How to develop killer key messages

The best way to develop killer key messages

WHAT ARE KEY MESSAGES?

Key messages act as a foundation for all communications. Whenever you communicate, you want all your audiences to understand the same basic messages. While each person might remember different details of your communication, they should be able to sum up what’s being said in one or two sentences. These are your key messages.

The best key messages are:

  • clear, concise, compelling, with a strong call to action;
  • concentrated on your main points – this is the not the place for detail; and
  • short and focused. You should only have around three key messages. Any more and you’ll confuse people (and they’ll be more difficult to remember!)

In order for your key messages to be effective, they should:

  • make it clear why the audience should care about whatever you’re talking about (answer the “what’s in it for me?” question)
  • address any concerns audiences may have about the subject;
  • highlight benefits of the topic; and
  • convey any mission, values or vision.

It’s important to remember that your audiences have short attention spans. We all do. Your messages need to cut through all the noise (the average office worker receives over 120 emails a day!) and make an impact.

Once your key messages have been developed, you’ll need to be prepared to repeat them, and repeat them often. Just because you have seen or said something ten times, it doesn’t mean your audience has. This may be the first time they’ve seen your communication. With enough repetition, your messages should start to resonate.

WHY DO YOU NEED KEY MESSAGES?

The main reason for developing key messages is a simple one. Your messages will help you and your team stay on track and make sure you’re communicating the right thing to the right people. Everything that’s communicated – internally, externally, formally or informally – should reflect your narrative* and your key messages.

Key messages also structure your thinking to help you:

1. Focus on the why: It’s easy to concentrate your communications on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ (the service you provide, and how you do it, for example) but companies needs to focus more on the why. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why should people care? This why needs to convey your company’s core beliefs. Only then will you inspire action.

2. Ensure consistency: Whatever you’re saying, you need to ensure you’re saying the same thing across all your communications platforms – internally and externally. Any misalignment in your messages will be quickly picked up. Your key messages will create a theme to your communication.

3. Talk in a different way: Gone are the days when communications and marketing was purely a broadcast medium. Audiences expect to be engaged with companies they’re interested in. They want to be talked to in their language, through their channels.

4. Being concise and straightforward: Audiences tend to have short attention spans and a lack of time to digest information. They want to understand the initial facts quickly. They need specifics and then the ability to find out more details if they want to.

Ultimately, all these elements will help you establish credibility with your audience. Scepticism in audiences has become the standard. They have infinite content sources to choose from (see previous note about cutting through the noise) If you waste someone’s time, condescend, or obfuscate, you’ll lose them. Credibility is earned, not automatic.

HOW DO YOU DEVELOP YOUR KEY MESSAGES?

So now we’ve gone through the why and the what, we come to the how.

Think of your key messages a little bit like a newspaper article. A newspaper article is made of up four elements.

  • The headline – this sums up the article and grabs attention
  • The lede – this contains the most important information (the who, what, why, when, where, and how)
  • The body – more information (facts, figures, interviews, studies, background information)
  • The tail – least important information

The theory behind this structure is that no matter where a reader stops reading, they will know the key information about the story. So let’s translate this into your key message development.

One of the easiest ways to structure your thinking about key messages is through a message house.

As you can see, it takes many of the elements of a newspaper article but condenses it down. It may look very simple, but believe me, messages houses work. I know many senior spokespeople who develop a message house for every interaction they go into – media interviews, interactions with stakeholders, or even just meetings with their bosses. 

The roof of your message house is your headline. This is your core theme – the one thing you need your audience to go away understanding or feeling from your communication.

The walls of your house are made up with your key messages. These act in the same way as a lede paragraph would in a newspaper article. They are the who, what, why, where, when, and how or your headline. Some things to think about including in your messages could be:

  • Why is the topic important?
  • How does it affect your audience?
  • Why should they care?
  • What is the current situation?
  • What is changing (if anything)? What is the consequence of this change? When is it happening?
  • What are you doing and why are you doing it?
  • What do you need your audience to do? Why should they get involved?

The foundation is made up of key facts, figures, examples, and data that support your key messages. This could be reports, interviews, anecdotes, stories. They need to help prove what you’re saying. 

Your messages should fit in with your communications objectives and be tailored to your individual audiences. Some audiences may have concerns about a certain aspect of your plan; your messages should specifically address this. Likewise, if they’re looking for a certain benefit from the company, you should highlight that.

It’s said that the best structure for a speech is a simple one: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve just told them. This is how we should use our key messages. Any communication should start with your key messages, refer to them throughout, and then use them to summarise at the end.

HEART vs HEAD

While we’d like to think people use logic to make a choice, it’s emotion that guides decisions and actions. Your key messages need to focus on both the head and the heart.

Emotion guides decisions and actions. Key messages need to focus on both the head and the heart. Click To Tweet

Messages that appeal to the head:

  • Statistics and research that heighten credibility and believability
  • Authentic information with third-party validation (e.g., “According to the UN, 783 million people do not have access to clean water”)
  • Clear, relevant facts that provide a common ground of understanding

Messages that appeal to the heart:

  • Telling engaging and relevant stories – people forget facts but they remember stories
  • People focused messaging – connect your communication with your audience by using a hero they can relate to
  • Communication that is authentic – speak to your audience on a personal level. Talk to them like a human.

AND FINALLY…

To have the most impact, it’s not just what you say, but the way you say it. Think about the tone and words you’re using.

Are you messages filled with jargon, TLAs, and technical information? Are you telling your audience what you want them to think and do? No matter how strong your argument, you’re unlikely to win if you can’t move people to action.

To really create killer key messages you need to:

  • Be normal, not formal
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Be story and people driven

Get all these elements in place and you’ll be ready to start appealing to emotions and motivating action. For the right reasons.


Do you need help developing compelling key messages? Maybe you’re not sure where to start? We’ve developed key messages for companies ranging from Fortune 500 to small tech start ups. Why not ask us to help you with yours? Why not book a free one-hour consultation call and let’s see how we can work together?

Beaumont is a communications agency based in Lausanne, Switzerland. We work with clients all around the world to change the way they talk about themselves – helping them create engaging stories that motivate action.

* Blog post on narrative in the works!