Keeping Out the Wonks: 10 Tips for Message Development

The following blog post is based off a presentation by Mark Serrano at a Public Affairs Council event on July 20, 2013: Communications Meets Public Affairs

One of the great challenges that organizations face with message development is keeping out the wonks – the policy or content experts who are slaves to details, acronyms, and tons of data.

Certainly, wonks play a valuable role in supporting message development, but most organizations often get tripped-up in crafting winning messages because of the various competing interests among content experts (including legal, regulatory, marketing, etc.) that play a part in the process.

If you consider the entire cycle of message development, there are many moving parts, including data gathering, resource development, drafting compelling and inspiring words, collaborative review processes, selling your messages internally, planning for rapid response, adapting to changing dynamics, and more.

With so much involved in the message development process, it can be downright impossible developing effective messages for internal and external dissemination because of the various wonk interests that exist in most companies and organizations.

Do not despair though; there are many ways to build a better process so communications and public affairs teams can work together with other groups to craft compelling policy messages to support their organization’s success. To get there, the following are ten important tips to keep out the wonks.

Hunt and gather

You should start the message development process by hunting externally for all relevant data, and internally gathering research, information, and historical perspectives about your issues.

Lay the groundwork

You must then define your organizational objectives for the issues messages you are developing. This requires identifying internal decision makers, envisioning possible risks and threats for your organization, and above all, abiding by the golden rule of doing no harm in the process.

Words matter

To appreciate how much words matter, consult Style by F.L. Lucas (1955). The late Cambridge University professor stressed the importance of brevity, clarity, honesty, passion and control, revision, and sophistication and simplicity, among other priorities for writing (see: Ten Principles of Effective Writing).

In addition, as you develop effective messaging, you should find and study thought leaders in the related field, be your own worst critic about your writing, and always take breaks from the process to remain fresh and objective.

Apply quality control

Quality control is always important to message development. It should involve the simple task of seeking another set of eyes for review before messages get distributed broadly, as well as using online tools for grammar correction and grade-level understanding tests (see: www.storytoolz.com).

Next, you should put yourself in the shoes of your main audience, and ask the key question: would you care about the topic if you received a similar message?

You should also ensure there is buy-in for your message strategy up through the decision making chain in your organization, so it does not have to be explained later in the process.

It takes one to know one… don’t be a wonk

As a communicator or public affairs pro, you can help wonks through the message development process if you synthesize their vast repository of knowledge, and scrub their data and information so arcane industry terms and acronyms are deleted and the text is better understood by the casual observer.

It also helps to assume that your audience knows nothing about the key subject. Also, in the message development process, you should “point to the destination post card,” and make clear through your messaging the final destination for the journey (see Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard)

Write a lot

Now is the time in the process for you to channel your inner-wonk and develop a multitude of messaging resources for any circumstance.

This should include drafting master talking points through which you will define your main messaging themes, and building a portfolio of multi-purpose fact sheets.

You should also identify the negatives surrounding your issues, or else someone less-friendly to your cause will do it for you. Finally, stay current on all related issues so you can adapt your messaging as needed.

Write a little

‘Now is the time in the process for you to keep the wonks far from the process and synthesize your issues resources into bite-sized morsels for easy consumption. Imagine that your messages must all fit onto one bumper sticker or billboard so you can test your efficiency.

How quickly do you get to the sale or to an informed state for your audience? Not necessarily because you plan to use social media platforms (though you always should), limit your messaging to 140 characters in order to discipline your ability to craft the most efficient messages.

Test Granny and clear the path

If you can use your messaging on your grandmother, or another uninformed party, and she understands it, then you are on the right path to ousting the wonks.

Test others and see if they can identify your objective – is it to educate or activate, for instance? When you are using online platforms, you should limit the number of clicks it takes in order for the audience to gain information and streamline the text and enable their further action.

Unify around your message

Once your messaging plan is set, it is important to brief and train your senior leadership. You should also establish protocols for ongoing message reviews, with as few reviewers as possible involved in the process.

As you begin to disseminate your messages internally, find ways to empower all members of your organization to adapt the messages, as everyone in your company represents a brand ambassador for your issues.

Visualize your message

Have you noticed how infographics are now ubiquitous online? With the explosion of new connected devices and supporting apps, who has time to actually read anymore?

People like to consume their data and information more and more through appealing visuals along with simple factoids about key issues.

The important thing to remember with messaging both internally and externally is: don’t tell them, show them – deliver your issues messaging with as much visual content as possible. More people will retain it for longer durations.

So as you embark on a new messaging campaign, or plan to revamp your evergreen messaging, keep out the wonks, or at least manage them so that they do not overwhelm your policy issues messaging, and you can streamline the multi-faceted process to craft winning messages.

The PowerPoint from the presentation may be viewed here.

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