Key Messaging Guides: What are they, and do you really need one?

Key messaging is like orchestra sheet-music for your social good organization

By Teresa Ruiz Decker

Communicating the work of your organization can be a very subjective process — unless you have a key messaging guide. Here’s why.

On any given day there could be 10, 20, 50, 100+ team members speaking on behalf of your organization. Everyone from frontline staff to the CEO, to the leadership team and board members have the potential to serve as brand ambassadors and get your message into the world. Sure, you may have a core mission or about us statement available but those words aren’t usually used in day to day conversation by team members.

What you’ll find is every person has their own interpretation of what those words mean and will expand or rollback the messaging depending on their perspective and their audience.

Enter the key messaging guide

A key messaging guide can unify your messaging in one convenient place, so anyone anytime can use the information as a guide on how to speak about your organization. Not every employee will use it, but if you have a key messaging guide available to your top communicators or leaders there will be a trickle-down effect. People will learn from those leaders how to speak about your organization.

Like sheet music for an orchestra

Let’s use the analogy of an orchestra. If your team is as an orchestra and you are the conductor, your key messaging guide is the sheet music everyone plays from. In an orchestra, musicians still play their own unique instruments and create a distinct sound — but all of those sounds are unified to create one beautiful song (your key messages). In real life a key messaging guide creates greater confidence in team members (they know what they should be saying), greater accuracy for the organization (chances of misinterpretation decrease) and raise the level of your branding (think about the largest companies in the world. you know exactly what they do right?). In short, a useful key messaging guide can up your game as an organization overall.

Do you really need one? Try the “About Us” test

A good way to figure out if you need a messaging guide is to run the “About us” test. In your next senior leadership or board meeting, take 15–20 minutes to ask each member of the group to give their “About us” and “What we do” pitches. By about the third or fourth person most wording differences will come out, questions will start to be asked or you will hear phrases repeated. Does what your team say sound on point? Yes? High-five your messaging is working! If your orchestra sounds out of tune, it may be time for a key messaging guide.

A framework for your key messaging guide

Like all of my writing, I strive to keep key messaging simple and easy to understand. I tend to avoid business jargon (i.e. positioning statements) and save that for an actual business plan. You key messaging guide doesn’t have to be fancy, either.

A key messaging guide should be user friendly.

You want this to be a living document people refer to on the regular, whether they are preparing an elevator pitch, presenting at a conference or getting ready to meet with a potential supporter.

To start drafting one, open up a document, place your logo up to with a title and start writing. Here’s an example of some items to include your key messaging guide:

  • Who we are
  • What we do and Who we serve
  • How we do it
  • Why it matters (impact)
  • What makes us unique
  • The value we bring
  • Voice (Conveys the brand personality to customers. Unlike tone, which can change for different audiences, your voice stays consistent.)
  • 5–6 keywords used to describe us
  • Testimonies of our work
  • 3–4 key statistics about your organization

Once you’ve given this a shot, select 1–2 key people to co-edit this guide with. You’ll want to keep the editing process inclusive but also concise. Plan to do 3–4 rounds of edits on the document before providing to the official approver. If you have a smaller team the process and decision making will be much faster. Larger teams tend to take more time, but don’t give up if the editing process takes forever. Keep pushing forward and get as far as you can. I’ve experienced starting projects like this only to wait in limbo-approval for months. Then suddenly someone will need messaging and BAM, it’s ready for some real-life use. You’ll most likely get the feedback you need then and it will organically become a go to resource.

Social Good + Key Messaging

I know key messaging guides are a tenant of corporate communications, but I actually think messaging guides are even more critical if you’re a nonprofit or a company with a double-bottom line.

There’s a lot more to your story than someone who creates widgets, so having your messaging buttoned is important. A clear brand message will help you cut through a lot of noise out there and show the world what makes you different.

Remember the words we use are powerful, so it’s worth it to invest time in your messaging. A clear, concise easy to understand message will ensure your team is focused, polished and ready for whatever opportunity comes your way.

Interested in a Key Messaging Guide but need more hands on help? Let's chat and see if we should work together.

(Image courtesy :Charlotte’s Symphony,  Winterfield Youth Orchestra