Make the important messages stand out

Use key messages to maximise your impact

Key messages are by far the most important part of your report. Give them the care they deserve. By David Walker.

Key messages will usually make or break a report. So if we want our reports to have impact, we need to invest in key messages.

Two pages that count

Shorewalker DMS generally aims to fit a report's key messages on just two pages, in large type. Those few hundred words will be reflected everywhere:

  • the executive summary in the report itself
  • the report's recommendations and key graphics
  • the content you generate from the report, including:
    • the online summary
    • tweets
    • other social media material
    • the opinion piece by the minister or chairman
    • email content
    • blog posts
    • and more
  • the content generated by others, from independent opinion pieces to social posts to speeches by advocates
  • and yes, the announcement the minister or CEO makes when they implement the report's findings.

Kym from HR and Courtney from accounting will mention one of those messages to their friends over lunch. Joe will paste a piece of the executive summary into an email to his boss. People we've never heard of will summarise our work in channels we never knew existed. And they will use variations on the words that we first wrote for that key messages document.

When we give these messages the greatest possible attention, we maximise our chances of success

Identify key messages early

BEST PRACTICE: We can look to identify and invest in key messages early – right from the very start of the authoring process. The details often take time to resolve. But crucial elements in the report rarely stay hidden until close to the end.

(When a report's key messages can't even be guessed at early in the process, it's worth asking: does this report need to be written?)

The focus on key messages can be confronting. It demands that your team have things to say. But it also enables the creation of an exciting challenge: identify important things to say, and we'll spotlight your work.

Build messages into stories

The best key messages documents tell one or more stories within their key messages. Stories work in two ways:

  • Presenters can tell them more easily and with more enthusiasm.
  • Audiences remember them better.

We are story-centred animals. We react to stories.

BEST PRACTICE: Major consulting firms like McKinsey spend a disproportionate amount of their report-writing time working at telling stories, typically in presentation format. Outsiders exposed to this process for the first time find it strange and a bit obsessive. But the result, which you may have seen for yourself, is that their presentations are rated as far more powerfuil than the average. Stories leave a mark on memory, in a way that collections of facts and bullet-point lists do not.

Build out key messages as we go

Shorewalker DMS estimates that on a per-word basis, key messages generally get between ten and fifty times as much work as normal text.

But it's actually hard to estimate precisely the time spent on these messages. And here's why.

BEST PRACTICE: If your team is doing it right, you will spend most of your editing time and a great deal of your writing time thinking about content for key messages.

Ask these questions over and over

As we write, we aim to keep asking:

  • Is this one of the key messages of our report?
  • Do we believe in it?
  • What extra evidence do we need for it?
  • What will make it more vivid and memorable?
  • Can we turn it into a full-blown story?
  • Does it lead to a recommendation?

If content doesn't support a key message, downplay it 

If we can't resolve these questions positively for some issue, we can consider:

  • shortening that content
  • moving it to an appendix
  • eliminating it.

Yes, sometimes reports are written simply to capture everything that's known about an issue. And when your staff has spent two months learning every nuance of an issue, they will want to put that work in the report.

But usually reports exist to spur action. Content that doesn't do that often lacks a reason to be in the report at all. So resist the pressure to fill the report up. If need be, put less compelling material into an appendix or supporting document. 

If you're ever seen a long report which didn't say anything much of importance, chances are that its authors were writing without the key messages in mind.

At Shorewalker DMS, we've cut reports by 50 per cent and heard organisational leaders remark on how much more vivid and powerful they now seemed. It's a curious thing, but it's real. When we cut out unneeded material, the stories and other key ideas stand out. The content suddenly looms larger

And people in an organisation feel better about a report whose conclusions they can enthuse about. From ministers and chairmen to public relations staff, people like to support big, interesting ideas and tell interesting stories.

Inside the key messages document

The key messages document is the most important document we will write in creating almost any report. The key messages document should include the most important findings and recommendations – all the messages of which you really want to convince audiences.

This document must be:

  • memorable, so that it rolls off the tongue of a CEO, minister or spokesperson
  • vivid, so that spokespeople and media releases cut through in a packed media environment
  • brief (ideally no more than two pages), so that a CEO, minister or spokesperson can recount it when asked
  • thorough enough that it contains the most important messages
  • convincing to people who hear some of its contents, even if they don't pursue more details
  • speakable as well as readable.

We can draft a key messages document as soon as we have clarified the report's aims and audiences. You can do that using our content questionnaire.

The key messages document becomes the main reference for at least three other important report elements.

Key message spinoff 1: Executive summary

The executive summary should do what it says: summarise the whole report.

A typical report reader will read the executive summary and then very little else. This means that within the printed document, the summary should get a disproportionate share of our attention.

But of course, a good summary will focus on the report's most important messages and stories. So it will draw heavily on our key message document, using many of the same phrases in the same order. Indeed, it's a key reason to prepare the key messages.

Compared to the key message document, the executive summary:

  • can be slightly longer
  • should contain more context
  • may flow more logically from point to point, with gentler transitions
  • will be less conversational in tone, since it does not need to be spoken
  • must contain more graphics that make strong points, since it is primarily visual.

BEST PRACTICE: Like graphics, executive summaries can suffer from afterthought thinking. "We'll write them when we finish the body of the report," people say. Even some supposed experts recommend this. Shorewalker DMS believes best practice is to base the executive summary on your key messages – which means thinking about it early.  

Key message spinoff 2: Graphics

Graphics, particularly information graphics, can make a more powerful case than ... well, 1000 words. They can turn big piles of data into useful insight. They work everywhere from tweets to Powerpoint presentations to print newspaper articles.

Ideally, we should aim to create a compelling information graphic around each key message in the executive summary. Report creators who plan key graphics early, as an integral part of their key messages, enable other content to be built around them as the report develops. This is harder to do later in the process, when so many issues fight for our attention.

IDEA: The key to powerful graphs: tell the audience what they should take away from what they're looking at. This means crafting a powerful title for each graph.

You should also aim to buttress key points with graphics wherever possible. Sometimes you won't even need numbers at all. (But anywhere you can see a number, ask whether it can be turned into a graphic.)

IDEA: A particularly powerful graphic can be printed full-page for a minister, CEO or other leadership figure to use as an exhibit when presenting the report to audiences. We also recommend preparing it for use by news media, in open formats which media can re-edit into their own visual style.

IDEA: To improve your graphics, try telling your entire key message set in graphics rather than words.

Key message spinoff 3: Recommendations

Recommendations provide the reader with an agenda for action. How should the business proceed going forward? What new law should the government pass, or what area should it deregulate? Giving people and even institutions meaningful things to do, and we bring a sense of order and direction.

Recommendations are usually highlighted within the relevant discussion in the body of the report. But it's important to also put them at the front of the report, where more people will see them.

BEST PRACTICE: At the front, the recommendations can be integrated into the executive summary. That's often convenient for linking each recommendation to the thinking that produced it. Another approach is to place recommendations together directly after the executive summary. 

IDEA: One underrated alternative, though, is to place them before the executive summary. This sends an important meta-message: the report is, first and foremost, about getting things done.