Developing Messages that Inspire Action
Effective messaging is about narrowing the focus and making a few strong points that people will remember – rather than throwing out a variety of points and letting the audience decide which of these it wants to retain.
In my last post, I walked through the steps you need to take to prepare to develop messages. Once you know who you want to reach and have determined what they care about and what holds them back, you can create message points that will resonate with your audience. Good messaging has no more than four main points. These points need to be both concise and compelling. It is that easy, and that hard.
To help you think through your message points, try using a message box. The message box is in this shape for a reason. The circular nature of it reminds you that you can use the messages in any order in a speech, during an interview, in a press release – any time you are communicating about your issue.
For each different target audience that you are trying to reach, you should have a different message box. This is because every audience has different values and your messages will be most effective if they are tailored to each of your target audiences. Tailoring your messages doesn’t mean starting from scratch, but rather adjusting each of the points as needed for the new audience.
The Value Message – Top (North) Section
This is where you connect with your audience and tap into a specific value that your audience holds. This message point reminds audience members of your common ground, or says something that will get them to agree or at least nod their heads.
Example: A good example of a value message can be taken from the death penalty reform debate. Activists decided to quit talking about morality, which was not getting them where they wanted to go, and instead focus on innocence. Their value message: Innocent people should not be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die. Their audience – Catholic Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee – agreed with this and the message tapped into their value of fairness. The advocates were able to establish common ground and start building their case for reform.
The Barrier Message – Right (East) Section
The barrier message focuses on overcoming a barrier your audience holds that is preventing them from taking action. The key to a successful barrier message is that you do not repeat your audience’s barrier. Research has shown that repeating it only strengthens it in your audience’s mind. Rather, provide new or unexpected information to overcome the barrier.
Example: For the death penalty reform folks, getting the committee members to agree that innocent people should not be put to death was relatively easy. Then they had the challenge of clearing up the misconception that such a thing didn’t happen in the United States because we have the best justice system in the world. Their barrier message focused on sharing this fact: More than 100 people have been exonerated from death row since 1976.
The Ask – Bottom (South) Section
The ask focuses on getting the target audience to do something. The more doable and concrete it is the better. Asking someone to save the children isn’t helpful – it’s overwhelming. Getting the school board to adopt an anti-violence curriculum in schools, however, is something people can get behind.
Example: The death penalty reformers asked the committee members: Pass legislation to require DNA testing for all inmates convicted of a capital crime.
The Vision Message – Left (West) Section
This message point explains the benefit or payoff for taking action and links back to the value you tapped in the value message. It says to your audience: If you do what I ask you to do, then you get what you want.
Example: By rallying around the vision message, Then we’ll have a fair justice system, death penalty reform advocates connected with the fairness value they originally touched on in the value message and explained the benefit of passing the bill.
When developing your four core message points, be sure to use language that your audience will understand. Avoid jargon that is likely to make your audience glaze over in favor of clear, plain language. Once you are done, find a way to test your messages among your audience. This could be as simple as asking three or four members of your audience what they think, or it may mean fielding a national poll. Either way, testing will ensure that your messages are best positioned to deliver the action you want.
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