Messaging is the key to achieving impact with communication. Key messages create focus, control, and intensity in influencing your target audiences. This article provides valuable guidelines on how to create compelling key messages.
Key messages are the foundation of your communication strategy and should be used in all communication activity. They are not taglines. Key messages aren’t appropriate to be memorized and repeated word-for-word, but should be used as guidelines so they can be included naturally into conversations. Knowing how to create compelling key messages will enable your communication to have more impact.
So what are key messages? They are the essence of what you wish to communicate, bearing in mind that communication is not about what you say or send; communication is about what the receiver perceives it to be and what they do with it. The broad ways of communicating key messages are written, visual, verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as various combinations of these if appropriate. Key messages need to be carefully planned and prepared so they are robust and widely applicable for the organization’s purposes. Examples below.
Social psychology professor and author of the best-selling book Influence, Robert Cialdini, says recent thinking is that we should consider language as mainly a mechanism of influence, no longer as just a means of delivering communication. This underlines the fact that key messages need to be carefully crafted because they are so important. They shape what you want people to think and do.
Debbie Wetherhead, former PR agency head and now Lecturer of Public Relations at Kennesaw State University, recommends 3 steps to prepare key messages:
- Start by revisiting the organizational mission, strategies, goals and objectives so you develop key messages to align with their broad direction.
- Identify brand vocabulary, considering words and phrases you want associated with your brand and their SEO implications.
- Conduct a competitive analysis to avoid creating key messages too close to competitors’ offerings. You can review competitors’ websites, blogs, marketing material, ads, publicity and social media mentions to chart competitors’ key messages, value propositions, proof points and brand vocabulary.
Steps to develop key messages
- Collect a representative team together (consider including your external PR and marketing consultants) to develop words and phrases as the core of complete sentences that will form key messages. Collect on a flip chart or whiteboard.
- Identify your messaging needs, whether ongoing or a one-off situation.
- Confirm your target audiences, or stakeholders.
- Check that a broad approach suits.
- Prepare key messages that are wide in scope and describe the point of view of your organization, product, service, or program.
- Focus on benefits that distinguish your offerings from others, highlighting the value and innovative features that directly cater to your target audience.
- Substantiate your points with supporting details that distinguish your case and add credibility. Quoting facts and statistics, validation from experts, stories and visuals can be effective.
Features of key messages
- Concise: Maximum 3 key messages per page; each statement only 1-3 sentences long or under 30 seconds when spoken.
- Strategic: Define, differentiate and align with benefits/value proposition.
- Relevant: Balance what you need to communicate with what your audience needs to know.
- Compelling: Meaningful information designed to stimulate action.
- Simple: Easy-to-understand language; minimal jargon and acronyms.
- Memorable: Easy to recall and repeat; avoid run-on sentences.
- Relatable: Active rather than passive voice; no advertising slogans.
- Tailored: Adaptable to different target audiences, with flexible language and depth of information.
Framework of key messages in action
A ‘house’ framework from Message House, as above, is a simple, powerful image that can be used as a guide for staying on track with key messages, and also to show internal and external stakeholders how the message strategy operates:
- A key overall message or ‘umbrella statement’.
- Supporting messages
- ‘Proof points’ offering backup and/or more detail – shown in the above diagram as ‘Foundation’.
Examples of key messages, supporting messages and proof points/validation
Riverstone is the market leader in xyz products. [key message]
- Riverstone products are the top-selling xyz product in the market. [supporting message]
- Riverstone is the only xyz product manufacturer listed in the Fortune 500. [validation/proof point]
- Payne Research lists Riverstone as number 1. [validation/proof point]
- More Fortune 500 companies choose Riverstone xyz products than any other brand. [supporting message]
- Data compiled by Riverstone market research team. [validation/proof point]
- Business Week magazine covered Riverstone’s market leadership in a feature article in October last year. [validation/proof point]
Riverstone products deliver proven ROI. [key message]
- Users of Riverstone xyz products cut costs by up to x%. [supporting message]
- Riverstone user case study. [validation/proof point]
- Article in ABC business magazine. [validation/proof point]
- Riverstone xyz products are lower priced than top competitors. [supporting message]
- According to FGH online price listings and DEF company data sheets. [validation/proof point]
- Customers report average return of x%. [supporting message]
- Riverstone survey data/responses. [validation/proof point]
- Customer quotes. [validation/proof point]
Actual 3M examples of how to create compelling key messages
3M Science. Applied to Life.™
3M is a global science company that never stops inventing. Using 46 technology platforms, our integrated team of scientists and researchers works with customers to create breakthroughs. Our inventions have improved daily life for hundreds of millions of people all over the world.
3M key messages and proof points (validation)
3M is a diversified technology company. [key message]
- 45 technology platforms. [proof point]
- Shared technologies. [proof point]
3M applies innovation systematically to anticipate and respond to customer needs. [key message]
- Technologies are used to develop solutions for multiple markets. [proof point]
Practical and ingenious solutions are a strong part of 3M’s legacy. [key message]
- McKnight Principles (former 3M chairman William L. McKnight encouraged 3M management to “delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative.” [proof point]
3M is a global company with local presence throughout the world. [key message]
- Technical and manufacturing resources closer to global customers. [proof point]
3M consistently fulfils its commitment to investors, customers, employees and communities. [key message]
- Operational efficiency [proof point]
- Environmental achievements and goals [proof point]
- 3M Foundation [proof point]
- Volunteer programs [proof point]
3M fosters a culture of leadership at all levels [key message]
- Leadership Development Program [proof point]
3M can be trusted to do the right thing [key message]
- Business Conduct Policies [proof point]
Check your key messages to ensure they are good quality:
- Do they align with your organizational mission, business plans, goals and objectives, and brand strategy?
- Are they unique to your firm or can they be applied to competitors as well?
- When read out loud, do they sound convincing and credible?
- Can you simplify and tighten the wording?
- Do they motivate stakeholders to act – giving a ‘call to action’?
If possible, test the messages with internal and/or external groups to ensure they appeal. I have found focus groups to be a valuable source of ideas and feedback.
Put a reminder into your calendar to check your key messages from time to time. Although they support your mission, values and brand at the outset, you should ensure they still meet your and audience needs over time.
Strategies to create compelling key messages for specific campaigns
If you wish to develop a strong message for a campaign, this article explains how to do it.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.