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  • Nick Bibby

What You Gonna Say?

Deciding some key messages - basically what you want to say - is one half of the foundation of any communications strategy. A blog on the other half, identifying your audience, is available here.

It is surprisingly common to decide on certain communications tools ("Let's have a newsletter", "Should we be on Twitter?") before deciding who you want to talk to and what you want to say. There are lots of reasons for that but, I suspect, one of them is that setting things up is quite enjoyable, whereas figuring out what ideas are likely to float the boats of certain professional groups is fairly dull.

Plant stems inside an envelope.
Take the time to plan what you want to say.

Inevitably working out your target audiences and your key messages is an iterative process with progress in one area informing the other. Your message need to be of relevance to the audience, so as you decide that the audience that can affect the change you're hoping to accomplish in the world is 'Chief Social Workers in local authorities with high levels of deprivation', you will also prioritise those areas of your work that will be of most use to that group.

As you learn more about your audience - their priorities, how they usually acquire information, their relationships to existing networks, their room for manoeuvre in changing those priorities or networks - so you might need to adapt the message. Do you need to frame your research in certain ways so that it more explicitly addresses their needs? There may well be findings that are of considerable scholarly interest, but of no help whatsoever to your reader - make their life easy; don't make them wade through the findings they don't need to find the things they do.

Critically, what is your existing relationship with your intended audience, if any? Are they already likely to accept what you say at face value? Or are you going to have to bring them with you step by step? If you could only get one thing across to them, what would that thing be? Would they find it believable? Would they find it useful? Would they be likely to act on it? Are they likely to persuade others on your behalf?

Black and white picture of movable type.
Curating key messages helps the reader.

In other words, selecting a message is an exercise in curation. What do you want your reader to know, understand or do having interacted with you, which they would not have known, understood or done otherwise? How does saying what you want to say change your reader, or the context in which they operate? How will it change your relationship to them, and their relationship to the world around them?

There is also some strategy involved in this process. For example, if you're launching a new centre, it might be an idea if the first things you communicate are fairly eye-catching, while also being reassuringly believable. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it really isn't - a new idea about an old problem, or a fresh way of imagining a familiar story. That might mean introducing a new perspective, prioritising an often-overlooked voice, or demonstrating that existing data doesn't mean what it has been assumed to mean.

You're also going to be competing for attention, so think about the context in which your audience will see your work. Ideally you would be providing a straightforward solution to their most challenging problem, or at least an insight that will help them rethink it. While that may not be possible, you might want to think through the following questions:

Why should they care? And why should they care now? Does what you are planning to say address a current need or interest of the person to whom you're saying? What is the wider context in which they’re reading it – what else is on their desk? Would it be a higher priority at another time, or would framing it in a different way increase its pertinence?

Do they have the ability to use the information to bring about the solution? Sometimes individuals or organisations are unaware of problems, but more frequently they're looking for solutions - or at least some help in working one out. For example, the main policy obstacle to addressing climate change isn't that people haven't heard of climate change. How are you moving things forward?

How do your key messages help deliver your own goals?

These might be things like being noticed as a new centre of expertise, establishing trust with a particular group or network, reframing or reimagining a particular problem. Do the messages you've chosen address those goals? Or distract from them?

A good message needs to be relevant, timely and believable, but it also needs to be digestible. Limit what you say at any one time, plan you messaging so that each small step leads easily from one to the next. If you are looking to achieve change, it will rarely come about as a result of one interaction, but as a consequence of ongoing relationships that are grounded in trust and mutual benefit. Those take time to build, and establishing a reputation for usefulness over the long-term means planning messages that work in the context in which they are being consumed.

  • Social Science Connected offers training and strategy sessions on how to identify key messages and communicate them effectively to a range of audiences. More information is available here.

Cover image photo by Jayne Harris on Unsplash.

Envelope photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Movable type photo by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash.


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