key A key message is the number one thing you want your audience to remember or do as a result of your presentation. Some experts call it “the big idea”, the core of your presentation or the proposition.

Start planning your presentation by deciding on your key message. It will make the rest of your planning easy and straightforward. Steve Bent, one of my readers, said in a comment on a previous post:

“…[T]hat’s when I had the Eureka moment of the key message for that particular presentation. Then all previous thoughts, notes and parts of the presentation were easy to classify in terms of how relevant they were, and which step they fell into (if any).”

If you’re preparing a presentation on a topic you know well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to decide on your key message quickly. I’ve trained hundreds of people and there’s not one that’s been unable to come up with a key message within 5-10 minutes!

But in Steve’s words you may have “message commitment issues”. You may be thinking that once you’ve got a key message, you can’t change it as you carry on with your planning. Rubbish! Think of it as an engagement, not a marriage. You can always change your message if you find that it’s not quite working for you.

Or maybe you’re expecting the perfect, clever and catchy key message to come to you fully-formed. If that does happen to you – you’re lucky. But more often a memorable key message is a result of crafting.

There are three steps to crafting your key message:

1. Answer this question

What do you want your audience to remember or do as a result of your presentation? Say your answer out loud. Don’t try and be clever or quirky or catchy – you’ll freeze up. Just say what first comes into your mind – now write that down. It may not be “the perfect” key message. It may need a bit of work. But it’s a start.

2. Craft it

Now that you’ve got your basic key message, craft it so that it becomes easy to say, easy to grasp and easy to remember. Here’s the checklist to go through to craft your key message:

1. Is it as short as possible, but no shorter?

The shorter your key message the easier it will be for you to say, and for your audience to grasp and remember. But there is such a thing as too short. Brevity should not come at the expense of meaning. The length of a Twitter message – 140 characters – is a good guide.

2. Does it convey a message?

The topic of your presentation is not your key message. Check that you’re not confusing the two by ensuring there’s a verb in your key message.

For example, your topic might be “Recording health and safety incidents”. Rewrite that into a key message by turning “recording” into a verb: “We must record every health and safety incident.”

A more subtle example of a topic masquerading as a key message is this “How you can make our workplace safer”. It’s got a verb, but it’s not telling your audience anything. Ask yourself – what’s the main thing I want to tell the audience about making the workplace safer? The answer is your key message, for example: “You can make the workplace safer by looking out for hazards.”

3. Is it in spoken language?

There’s difference between the language we use when we’re speaking compared to when we’re writing. Your key message should be in spoken language. Here’s an example of written language: “Educators should maximize the potential of technology in education”. In spoken language it would be:“Teachers can make better use of technology”.

4. Is it specific and concrete?

Your audience should be able to “see” your key message. If it’s full of jargon or abstract, conceptual words they won’t. For example this message “Implementing urban design principles will ensure that this roading project is sustainable” could be transformed to “Adding cycleways and walkways will reduce pollution.”

5. Is the relevance to your audience clear?

One effective way of ensuring this is to include the word “you” in the key message. For example “The forestry sector entered the Emissions Trading Scheme in the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.” will probably be gobbledegook for an audience of foresters. It could be transformed to: “You can now earn carbon credits from your forests.”

6. Does it say something your audience doesn’t know

Your audience is there for something new. Don’t give them clichés and platitudes. A course participant came up with this key message “People are our greatest asset”. Yawn! I asked her specifically what she meant. She came up with this key message “As we’ve grown, we’ve needed different types of people.” Much more interesting.

This doesn’t mean that you have to come up with something clever. There’s a risk that if you come up with something clever, your audience won’t get it. Or they’ll spend the next few seconds working out what you meant and so miss what you said next. In a spoken presentation, clarity trumps clever.

3. Test your key message

There are a number of tests to check that you’ve got a memorable key message.

First, can you remember it! You need to be able to say it without looking at your notes. Test yourself.

Then say it to a friend – see if they can say it back to you. You may find that they say it back to you in a way which is easier to grasp. In which case change it.

An hour later, ask your friend if they can still remember.

Then find another friend and see if they can still remember it a day later. If they can, well done – you’ve got yourself a memorable key message.

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