The Mouthwash Principle: For Max Effectiveness At Work, Rinse And Repeat

I had what I considered a pretty solid dental routine: floss and brush twice a day. That’s enough, right?

Not according to my new dentist. After hmmming and oooooing and picking and sticking at my teeth, he gave me a new, more cumbersome routine. Now, I floss, then brush, then use a pick between my teeth and, finally, use fluoride and anti-bacterial washes.

Here’s the amazing thing: Often, it’s not until the anti-bacterial wash step that I get every last food particle out. In other words, even all the flossing and the brushing and the picking don’t quite get the job done. It takes all that, plus the final swishing, to get everything clean.

I was brushing my teeth this morning, thinking about this as I listened to my local National Public Radio’s spring campaign to raise funds. For close to a week now they’ve been asking for pledges. Each time I heard their request, I decided I would pledge. And yet, I’m embarrassed to say, it took until today–the last day of their pledge drive–to actually donate.

It’s the mouthwash principle. And it’s critical to powerful leadership. If you want to make an impact on people, to influence their behavior in some way, you have to keep sharing the message, coming at it from different angles and at different times long after you think you’re done.

Politicians know this as they give their stump speeches for the thousandth time. So do advertisers, who keep repeating the same jingle over and over again until it sticks in your head.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not what most of us do. Many managers and leaders say something once, twice, maybe three times, and expect the message to get through. Then they get exasperated when other people’s behavior deviates from the expectations that were so clearly stated.

Here’s the problem: There’s a big difference between saying something and hearing it.

When you say something, it’s probably been brewing for some time. You’ve already tossed it around in your head, maybe talked to a few other people about it, and then come to a final decision or thought. In other words, you had a process. Plus, you’re the one who is saying it so it’s probably more important to you than anyone else. Saying it once seems plenty.

But when you hear it or read it, you’re doing so for the first time and in the context of many other messages that are flying at you. It’s not your message. For the message to rise above the cacophony of other messages and thoughts, it needs to be repeated.

So even though repeating it several times seems excessive to you when you’re speaking, it’s barely enough to get the message across. It’s the mouthwash principle.

Richard (names have been changed), one of my clients, the CEO of a $900 million company, recently used the mouthwash principle well. We were preparing for an offsite and he sent out an email detailing several issues that were up for discussion. There was one thing, however, that the CEO knew would consume too much time in the meeting–we’ll call it option D–and it was not up for discussion, even though some people on the team would have liked it to be.  So, in the email, he made the point that option D was not up for discussion three times–at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. The last time he wrote it, HE PUT IT IN CAPS.

Then, when he was opening the meeting, after talking about what we would be discussing, he reminded everyone that he knew he was being overbearing about this but he really didn’t want to waste time discussing option D. It’s the mouthwash principle, and it worked.

This isn’t just about impacting others, it also about impacting ourselves. How often have you read something a second time and found things you missed the first?  And how often have you thought you learned something, changed a behavior, or made a decision, only to find yourself backsliding? It’s why, even though that last book on leadership or communication or time management was really good, you’ll probably need to read another one on the same topic soon. It’s not that each book doesn’t have the perfect formula to make you a flawless leader or communicator or time manager. It’s just that you need to go over the same things multiple times in order to get those last specks of counterproductive behavior out of your system.

In other words, even when we’re speaking to ourselves, we don’t listen that well.

It’s always a good idea to become a better listener. But don’t rely on other people’s listening as a strategy to get your point across. A better strategy? Become comfortable with repetition. Say things more often than you think necessary and resist the urge to throw your hands up in exasperation when people don’t do what you so clearly explained they should. Expect them not to.

This morning, after brushing, flossing, picking, and swishing my own teeth, I asked my kids–for the fourth time–whether they had brushed their teeth. Two out of the three had.

I’m glad I asked that fourth time.


  1. R. Irwin says:

    A forehead-slapping revelation. It is truth when you write “even when we’re speaking to ourselves, we don’t listen that well.” Therefore, your strategy to “Become comfortable with repetition. Say things more often than you think necessary and resist the urge to throw your hands up in exasperation when people don’t do what you so clearly explained they should. Expect them not to.” is such a refreshing re-alignment of expectations. Thank you for challenging my self-righteousness!

  2. Zellie says:

    As I was reading another of your great articles, I thought to myself, “just raise some kids”. It will teach you all about repetition strengthens and confirms….!!! But you got there at the end! I also thought, just get married…nothing like repeating oneself to get heard! This is all in jest and humor of course, as it goes both ways…

  3. on a somewhat tangential note, this might also be related to the power of visualization, f.ex. having explicit and permanently visible policies.

    i’ve experienced that visualizing work including policies have a profound effect, both in everyday workflow with teams and with getting kids to remember to brush teeth.

    that does not negate your input, which i find interesting and hope to get better at.

    but regarding everyday things, both routine and knowledge work, permanently visualizing status and flow of work incl policies is even more powerful than repeating a message, IMO.
    (ref )

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