2 min Read
March 8, 2012

What exactly are key messages, anyway?

Define your overarching story with a fluid, flexible, foundational document.

Key messages are curious nuts to crack. They’re a bit conceptual and require a serious step out of the trenches to see the bigger story of your nonprofit. Plus, confusion often abounds about what key messages are and how you might use them.

Here’s a definition that we Ducks use from time to time:

Key Messages:

If you had to drill down your story to its most essential, indispensible elements—what would they be? The purpose of developing key messages is to identify the elements that any description of your organization must include, to use these elements to build a structure for your story, and to offer sample language for telling that story.

For us, structure is probably the most important word in that description. We think of key messages more as an organizing effort than a writing project. That’s because you’re really trying to outline your organization’s story, not write it.

Fight Colorectal Cancer is a Big Duck client we worked with to develop key messages as part of a larger brandraising effort. Together, we decided that, for Fight Colorectal Cancer’s audiences to understand the organization, people needed to know three simple things:

  1. Problem: What is colorectal cancer? Colorectal cancer is cancer that forms in the rectum or colon.
  2. Solution: What does Fight Colorectal Cancer do? Fight Colorectal Cancer demands a cure for colorectal cancer.
  3. Action: What can you do? You can join the fight against colorectal cancer.

As we continued to develop their key messages, we added supporting and back-up points to fill in the big gaps that remain between those three statements. The details about their nonprofit were put in the appropriate section.

The problem section includes facts and figures, risk factors, common symptoms, a note about the importance of screenings.

The solution section talks about Fight Colorectal Cancer’s patient and family support services, their aggressive approach to improving research, their role as a resource for the entire cancer community, and their advocacy work in DC.

The action section offers some basic ideas that anyone can follow (learn more, share information, advocate, donate), and gave clear actions that  specific audience members could take (after all, what medical professionals might do is different than what policymakers might do).

The important thing to remember is that the prose itself is less important. It’s getting down those big ideas that will serve you best in the long run.

The problem/solution/action statements developed for Fight Colorectal Cancer clarify what they’re all about and how they can engage their audiences in the broadest terms. Once the content is clearly outlined, we started developing specific language that they could also use verbatim, like boilerplate copy and an elevator pitch.

But ultimately, your key messages are meant to be quite flexible. They might serve as the basis for a speech your executive director makes at the gala dinner, or the sections of your overview brochure. So although you can set your tone with the language, don’t get too hung up on specific wording. You’ll tailor that for your specific audiences when it comes time to use your key messages.

So how do you use the key messages, once they’re developed? Well, for the answer to that one, you’ll have to head over to the next post … or check out Brandraising, by Sarah Durham.

Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

More about Dan