Crafting key messages and forming strategic narratives is an essential skill for a communicator, but just where do you begin? Can you really get a compelling message into just 27 words and why should you start why?
by Andy Kirby and Jude Tipper
It turns out that co-authored blogs are kind of tricky to start.
Two people speaking as one is always a comms minefield, isn’t it? How many times have you been asked to quote two people in a press release or article and you fight it down in your best comms professional voice: “Well, you’d never speak in unison so we can’t write you in unison”.
And yet, here we are trying to do just that.
Our work at NHS Digital on this topic has been a genuine partnership so we figured we’d write this together. But how?
Would you divide this post up and say who’s writing what bit? Would you bang it out magazine style, as a supposed contrived conversation?
Or should we do that thing where you bracket a particular thought with the name of the author thinking it (Andy) or where you clearly attribute a particularly hilarious pun (Jude). (Oi! I do hilarious puns too! (Andy)).
See, this is rubbish isn’t it? Hard to write and even harder to read.
So we’re just going to go with a simple “we”. We hope that’s ok with you.
To be honest, when it comes to this topic we’ve kind of got used to jinxing and finishing each other’s sentences anyway – in a Frozen style (we both have six year old girls so apologies if this reference is lost on some readers. But we doubt anyone has been able to escape that Disney phenomenon).
Anyway, without further ado, we’ll crack on with what you’re here for: our tips and tricks when it comes to key messages and strategic narrative.
We’re storytellers. Chances are, if you’re reading this then you’re a professional public sector communicator. Which makes you a storyteller too.
Who else have you got in your organisation? Nurses, police officers, councillors, firefighters, housing officers, techies, social workers, doctors, traffic wardens, administrators, managers, volunteers, chief execs, receptionists, directors. The list is endless.
They’re storytellers too – in fact they’re the most powerful storytellers you’ve got.
And all good storytellers need a good framework, a decent formula. Pixar are famous for theirs. Shakespeare had one. Tarantino’s got one. Isn’t it about time you had a formula for storytelling too?
Strategic narrative has become a bit of a buzzword lately. It’s reached the ears of boardrooms across the land who are asking for strat narratives as fervently as they’re welcoming the return of the QR code.
Don’t freak out if that request comes to you. All a strategic narrative really is is a solid structure for telling the story you want to be heard by your well-defined audience. It’s key message scaffolding – on which you can build a story – and the creativity comes with how you tell that story.
Creative storytelling isn’t (just!) about sitting around on beanbags coming up with your very best ideas. It can often be a bit more scientific than that and needs a structure – or dare we say, a formula.
But is that going to dampen your creativity? To have a structure for storytelling? Is it going to make your stories a bit repetitive, a bit formulaic?
We’re not sure that’s how any of us would describe a Pixar movie, a Shakespeare play or a Tarantino epic.
Formulas and structures for storytelling work. But we’ve found that you have to nail your key messages and your narrative before you can get creative with it.
Start with why
Let’s say you’re starting a new campaign, project, strategy, rebrand, whatever it is you need to achieve in your day job. Why do you even need a narrative?
Because consistency and repetition matters: it’s how you embed key messages in the minds of your target audience. We need to say it simply and say it often.
In today’s noisy, frenetic, competing surroundings, it’s really important to keep to a consistent message. After all, repetition means retention – that’s what all the research tells us. Political consultant Frank Lutz sums it up perfectly:
“There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.”
You don’t have to listen to us
There are loads of different ways to approach key message development and strategic narratives. We’re not pretending our way is the right way, or indeed the only way. But it’s something we’ve refined and iterated and it’s worked for us.
What we’ve learnt through hours of research into different ways of doing it and even more hours of practical sessions putting tools into practice is this: communications is most certainly an art, but it’s also a science.
We’ve also learnt you don’t have to start from scratch – there are far cleverer people who have done the legwork and produced great theories and models. We’ve based our approach on two of these, that we’ll happily now share.
Key messages in the 27 9 3 format
Key messaging helps create perception in the minds of our target. Here are our golden key message rules:
• Concise – hence the 27 9 3, more on that below
• Clear – plain English, avoiding jargon and acronyms
• Consistent – messages must be repeated if they are to sink in
• Compelling – meaningful to stimulate action
• Relevant – balance what we need to communicate with what people actually need/want to know
• Respectful – never patronising and always inclusive
• Memorable – easy to recall and repeat
If you’ve heard us speak on this topic then a) you’ll have been delighted by our witty repartee, you lucky thing and b) you’ll have heard us bang on about these magic numbers.
27 9 3 is a way of producing key messages that originated from research in the US: and let’s face it, when you look at their political campaigns – the Americans know a thing or two about the strength of repetition.
With this model the aim is that each set of key messages are no more than 27 words, which can be said in nine seconds and contain three messages.
This was based on research that found:
• the average length of a quote in print media is 27 words
• the duration of a sound bite in broadcast media is nine seconds and
• the average number of messages carried is three.
This discipline of sticking to 27 words is really hard BUT it really helps get you to the very heart of what needs to be heard. And it stops non-comms muggles from turning it into 27,000 words. We’re sure you routinely have that issue too.
Here’s the blank grid you’ll start with:
You have three columns that each have a key message and, going from left to right those are the three messages you’ll use the most often, your elevator pitch. In 27 words.
Beneath those are your supporting messages, your evidence and proof points. They back up your top key message and, again, form up to 27 words.
