What Key Messages are … and what they aren’t

Key messages can be useful tools to ensure we say the right thing to the right people at the right time.
I like to think of them as sign posts along a winding path through a rugged landscape, or buoys that mark the shipping lane in a harbour. If I need to start a conversation, I can lead with a key message. If the conversation goes off topic, I can weave in a key message to get it back on track.

In the 1980s and 90s, key messages were considered vital to professional communications – well-crafted and pre-thought messages that made your point distinctly clear. When placed in a news story or transcript, they were considered a measurement of success. The problem with that thinking, of course, is saying your key messages and even placing them successfully, is not an end unto itself. Real communications success should be seen as seeking appropriate attitudinal or behavioural outcomes – not placing messages.

So I try not to use them as a crutch. If I did, I could end up in situation like this:

Poor fellow, repeating himself like a broken record. Learn from his bad example: don’t let key messages become script. They are potential tools to use in conversations. And in this case they shouldn’t have been used at all because they sound like slogans – people don’t speak in slogans.

Two-way communications is as primary an ingredient to a strong relationship (personal or professional) as flour is to a cake. Conversation is two-way communication that is ongoing, even indefinite. It comes in many forms: formal interviews, casual one-on-one meetings, public forums, letters and email, blogs and social media.

The best key messages are not the best sounding nor are they ones that embed in people’s memories like earwigs; slogans and taglines already do that. The best key messages are more illustrations of an overall narrative. They should never be “delivered” or “hammered” but rather “woven” into conversations at important moments, bolstered by a strong foundation of knowledge about the subject you are tasked to communicate.

Don’t memorize key messages by rote, or you’ll sound robotic, or like a commercial. Know and understand the ideas in the key messages and be ready to apply them using the language most often used by your intended audience (in most cases, it will be conversational, casual language). Memorize your facts and figures and supporting details to establish an overall narrative to your story. From that narrative you will find messages that fit.

As always, master the best habits of conversation: listen to what others are saying, answer their questions, ask questions yourself to understand their views – and in a more sophisticated level of communications seek to understand the drivers of their viewpoints or what they are trying to say, rather than what they are saying.

Communication is about outcomes – key messages are about inputs. It’s not that messaging doesn’t have a place in modern communications – it does. But memorizing slogans and taglines do more to turn people off than to turn them on.