Single point, simple message
You can’t cram size 10 hips into a size 4 skirt. And you can’t cram too many messages into a single piece. Try either, and the results can get ugly.
Indeed, the more messages you cover in a campaign or communication, the less people will remember. So count the number of messages you’ve crafted. If the total is more than one, you have too many.
Make like The New York Times: Come up with good story ideas that focus on a single point.
1. Start with a single idea.
To find your focus, start with a single idea.
Think of it this way: Like a tree, your piece might branch out in several directions. But you need to build the story on a single idea or trunk. If you find a sapling — a detail or message that doesn’t contribute to that single theme — pull it out.
A topic, obviously, isn’t an idea. “Kansas City” is a topic, not a theme. “PRSA Digital Media Conference” doesn’t make a good brochure headline, because it lacks an angle. Your product name is not an idea.
Build your story on a firmer foundation. What about Kansas City, your conference or your product?
2. Find the core.
What’s the single most important idea that drives your entire company, campaign or communication?
For Southwest Airlines, for example, the core is “We are THE low-fare airline,” write Chip and Dan Heath in their brilliant book, Made to Stick. That single idea drives every decision the company makes, from what to serve for lunch (nothing) to how to load the planes.
Coming up with that one single thing isn’t easy.
“Smart people recognize the value of all the material,” write the Heath brothers.
“They see nuance, multiple perspectives — and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they’re often tempted to linger there. This tendency to gravitate toward complexity is perpetually at war with the need to prioritize.”
3. Write a message statement.
When it comes to core values, strategies and key messages, less is more.
Southwest Airlines’ message works because it emphasizes just three things: friendly service, speed and frequent direct flights. Most organizations focus on … everything.
One test of a focused message: Does it lend itself to a tagline? If you struggle to write an eight-word message statement, lead or headline, your message is probably too broad.
4. Write ‘single-joke stories.’
The Wall Street Journal’s Barry Newman — who once discussed with a Journal editor whether he could get one-eighth of an inch out of a story — says the key to writing tight is selection.
“When the A-head (the Journal’s famous front-page feature story) went from 1,800 words to 1,200 words, we had to choose different stories,” he says.
In 1,200 words, he says, you can cover “single-joke stories.”
5. Perform message triage.
Political strategist James Carville preaches the gospel of “exclusivity.” That is, to come up with a single message — not two, not three — for your campaign.
Carville famously chose “It’s the economy, stupid,” for Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign. Less famously, he had to talk Clinton out of diluting that message by also talking about eliminating the national debt.
Carville says the communicators’ toughest job is to convince the client to stick to one message or theme.
“People say I fill empty vessels,” he says. “But I empty full vessels.”
6. Keep cutting.
“If you can write a ‘Ten reasons you should …’ headline, you’re only nine subtractions away from an idea,” write the folks at Killian Company Advertising.
7. Keep subtracting.
Adopt GE Reinsurance communicators’ motto:
“Single point, simple message.”
Know what it’s about.
Still having trouble identifying the key idea? Maybe you need to know more, not less, about your topic.
In the movie “Wonder Boys,” Michael Douglas’s character watches the only copy of his novel manuscript blow into the river. A character named Vern asks him what the book was about. Douglas can’t really explain.
“If you didn’t know what it was about,” Vern asks, “why was you writing it?”
Sources: Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Random House, 2007
“Communicators kiss Carville,” Ragan Report, Sept. 25, 2000