Building Blocks for a Strong Message

Building Blocks for a Strong Message

As a consultant who helps nonprofits with their communications, I often hear a common frustration that “we’re delivering our message to our audience until we’re blue in the face, but they still aren’t taking the action we want. We just don’t understand why it’s not working.”

To inspire audiences to act, you need to start with a strategy based on a solid understanding of what motivates audience members and what holds them back. Then, you need to develop tailored messages that are clear, concise, and compelling. If your communications are missing any of these components, it is likely that your message won’t resonate with your audience. Through this series of two blog posts, I’ll walk you through the steps to develop a basic communications strategy and show you a straightforward tool for developing messages that work.

Before you can develop successful messages, you need to take three key steps to set your strategy:

Step One: Define what you’re trying to accomplish

Are you trying to institute or change a specific policy? Get a group of people to start or stop a behavior? Raise a specific amount of money from a particular group within a set time period? Defining a clear objective that is specific, measurable, and time-bound is a critical foundation for all the other decisions that you will make about audience and messaging.

Step Two: Identify who you need to reach

Now, think about who you need to act to make your objective a reality. Start at the top – who is the decision maker who says yes or no to your objective? This may be a single person (like the governor who signs a bill) or a small group of people (like parents in a specific community who will talk to their sons about valuing girls and women). Consider whether you can communicate with your decision maker directly, or whether you need to engage other audience targets who can help you influence your decision maker.

Ultimately, you may have several audiences you need to reach to achieve your objective. It’s important to define each of these audiences as narrowly as possible. Your audience should never be the general public. It is simply too big and diverse, and you can’t reach everyone with a single message. Instead, you should select more specific targets – for instance, moderate members of your state legislature who sit on a specific committee with jurisdiction over your issue, or parents of color in Minneapolis with sons between the ages of five and 10.

Step Three: For each specific audience, map what you know about them

Look at each audience one at a time and consider what motivates audience members, where they are when it comes to your issue, and what may hold them back from taking action. You can review public opinion studies or even informally talk to members of your target audience for insights as you consider the following three items.

Values: Messages that take into account the values and core concerns of the target audience are most effective. By tapping into your audience members’ existing values, you can create common ground and more easily motivate them to act. These can be high-level values like human rights, but they can also be more specific and personal core concerns such as parents wanting to keep their family safe or a business owner wanting to make a profit. When considering your audience’s values, be honest with yourself – the values of your audience may be different than your own values. Brainstorm a list of audience values, and then select the one that seems to be most important to your audience.

Stage of Readiness: Consider where your audience members are when it comes to your issue. Are they fairly new to the issue, which means that you need to share knowledge so that they understand and care about a problem? Or do they know and care already, but something else is still holding them back from taking action? In that case, you need to build will by identifying and overcoming the barrier that is holding them back. In this stage you no longer need to educate them about the issue but rather focus all of your communication on overcoming their barrier.

Barriers: Identify the barriers that are likely to hold your audience back from taking the action you want. Your assessment of your audience members’ readiness will give you a hint as to their barriers. If your audience is in “sharing knowledge,” their barrier may be that they don’t know about a problem, they don’t care about it, they don’t believe the messenger, or they have some other knowledge-based misconception about the issue. If they are in “building will,” a more personal barrier is likely holding them back, such as that they don’t have time, it costs too much, or they are concerned about political fallout. Brainstorm a list of potential barriers and select the most important one your messaging needs to overcome.

Once you’ve thought through the steps outlined above, you have the information you need to develop strong messages. For more information on creating a communications strategy, check out Spitfire Strategies’ Smart ChartTM. [link:]

Danielle Lewis
Danielle Lewis
Springboard Partners

Danielle Lewis leads Springboard Partners, an organization that uses the power of communication to do more good. Springboard helps nonprofits and foundations make more impact on issues that matter. Learn More

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