Five Steps to Nonprofit Messaging Success

I’m thrilled to welcome back guest blogger, Rebecca Leet, who helps nonprofits sharpen their goals and connect with the people who can achieve them. Here’s Rebecca…

As soon as I finished Switch, Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, I began recommending it to clients and colleagues because they give such a practical perspective on making change and provide a simple framework for doing so.

Early in the book, they note that achieving behavior change requires someone to “script the critical moves” of the process. I’ve learned the same lesson working with messaging clients: Having a scripted process for developing messages not only results in an effective message, it also increases the confidence of non-communications colleagues that they can effectively participate in the development process.

Boosting that confidence is important, because participation from your colleagues in other departments is essential to developing good messages.

This is the 5-step process I’ve developed to “script” the creation of messages.  It has helped clients achieve a variety of goals: advancing social policy, raising money, establishing corporate identity, promoting new business practices, and explaining complex ideas.

I find using simple questions at most steps directs individuals’ thinking without intimidating them by directive statements that give the feeling they’re engaging in a formal, foreign process.

Step 1: What is the action we’re trying to make happen through this message? The whole point of communicating is to get target audiences to take an action you want.  What is it?  Action drives message development, so articulating the action has to come first.  This is often the most difficult task for a message development team.

Step 2: Who can make that action happen? This is a much better question than “who are our target audiences” because it doesn’t allow the team to mindlessly rattle off the groups the organization already communicates with.  This question may lead the team to discover they’re communicating with people who can’t achieve what the organization wants – and they’re not communicating with some who can.

Step 3: What do these people desire that would prompt them to act? Focusing on what target audiences desire, rather than what they need, is key to developing effective messages.  People will move faster to satisfy a desire than to satisfy a need.  For more on the importance of focusing on desire, see my March blog post, Broken New Year’s Resolutions — A Lesson in Knowing Your Audience.

Step 4: Is there overlap between what they want and we want? Hopefully, this step is dispensed with quickly, yet it’s very important and potentially very strategic.  If the organization knows what will motivate its target audiences to act, it has to make sure that it can deliver to those desires.  This may require shifting resources, raising money, or adding capacity – and if the organization can’t or won’t do that, it won’t be able to activate the people it needs …. and there’s no point in developing a message.

Step 5: Write the message. Remember the basics. Write from your audiences’ perspective, not yours.  Use simple words not jargon.  Less is more: fewer words and fewer major points make for more effective messages.

Using a simple, consistent process over time may build a messaging culture.  That’s what happened with one of my clients, which is changing the way we prevent child abuse in the U.S.  They launched a radical new prevention approach in 2003, supported by a powerful message.  The approach is being adopted at amazing speed, and at every developmental point the organization has created more messages to support their work.

None of the people in this organization is a professional communicator, yet it developed a messaging culture.  By last year, its approach had become the most widely-recognized approach nationwide – twice as well recognized, among target audiences, as the next-best approach.

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Guest Blogger on October 28, 2010 in Branding and Messages | 3 comments
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  • Rebecca, I loved Switch and appreciated the Heath brothers concept of “script the critical moves”. Thanks for sharing your five questions designed to help nonprofits “script the critical moves” to develop their messages. I have a draft of a message to review today. I’ll use your questions to evaluate the message. Thanks.

  • Thank you, Rebecca. I had a fuzzy version of your 5 questions rattling around in my tool box. Except mine only had 2 questions. Your far better approach is laser inescapable. (And, sure, fuzzy can rattle.)

  • Fred

    This is better than many creative briefs I’ve read from ad agencies. Thanks for putting it out there.

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