When clients contact me, they’re usually looking for help communicating specific messages in a visually appealing way that cuts through the clutter and gets them noticed. But there’s a question that can lead to sweaty palms and confusion: “What are your key messages?” This is really just a fancy way of saying, “What are the most important things you want people to know about your topic, product or service?”
Most people have a good idea. Others experience communication paralysis. This happens when there’s a lack of clarity about what we want to say. This can lead us to over-think our messages and over-communicate, which means we overwhelm our audiences with too much information. There is such thing as too much of a good thing. The more we over-think our messages, the more we complicate the process and water down our messages, confusing people and causing them to disengage. If I don’t understand what you’re telling me, why you’re telling me or what I’m supposed to do with the information, I’m likely not going to take the action you’d like.
Here’s a tool from grade school that can help you become clearer. Time to dust off those 5W’s (and how).
1. Define your audience.
- Who do you need to communicate with about this issue, product or service?
2. Define your purpose.
- Why is this information important for people to know?
- What action do you want your audiences to take?
3. Create your messages.
- What is the number one thing you want people to know about this issue, product or service? E.g., Join us May 21st to raise funds for cancer.
- What are some additional supporting messages that support your main point? E.g., where is the event happening, what are some interesting or cool things taking place, what will I be expected to do, how much will this cost me, etc. (Hint: Limit these to three, no more than five.)
- How will your audiences benefit from the issue, product or service? (Hint: If there’s no benefit to do what you’re asking, you’re going to have a tough sell. Ask yourself why people should participate in or do something that adds little value to their lives, or worse, that might actually make their lives more difficult or complicated.)
- Once you have common messages that fit all audiences, check to see if there are some people who might need additional or more specific information. Are there some people who need the information before others? E.g., Event volunteers might need additional information about their role: what time do I have to be there, where should I go when I get there, what will I be doing and how should I do it?
4. Test your messages.
- This is a step people often skip that is so valuable. You don’t need to do this for every situation, but before investing a lot of time, money and energy, do a quick check to see if you’re on the right track (Hint: Before launching your website, advertising and printing a bunch of brochures or posters, test your messages on a small group of the people you’re planning on sharing it with to see if they “get it.”)
5. Measure your success.
- If your messages were successful, what will that look like? What will people think, feel and do differently? If you didn’t get the results you wanted, why? What can you learn so you can improve next time?