On Messaging

Here’s a bit more about what I believe about mak­ing good messages.

Know your goal.

Whether it’s an inter­nal arti­cle, a press release, a piece for mem­bers, a guide­book… every mes­sage needs a goal. Stop a moment and know what the real goal is. Is it to gen­er­ate mem­ber­ship? To spur the pub­lic to action? To dri­ve traf­fic? To ful­fill a legal oblig­a­tion? Or just to make the CEO’s wife look good?

Knowing the real goal is crit­i­cal. Here’s an exam­ple: I’ve sent many a press release and writ­ten many an arti­cle that was designed just to make some­one look good. There’s noth­ing wrong with that; there’s noth­ing wrong with send­ing a mes­sage so that you can tell the board, “Look at the mes­sage we sent.”

But those mes­sages can be a lot dif­fer­ent than the ones that are real­ly meant to work out­side the orga­ni­za­tion. “Real” press releas­es need to be short and fluff-free — to pique the reporters’ atten­tion. A release designed to impress some­one inter­nal­ly, though, can be as chock full of flow­ery lan­guage as you want.

Is the goal of an arti­cle to tell peo­ple about a pro­gram, or to get them to sign up for it? Is it to gen­er­ate buzz, or to have a spe­cif­ic project noticed? Each of these takes a dif­fer­ent tack, a dif­fer­ent style.

Use humor smartly.

Being light­heart­ed and non-cor­po­rate is an sure way to get your mes­sages read both now and over the long run. No one likes to read cor­po­rate-speak (much less legalese!), so why would you write like that? (The answer, I think, is that peo­ple nat­u­ral­ly slip into “I’m writ­ing for the com­pa­ny” mode and for­get that they’re writ­ing for their fel­low humans.)

Think of a cliché cop com­ment: “I exit­ed my vehi­cle and pro­ceed­ed to pur­sue the sus­pect until I was able to appre­hend and detain him.” Ugh. How about, “I got out of my car, chased the guy, and caught him”?

But for some rea­son peo­ple believe in being over­ly for­mal — and that just dis­tracts from the mes­sage. No, I’m not say­ing you should be jok­ing. But being light and being humor­ous (when it’s appro­pri­ate) is a bet­ter way to con­nect with readers.

Keep messages clear, simple, and direct.

Elevator pitch­es, peo­ple — ele­va­tor pitch­es! There’s an old say­ing about news arti­cles, “No one reads the sec­ond para­graph.” (No, that does­n’t mean your mes­sages should be one long sen­tence.) People skim and they’re not going to read any­thing lengthy, except for the occa­sion­al detailed piece. For 99 per­cent of mes­sages, keep it short, keep the impor­tant infor­ma­tion up top, and point them to where they can find more.

Kind of like this page. On my home page I used a sen­tence or two to describe my thoughts on mes­sag­ing. Then you can click through here if you want to know more.

Note that I haven’t split the sto­ry, I’ve cre­at­ed two stand­alone ver­sions — the skim­ma­ble one and the detailed one.

Be up front.

The best way to dif­fuse (or steam­roll) ques­tions or neg­a­tive per­cep­tions is not to ignore them but to tack­le them head on. There’s noth­ing wrong with say­ing, “We were wrong.” If peo­ple expect you to have bias­es, don’t pre­tend they don’t exist; embrace them: “Our job is to look out for wid­get mak­ers, and yes, this law will help our mem­bers. But it will also help every­one liv­ing in this city.…”

Honesty is lack­ing these days, and tak­ing own­er­ship and respon­si­bil­i­ty even more so. Don’t add to the prob­lem and you’ll find peo­ple respect you much more than if you try to backpedal or cov­er up.

Balance the familiar with the surprising.

If you always do what peo­ple expect, they’ll learn to ignore you, or at best skim what you have to say — “Oh, anoth­er one of those e‑mails.” But if they learn that your mes­sages are enjoy­able, sur­pris­ing, and inter­est­ing, you’ll train them to read.

There’s a com­pa­ny that makes an app I use, and it occa­sion­al­ly updates, usu­al­ly to fix bugs or make minor changes. But the com­pa­ny’s update notices are so enjoy­able to read, I actu­al­ly take the time to see what’s new. I’ve been trained to expect enjoy­ment. On the oth­er hand, I notice that oth­er com­pa­ny’s prod­uct updates are almost always, “Minor bug fix­es and improve­ments.” They could make a major change and I would­n’t know it till I used it because I’ve learned not to both­er read­ing their release notes.

Don’t worship the experts.

There’s a place for exper­tise and a place for your gut. “Rules” are great, but don’t ignore when you know they don’t apply. “E‑mail sent on Tuesdays is opened more often than on any oth­er day.” Oh, really?

Messaging and media is com­plex and spe­cif­ic. When experts tell you that X works, you need to think: Does it real­ly apply to our sit­u­a­tion? I worked for Realtors and I work for phar­ma­cists, and both are peo­ple who don’t keep typ­i­cal 9–5 hours. So no, what applies to teach­ers or office work­ers or doc­tors prob­a­bly does­n’t apply to them.

There are lots of “rules”: Such and such a font is eas­i­er to read. Podcasts should be 16 min­utes long. Blog posts must include pho­tos. Print is dead. All of these are wrong — or they may be.