Whatever you’re talking about, your “key message” (also known as the most important thing you want your audience to learn) sets the course for your entire presentation, pitch or discussion. Start out at a slightly wrong angle, and you can find yourself far off target by the end.
Read what I mean in this exchange with Rebecca Offensend — snowboarding instructor, consultant at StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation, and incredibly good sport. We had this exchange when she volunteered to give an “on the fly” pitch during StartingBloc’s All-Fellows Summit:
What Do You Want?
JK: OK, who are you talking to?
RO: The really mean parents who won’t let their kids snowboard and only want them to ski.
JK: What do you want from them?
RO: I want them to let their children have a shot at taking a snowboarding class.
JK: You want them to let their children have a shot??
RO: OK, allow their children to take a snowboarding class!
JK: You want them to… sign their children up?
JK: OK, hear the difference? There is a world of difference between “I want you to consider letting your children have a shot…” and “I want you to sign up right now.” Those are not the same conversations. That’s called message clarity, and it’s not about the words, it’s about being clear about your intention.
What’s In It for Them?
JK: OK, so here’s a bunch of parents. What is in it for them to sign their kids up for snowboarding lessons?
RO: (launching into a pitch) “As you know, most of your children ski at this point, and although skiing is definitely the biggest sport in the winter sports industry, snowboarding is…”
JK: Hold it! Answer the question first. (to the audience) Did you hear Rebecca not answer me? What was my question?
Audience Member: What was in it for them?
JK: That’s right. (to Rebecca) Answer the question, please.
RO: OK. “I want you to sign your children up for snowboarding lessons because it will improve your…”
JK: Nope. You’re jumping ahead. This is wonderful! (laughter, cheers from audience)
Test Your WIIFM (What’s In It for Me?)
JK: (to audience) As hyper-competent people, you’re always going for the goal, right? She’s writing that key message. But before you write it, I want to know what could possibly be in it for me as a parent. What am I going to get out of my kid snowboarding? Don’t go right to the key message; you’ve gotta know what’s in it for your listener.
RO: If you want your children to be happy and more dextrous, as well as more physically able and able to overcome obstacles, you should sign your children up for snowboarding.
JK: OK, that’s good. You want to get out your WIIFM (what’s in it for them) and let some friends push back, because I’m gonna tell you, downhill skiing is plenty of dexterity for me. (laughter) That’s plenty for my kids, so gimme something better.
RO: Uh, the joint improvement is much better and you also use a lot of muscles in snowboarding that you don’t use in skiing.
JK: OK. Here we go. “Snowboarding develops muscles that no other winter sport develops!”
Audience member: What about if you want your kid to be cool? (laughter)
RO: I’ll be honest, all the parents who do want their kids to be cool have already signed their kids up for snowboarding.
JK: These are overachiever parents, right? Ambitious parents with money? They want to give their kids an edge. That’s what’s in it for them, so, “You are going to give your kid an edge in the battle of life.” Give me a little speech about that.
Add Supporting Points, and Presto! (It’s a Speech)
RO: “So, if you want to give your kids an edge in the battle of life (laughter), give them snowboarding lessons. It will improve their muscles that you don’t use in any other winter sport. And the extremely steep but quick learning curve of snowboarding helps them learn that they can overcome obstacles by themselves, much faster than it does in skiing. It’s also just a lot easier because there’s less equipment. So, all around, you should sign your children up for snowboarding, because you want them to have that much more of an edge over skiiers.”
JK: Now make your ask. [Note: “Make your ask” means “ask for something.”] RO: “So here is the sign-up sheet. I think you should think about doing this tomorrow because…”
RO: “You should do it right now!”
(Laughter and thunderous applause.)
Clear Key Messages Show Respect — for Yourself and Your Audience
See how it works? Finding your best key message is partly about playing with ideas, and getting feedback. But mostly, it requires you to be honest about what you want from the person you’re talking to.
Many of us were raised to believe that hiding our “wants” behind vague language was more polite (more on that in another post).
But when you think about it, doesn’t being clear and concise about what you want (and what they will get!) show respect for both you and your listeners?
Ideally, that’s what a key message delivers. So try it, and tell us what you think.