A Few Minutes on Strategic Messaging

I often get asked to do media and messaging trainings. What I like to do is ask for a three hour session. What I usually get is about 45 minutes – often in a pretty new group that doesn’t have a great deal of depth of experience on messaging.

It’s really hard (for me) to release the instinct to just lecture in these tight time limits.  But no one wants to hear me lecture!   My most recent attempt to efficiently overview strategic messaging is with the following prompt –“Imagine you are a tween child trying to get your parent to get you a smart phone – what do you say?” 

So people list off examples – i.e. “A smartphone will make me safer” etc.

Inquiry: “Why did you think that would be effective?” “What does your parent think is true and important — what values did you appeal to?” “Why did you choose those values?” “Are there values your parent has that you don’t share and vice versa? How do you navigate that?”

A next question is –“What are some things you wouldn’t say if you were trying to get your parent to buy you a cellphone…and why?”

People are smart and many have fantastic instincts as communicators who exist in a community.  The point of this exercise is

1. Most folks who’ve ever been around a baby know that strategic messaging begins before we can talk.

2.  That we can tap into our target’s existing values to frame our message so that it is more powerful and effective towards achieving our goals. Another point is to offer up working definitions of those four terms: target, value, frame and message.

3. Though we have natural instincts around communication, it is worthwhile to breakdown and analyze our messages to make sure that they are strategic – and also to make sure that they are in-line with our own values, priorities, world views, and theories of change.

4. No matter how well-tailored our message is to our target’s values, it also has to appeal deeply to us. We’re most powerful when we speak from a place of deep knowledge and power that is in-line with our own values.

Folks can then engage in a similar line of inquiry about an actual campaign they have – defining a target, exploring shared values, creating a frame and role-playing some messaging. Ideally to me, this work would create a product that might actually be relevant to work they are doing. For example, they could draft messaging for some of the signs to be used at an upcoming rally.

Of course, actually ideally, we have more time for in depth exploration, but there you are.  At the very least, this prompt usually gets people laughing and having fun, and it keeps me from talking.


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