How to craft a memorable key message in 10 minutes

by Olivia Mitchell

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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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin Shovel November 11, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Hi Olivia,

I really enjoyed your blogpost – and I’m sure that anyone preparing a presentation will find it invaluable too.

Your post is packed with great practical advice, but I think Steve Bent’s point is a really useful one to home in on because it’s easy to scupper your presentation by overlooking it – and sticking rigidly to a key message that ends up being not as good as it could be.

Steve’s metaphor of the engagement – rather than the marriage – between your key message and your content is very apt, because it highlights the dynamic relationship between them. Articulating your key message helps you arrange, and edit, your content. But during this process, the resulting content often suggests improvements – even subtle ones – to the formulation of your key message, and so on. You can think of it as a competitive tennis match in which both players end up as winners!

Great stuff!

Cheers,
Martin

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Olivia Mitchell November 12, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Thanks Martin

I totally agree with your description between the key message and the rest of your presentation during your planning. Love your metaphor – very visual ;-) .

Olivia

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Steve Bent November 12, 2009 at 3:38 am

Great post Olivia,

I think that that info (combined with your great guide & that excellent article on what makes a good slide) is the best way for ANYONE to design a presentation. I think that really covers all bases! (let me know if anything else is missing from your pov)

I like Martin’s input to, as it means I don’t need to worry about my commitment issues as later refinement can and probably will (at least in my case) happen…and that’s okay to!

Great stuff, not due to do another presentation for a while, but I’m sure it won’t be long, and I’ll be right back here!

:-)

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Olivia Mitchell November 12, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Thanks Steve – glad you like it.

After the key message, the next most important element of your presentation is evidence. Maybe I should write a post on that next!

Olivia

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Jeff Hurt November 17, 2009 at 2:10 am

Olivia:
Excellent, wise and sage advice for anyone getting ready to deliver a presentation. If all presenters would follow this simple step, so many more presentations would be enjoyable to attend, as well as memorable.

I take it one step further. Once you have the memorable key message, what two-three points do you want them to remember about that key message. (That probably comes under your heading of crafting the evidence.) From there I build the learner objectives and flesh out the rest of the presentation.

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Olivia Mitchell November 20, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Thank you Jeff – yes, I agree – I call these supporting points “assertions”. I’ll write a post soon covering both assertions and evidence. Olivia

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Tripp Frohlichstein January 20, 2010 at 10:11 am

Your points are good, Olivia. However, a key message isn’t about the what but rather the why. The why is where the emotion is to reach your audience. Take your example above. “We must record every health and safety incident.” That isn’t a message, it is a directive. Why is this important? That is what really matters to your audience. So it might be to make the workplace safer. And that is the TRUE message. “We want to make our workplace safer so everyone goes home to their families at night. Therefore, we must record every health and safety incident. This will help us understand where deficiencies are and how to correct them. That will mean a safer workplace.” Or take another example. “You can now earn carbon credits from your forests.” So? What’s in it for me? The message must answer that or you lose the audience. SO the real message here is one of a better environment for all us and tie the carbon credits in to that. In essence, all that you say is correct. But it doesn’t go far enough for truly analyzing what makes a “more” effective message. Final example. I worked with a worldwide fast food company on their message. Execs came up with healthy, good service, tasty, clean and so on. But those are really “proof points” to the overall message we developed several years ago (and is still being used today) – and the message is that we want to provide a great customer experience. All of those other “messages” really support our main message (I call it home base because home is a comfortable place to be – your message should be comfortable to you as well). It makes it easy to discuss each element and them bring it back home. “We have healthy food which is an important part of our customers’ experience at our restaurants.”

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Olivia Mitchell January 20, 2010 at 11:11 am

You raise an excellent point Tripp! Should you include the benefit to the audience within the key message?

I definitely agree that the benefits to the audience should be in the presentation – preferably near the beginning of the presentation.

However, whether it’s a part of the key message is a matter of judgement in each case – and there’s no perfect answer.

There’s a risk that when you try and include the benefit within the message, then it gets too cluttered and no longer has one focal point.

Olivia

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Jody Urquhart March 11, 2011 at 4:03 am

i remember on one of my first paid speeches years ago- i bombed. Luckily the program was video taped. I hired a coach and we painfully went through all the footage. She pointed out how although some of the points were entertaining they had no relevance to the message or the audience.
She recommended the mind map method, where every point has to link back to the main message.
This was a great learning experience for me. A lot of what you are suggesting in this post we unravelled were the mistakes i was making in my presentations. Wish I read this 12 years ago would have saved me alot of time and resources.

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Olivia Mitchell March 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Thanks Jody – I can only write about this because I’ve made all the mistakes too!

Olivia

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salman April 17, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Good Day
Olivia. Thumbs up for your thoughts, which have given meaning, when we get to it. Your posts has great knowledge, which really is a boosting factors, when I read it. Keep on posting that sounds like a, wow voice, when read till end.

Best Regards,
Salman

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Dora D. Mensah February 1, 2014 at 4:33 am

hi Olivia what could possibly be the key message for a presentation in science, innovation and technology in education. i have a presentation on that topic next week

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