Dr. Judith M. Newman

Key Messages

Key messages are essential tools in all communications work. To be effective as a business / technical writer you need to quickly identify key messages and use them as a way of structuring your writing.

What Are Key Messages?

Key messages are the core of your writing. Key messages open the door to direct communication with your audience, because they bridge what your audience already knows and where you are trying to take them.

You have a point to make—whether to educate, discuss, promote or advocate. Within every text, key messages are the messages you want your audience to remember and react to. They are The Message, the essence. Within all your writing, key messages keep your writing on track with what you are trying to accomplish. Readers should always come back to your key messages.

Key messages are a means to an end. They assert your viewpoint. Key messages are opinions that you can back up with proof and case examples, which you demonstrate within your writing.

By prompting your readers to ask questions, key messages immediately get audiences involved in your issue.

Key messages prompt your audience to ask "Why"? "How"? Key Messages get your audience curious about what you have to say. Curiosity is the first step to participation.

Key Messages in Business and Technical Writing

Every piece of writing has a key message. Is it obvious? Do you know what it is? If a particular section of your writing doesn't have a key message, why is it there?

Because of the nature of reading, your key message should lead the page. Readers shouldn't have to read far to find it.

Summarize the intent of a particular piece of writing in one sentence and you have the rough beginning of your key message. In effect you’re asking yourself: “What is the one thing I want my readers to know, to consider, to think about?”

Creating Key Messages

To get your audience to ask why and how, you ask yourself the same questions from your starting assertion.

Each question helps you break down the rationale behind your intentions, and provides the step-by-step statements that back up your key message.

The only way to find your key message is to repeatedly ask yourself "Why? How?", until you come to the core, the very reason for something happening. Asking yourself these questions will reveal to yourself the information you can take for granted that your audiences need to know and understand.

Key Messages are:

  • Concise: avoid jargon and acronyms
  • Active: make every sentence active
  • Positive: talk about what one can do, not what you can't
  • Short: one memorable sentence, 10-15 seconds to say.
  • Specific: address a particular challenge and audience

Tip: If the word "should" pops up in your key message, that's a red flag that there's more information to uncover. Keep digging.

Using Key Messages

Develop key messages for every part of your document. Each section should have a key message, forming the core of your information. Together, the key messages serve your communication goals.

Visualize how the following key messages can be supported by important facts, and how each draws the reader into a story about your organization. Each statement makes the reader ask: Why? How? And, each statement leads to a personal reflection by the reader, how this issue affects them, and their role in it.

  • Clean water is possible with shared work and a plan.
  • Learning to read will help you find the resources you need for better food and health.
  • Women must take responsibility for their reproductive health.
  • Men must start talking about their responsibility for protection against AIDS.
  • The WAVE farmers' coalition can help you build security for your family.