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.