One thing separates a winning campaign or a successful media interview from one that isn’t: the right message.
Now, even a great message won’t result in success every time. Circumstance and messenger play a role. (Quick: Try to think of a message good enough to turn Eric Massa’s congressional exit into a positive, and, “It was just a tickle fight,” has been taken. Time's up.)
But there’s no question that a weak message will render even the best communicators ineffective, pushing their goals out of reach.
Given the premium that the 24/7 news cycle puts on developing precisely the right message, over the last decade or so, something of a cottage industry has been created to try to explain just what goes into crafting effective messages. It’s made communications professors feel useful, sure, but it’s also made the whole process seem mysterious.
It’s not unusual to hear the word “messaging” thrown around at meetings in a way that makes it sound as abstract and as esoteric as Derrida. It’s not. The truth is that crafting an effective message, while something of an art, needn’t be complicated, and it can certainly be practiced. Adhering to a few simple rules will help get you where you want to go.
- Know what’s at the core. Creating an effective message starts with knowing precisely what lies at the heart of the argument you want to make, how it contributes to your ultimate goal and how it fits into your larger strategy. What makes you different than your competitor? Why is your point, when all the spin and poetry are stripped away, the right one? Lose sight of the essence and you lose sight of the message.
- Stay skeptical. When you’re crafting a message, listen to your gut. Is what you’re saying supported by facts, or at the very least, enough facts to make a strong case? If it at any point you find yourself torturing logic to make the message work or engaging in wishful thinking in the hopes of finding the words you believe your listeners want to hear, you’re headed in the wrong direction.
- Know your audience. It’s important to avoid the trap of trying to make your message everything to everyone. It can get so watered down that it becomes difficult to discern, but there’s nothing wrong with a little adaptation. The center should not move, true, but you can tweak the language and the presentation around the center based on the audience.
- Keep it short and memorable. It’s not unusual to be able to repeat the messages of winning campaigns years after they’re over. It typically takes about 15 seconds. We’re talking three short sentences maximum — ideally less. The losers? You can’t remember them, because, almost without fail, they go on for paragraphs … or pages. (Please see the dustbin of losing presidential campaigns.)
- Be disciplined. You’ve got a short, memorable message that represents a winning argument and conveys an essential truth. Seems like it should be easy to just keep repeating it. It isn’t. One, it’s only human to grow bored with saying the same thing over and over again — you start to feel like a robot. Two, there’s always a temptation to embellish, to say something more. Fight those feelings. Applying discipline to a good message results in wins. It’s that simple.
- Listen. Winning messages conceived in a vacuum by solitary souls, without the benefit of others’ wisdom, are few and far between. There’s a danger here, of course. Too many cooks will spoil almost any broth, but thoughtfully evaluating the input of others and truly taking into account different perspectives and experiences will usually strengthen a message.
This isn’t all that goes into crafting an effective message. There’s more, and the help of those experienced with creating them doesn’t hurt. But you can’t go wrong with these six keys. They are tested. They can be repeated. And they’ll help deliver wins.