Key messages welcome readers inside

Key messages welcome readers inside


My first diary had a blue cover, or maybe pink. I don’t remember. What I do remember—vividly--is the little gold coloured key that came with it. The diary was a gift and the key was my favourite part. It transformed the package and conveyed the message, “this is for you.”

In clear writing, a well-crafted key message works like a key in a lock. It offers access to what’s inside and conveys to your audience, “this is for you.”

Key messages are concise points that encapsulate what you want your audience to remember and do. They are the promoter’s elevator pitch; the newsmaker’s sound bite; the learner’s crib notes.

I use key messages as a thinking strategy at every stage of the writing process, and I encourage my clients to do the same.

If the project is new, big, and not yet fully imagined, the key messages might be broad strokes, or they might be smaller but promising details. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we work together, continually asking: “What’s important here? What do we want the audience to remember and talk about?”

The project goals might be unshakable, but if we are approaching the work with an inquiring mindset, the key messages will likely evolve from draft to draft.

Getting there

Effective key messages use conversational language to engage the audience and spark meaningful conversation. To that end, remember these tips for conversational writing:

  • Use clear, everyday words.
  • Prefer short, simple sentences.
  • Make it active.
  • Look for the shortest way to tell the whole story—or, in this case, the main point of the story.

If the stakes are high, consider user testing to get feedback on the key messages from a sampling of your target audience. Pay attention to how insiders and outsiders to the project respond to the language and the content. 

As you move through the writing process from concept to final product, the key messages will become clearer and more to the point. 

How many?

The ideal number of key messages will depend on your goals and target audience. In my fantasy life, I like to start with one compelling key message; stretch willingly to three key messages; and cautiously to five for a complex topic. Content experts will often push for more. It’s my job to push back on behalf of the target audience.

Key messages are like keys on a key ring: the more you have, the harder it is to remember what each one unlocks. A massive set might look impressive, but it can feel heavy and awkward if you are not the keymaster. That said, my clients have had great success with up to seven key messages, as in this example for a national audience of education leaders. (Check the Contents page for the author’s concise summary to her target audience.)

The test question is this: Which key messages are likely to inspire your target audience to keep reading and take action?

Bottom line

If you are writing a personal diary of your most private thoughts, then it makes sense to hide the key. But if you have something important to say, consider saying it up front in clear, concise key messages that convey to your audience, this is for you.

About the Author

Joanne Wise uses plain-language strategies to help clients think through their ideas and communicate results with clarity and impact—online and in print.