This 27 9 3 method was used in South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust’s HSJ award-winning wellbeing campaign, #alloufus. Evaluation from that campaign showed very high levels of message recall and the structure put in place played a significant role.
This same structure was also used in NHS Digital’s NHS App campaign which had an original download target of one million people and now boasts 20 million downloads. (That was, by the way, totally down to this 27 9 3 message structure and absolutely nothing at all to do with a global pandemic.)
You can use this method of producing key messages not only in campaigns but also anywhere you need to have your key message clear, memorable and succinct – for example, it works great for media interview prep.
It’s a tried and tested model but when we started looking at strategic narratives for NHS Digital we took it a step further by introducing another model.
The golden circle
Our strategic narrative work set out to explain what our organisation does, as well as each of our key directorates. So it quickly felt more complex than just banging together a 27 9 3 message grid.
As we said before, some super clever people had done the hard work for us and we just needed to work out how to apply their theories. Enter Simon Sinek, stage left.
Have you heard of Simon Sinek’s ‘golden circle’? If you haven’t then we very strongly suggest you watch his amazing TED talk – it’s one of the most watched of all time.
The golden circle is based on the principle that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This taps into the bit of our brain, the limbic bit, that’s responsible for emotions and feelings. And it’s a part of the brain that also processes decision-making.
That’s why it’s so powerful when messages communicate with that bit of someone’s brain first, before they engage their rational bit of the brain. Get them feeling something first and it’s this feeling that will influence decision making or a response to a call to action.
We used this model extensively when talking to our colleagues about what they, or our organisation, is here for.
So, we begin in the centre with WHY, our purpose. What’s our motivation and what do we believe in?
Then we move on to HOW, the process. These are the actions we take to achieve our why.
And only then, finally, do we say WHAT we do. The result of our why.
Always remember the theory that too many companies – and people – start with what they do, as opposed to why they do it. But people don’t buy what you do, they use their limbic brain to buy why you do it.
It was fascinating when working with colleagues how many people dive straight into what, as opposed to why. A very powerful and simple question is “why do you exist?” (Not, you as in you, the person. We’re not going all existential here.) Just try asking the people who make up an organisation, a service, project or programme and see what sort of conversation it leads to.
In fact, take a look at your own organisational ‘about us’. Is it full of ‘the what’? Or does it start with why? Try playing around with it and see how quickly and easily you can transform it into copy that makes people feel something, rather than just being informed by it.
Put it together
So, when you overlay the golden circle theory onto the 27 9 3 grid, you get this:
Put it all together, column by column, and ta-daaa! you’ve got yourself a narrative. A narrative that starts with why, takes in the how and only then, finally, gives the what. What a narrative it is! Oh, the places you’ll go!
If you’ve defined your audience, caried out insight, sorted objectives, worked out positioning, brand, sentiment, measurement and all those other wonderful commsy type things then, congratulations, you can also call it strategic.
See, not that big and scary after all?
Of course, we’re being flippant. We know just how much work goes into creating simple and compelling messaging.
You’re never done
And, of course, like the good communicators you are you haven’t sat in a dark room and done this in isolation. No siree, you’ve worked alongside your people, you’ve held workshops, you’ve counted up your 27 words and bartered over what to add in and what to exclude. You’ve involved people every step of the way so they feel as if they own it, they haven’t been done-to, they’ve done-with and are now far more likely to buy in to the next stage of actually using your carefully crafted words.
That’s the thing with comms, the end point can look disarmingly simple but we all know the hard graft, blood, sweat and tears that go into great comms.
And, of course, we don’t need to tell you this…you’re never done when you think you’re done.
Good narratives and messages continually iterate and are under constant review, shifting with the landscapes you’re working in. And your evaluation will tell you how you’re getting on, whether it worked. And it’s this evaluation you use to inform the next phase, to gain your place at the decision-making table, to fly the flag for the complexity of comms quicker than someone can ask you to sprinkle your magic…
We haven’t even got on to the next part of all this which is taking your structure, your formula, and then getting creative with how you tell your stories, to really make them resonate and make them memorable. Which is going to, obviously, depend on your well-defined audience and what you want them to think, feel or do.
Too often, we think formulas and structures will dampen this creativity or stifle our storytelling when, in fact, it’s the very basis on which you must build. Just like Pixar, Shakespeare and Tarantino.
Let’s leave it there, eh? If we get on to the art of bringing your key messages and narratives to life we’ll never stop. We’ll save that for a future blog post.
An offer and thank you
Thanks for reading, we hope it’s helpful. What we haven’t done in this post is include examples of key messages and resulting narratives – because by the time they’re published it’s probably moved on already. But if you’d like any real-life examples, just give us a shout.
What we’ve shown you won’t work for everyone – it’s just a method we’ve developed between us, using some models that were already out there. And that’s the whole point of creativity: take something, learn from it, develop it and improve it.
It’s been fun playing around with process, we laughed as much as we’ve groaned. Too often, people view creative comms as only the resulting output and don’t consider the process. Which can be fun too!
If we’ve introduced you to models you haven’t heard of before, we hope you like them as much as we do. 27/9/3 and the golden circle are the perfect double act, a bit like the blog authors.
So, there we are. A blog post in perfect unison. Did it work for you? We’d love to know, and we’d love to know how you get on with the techniques we’ve shared.
Back to Frozen. Just in case you were wondering which characters we are…Andy’s the princess with freaky magical powers and Jude is the spunky but kind of annoying one. (Oi! Leave it out. (Andy) Shut it. You started it! (Jude)).
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Pic via the US National Archive