is an emotional subject. Losing money is a powerful fear. Fear makes us cautious. By providing the cost of the dishes, Thomas created a powerful emotion that drove those around him to be alert and watchful so as not to run into him.

Right amount of information – It is always important to consider what the recipient of the communication is doing when they consume the information you are providing. Thomas was in the middle of a Saturday morning breakfast rush. He needed to be effective and efficient with his communication, a goal he was able to accomplish. In 10 words, he got his audience’s attention, created awareness of the situation, generated a powerful emotion and drove a behavior.
As part of the Brand Strategy and Messaging Playbook we create for clients, we include the following quote by Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I can’t tell you how much marketing money is wasted because a business or organization does not invest in making sure they are communicating the right things, in the right way, through the right channels. If you have, or know of, an organization or business that would like to see a higher return on marketing dollars, please feel free to contact me at or call (602) 568-5067.