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Teaching Students to Develop Key Messages is a Great Public Relations Class Activity
As a kid, I paid more attention to the lyrics than the rhythm or the beat. I also probably spent more time thinking about how authors expressed the ideas in a story than the story itself.
Maybe that’s why messaging is one aspect of brand building and campaign planning that has always fascinated me. While people often find the process of building key messages tedious, I see it as the fun kind of tedious.
This is part 1 of a two-part series on how I teach students to develop key messages and build a message map in my Strategic Campaign class.
See part 2 on Teaching Students to Develop Message Maps
What Makes for Good Key Messages?
Key messages are the ideas that encircle your communication efforts. They help professional communicators focus and articulate important information in a way that is clear, accurate, and consistent. I like them because they are versatile. For example, they can be used to develop talking points and can also be used develop social media content.
According to the article Key Message Development: Building a Foundation for Effective Communications on the PR Say blog, key messages should be (the below list is directly quoted from the article):
- Concise: Optimally three key messages on one page; each statement only one to three sentences in length or under 30 seconds when spoken.
- Strategic: Define, differentiate and address 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; avoid jargon and acronyms.
- Memorable: Easy to recall and repeat; avoid run-on sentences.
- Real: Active rather than passive voice; no advertising slogans.
- Tailored: Effectively communicates with different target audiences, adapting language and depth of information.”
Teaching Message Design to Students
Key messages are part and parcel of any campaign plan. I introduce them in the PR Principles class and they come up in just about every class I teach. For example, students in my Social Media class [See the syllabus | All posts about this class] use key messages that were developed for them. But, they have to learn to create content that executes on those messages. As discussed below, Students in my Strategic Campaigns [Syllabus | All posts about this class] develop and test key messages for our client.
Key messages are also discussed in my Communication Research class [Syllabus | All posts about this class] when students work as part of the media placement analysis assignment.
In this exercise, we are going to focus on the campaigns class. By now, students at the very least should already have been introduced to what key messages are and what makes effective key messages (e.g., the list above). Students should also be shown examples of key messages and message support from real brands. Message support is the evidence or proof points that support your key messages. Here’s a simple example:
- Key message: XYZ shoes are super comfy.
- Message support: the insoles of XYZ shoes are made out of the world’s softest organic fabric, called ABC fabric.
What is Key Message Support and why do you need it?
The message support is needed, thus, to prove the claim in the message. Otherwise, the claim is unsubstantiated and won’t hold up to scrutiny. You may also choose to talk about ‘reasons to believe’ (RTB) when discussing messaging. I was introduced to the concept of RTB by Maggie Bergin of RP3 Agency when my National Millennial Community Chapter invited her to speak to our communication department last year. Learn more about reasons to believe (RTB). I really like the idea of helping students develop ‘reasons (for the target public0 to believe’ in their messaging.
Different key messages can be developed for different publics. For example, messages aimed at doctors are likely going to differ from key messages aimed at patients as both have different information needs.
You can find examples of key messages and message support via a quick Google search. Another great idea is to find past Bateman campaign winners and share their key messages with your students.
Students in my campaigns class also have to read a great book on effective communication called Made to Stick. (Read my review of Made to Stick to see the core concepts students are learning). I have my students integrate what they are learning from made to stick in their message design.
Key Messages Brainstorming Activity
Creating key messages is a challenge for anyone. Because it is new to students, it can be particularly challenging.
One way to help someone understand how to identify the right message, is to do the below exercise:
Tell your students that a presentation was given about the topic they need to develop key messages for. For example, the campaign for your class. Or, you can use a case study as an example. In the below example, X is the topic.
Step 1: Tell students…
- If you were leaving this room, and someone asked you “What is X about?” what would you tell them? Write it down.
- Example: “I heard I missed a lecture about message maps in Dr. K’s class. What’s a message map?”
Note: This is a summary of the big idea. It might be the core message (discussed below).
Step 2: Tell students…
- 2. After you tell that person what X was about, they respond: “Cool, what do I need to know about X?”
- First, identify your goals in responding to this communication request.
Note: These goals are the communication goals – or the benefit to the audience. They are what you want to achieve with your messaging.
Step 3: Tell students…
- 3. Next, write down the 3 most important things that you’d need to tell this person about X.
- Example: The person responds to you: “Oh no! I bet it’s going to be on the test. What 3 things do I need to know about message maps?”
Step 4: Tell Students…
- Let’s pretend 1 of the 3 things you told this person was that, “Message maps help you align your communication so you make sure you get your big idea first and then show how your big idea works with the details.”
- They responded, ‘give me an example of what you mean?”
Note: They’re asking for the supporting evidence for that message.
Repeat step 4 for the other messages.
If done correctly, you’ve used a story to show your students the everyday life application of key messages and message support.
The students just developed:
- Part 1: A core message, or at least a summary of what the topic is that can be boiled down to a core message.
- Part 2: A communication goal which helps them focus in on what they are trying to accomplish with their messaging.
- Part 3: Three key messages – or, the most important things they need to be able to share about the topic.
- Part 4: Message support, or proof points that act as evidence to support the key messages.
Students should now have some practice applying their knowledge to the extraction of what’s important about a topic.
Because this is a campaign class, by the time students are ready to work on developing key messages, they have already done a bit of background research on our class client. Using that knowledge, I ask the students to begin to brainstorm key messages for the campaign. So, have your students start brainstorming key messages [Note: I discuss several brainstorming techniques in my book, Teach Social Media].
Key Messages Worksheet
Below, I’ve provided an activity students can use to help brainstorm and develop their messaging. This message design brainstorm activity was built several years ago primarily from the book Made to Stick. The checklist on page 2 is my version of a series of key facets of message design extracted from Made to Stick. However, other information from my research on key messages is also included, including the above-mentioned article from PR Say and from Maggie Bergin’s guest lecture. I apologize for not having a full list of sources that were used to develop this activity as they have been lost to time.
Next Steps: Teaching Message Maps
- See part 2 in this series, which focuses on Teaching Students to Develop Message Maps
- Become an expert at messaging by reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. See my review of Made to Stick.