I’m going to start this blog by making an obvious point around the importance of message clarity in both external and internal communications. Defining your key messages is one of first and most important steps in any communications strategy. It’s the foundation that underpins everything you do, so it’s essential to get it right. But that can sometimes be easier said than done. Distilling your approach into a series of clear, succinct messages can be tricky, particularly for larger companies involved in a wide range of activities among a diverse range of stakeholders.

Be clear about who you’re speaking to, so you can tailor your messages accordingly

One method we’ve used recently with a number of clients is to develop what’s known as a message house. You may already know all about message houses but, in our experience, it’s an unfamiliar concept to many experienced communications professionals, so we wanted to share our thoughts on why this approach is so useful and give some advice on creating an effective message house.

Stay on message

To quote Smart Insights: “Message houses are a simple but effective tool for helping your teams stay on message in their communications across different channels. They can be applied not only for general company marketing and brand positioning, but also for other projects (such as events and conferences) and even for the messaging of an organisation as a whole.”

There are various different styles of message house, but in my mind the best place to start is with something that looks like this:

Southerly Blog Image - The structure of the message house

It’s an elegantly simple design that hones your key messages into something that’s easy to understand, backed up by relevant facts and information.

Let’s take a step back and look at how to get to this point.

The multiple stakeholder challenge

The first thing to consider is who you’re talking to. With so many clients, this simple question doesn’t always have a simple answer. Most organisations need to communicate with multiple stakeholder groups, often with very different needs and wants.

We always encourage clients to start any message development work by thinking in detail about their audience personas. It’s important to define each of these groups as much as possible. Think about who they are and what makes them tick. Why are they interested in your organisation and what information will be important to them? How will they come across that information – will they be actively seeking it out or coming across it more organically? What channels are most effective in reaching them?

The personas technique can be useful on a range of projects, but especially when creating a message house because you need to be clear about who you’re speaking to, so you can tailor your messages accordingly.

Loop in as many relevant people as possible when creating your personas. Think about who within the business knows this audience best and can provide the most useful insights. It might be tempting to speed through this process, but it’s advisable to take the time to build an accurate picture.

Once you’ve secured some useful insights, start identifying themes and creating pictures of these different groups. You might also find common characteristics across all of your personas, which can be helpful when creating top line communications. Once you’ve broadly outlined your various personas it can be useful to share these with appropriate people across the business, potentially as part of a workshop session, so everyone has a chance to provide feedback. This can often be a revelatory experience, with different departments in large companies realising the differences as well as similarities between the various audiences they and their colleagues are speaking to.

The personas technique can be useful on a range of projects, but especially when creating a message house

While it’s likely to that you’ll identify several different audiences as part of this process. We recommend aiming for a manageable number of personas to avoid the risk of your communications activity becoming too fragmented.

Once you’ve agreed on your personas you can start brainstorming your messages. We recommend setting up a second workshop with the same colleagues so they can be involved in how determining how the company will present itself to these audiences. Securing buy-in from relevant people across the business will ensure they feel a sense of ownership and involvement with the final message house, and will be more likely to see it as a valuable tool.

Steps to workshop success

Here are some clear steps to follow in that workshop that have worked for us time and again:

Begin by reviewing your personas. Sense check that everyone agrees with how these have been defined. You may have already agreed everything in the persona workshop but it’s always valuable to give people another chance to raise questions and put forward additional thoughts. You need to allow time for people to speak about the personas close to their heart and for everyone involved to understand the different audiences.

  • The next step is to ask the group to brainstorm an appropriate umbrella statement, three core messages and any relevant proof points that reflect your communications objectives.
  • If you have multiple personas then it can be useful to start by categorising them into broad groups based on any shared characteristics. During the workshop you can split your colleagues into teams, each assigned to a persona group based on their areas of interest and involvement, and ask them to brainstorm appropriate messages for that group. We recommend having a facilitator within each team to pose questions and keep the conversation on track.
  • At the end of these breakout discussions, teams should be invited to present their thoughts, with an opportunity for questions and discussion. Make sure to take accurate notes so you know exactly what was said – we recommend recording or even videoing the session if possible.

At this stage, you will have a clear idea of the different messages proposed for the various persona groups. The final stage is to draw these together into one set of over-arching messages that can be used for corporate level communications. You may choose to do that during the workshop or at a later stage, depending on whether you have time or need to gather any additional information.

Draw these together into one set of over-arching messages that can be used for corporate level communications

The strongest statements

It’s unusual to find teams coming back with wildly different umbrella statements, but they can come back with alternative ways of saying the same thing, so it’s a case of looking at the statements and choosing one that you feel is the strongest or combining two strong ideas.

Some companies find that, at the end of this process, they still end up with very different messages for different audiences. In that situation, we suggest creating a corporate level message house, underpinned by separate messaging documents for each audience. Just remember to keep these short and sweet; otherwise, you could negate all of your hard work in creating a simple message template.

I hope it’s clear by now that a message house can offer many benefits:

  • It’s an ‘at a glance’ summary of your most important company messages
  • It helps staff and suppliers know who you are and what it is you want them to say about you
  • It’s organic and can grow with you

Creating a solid message house ensures that everyone has the tools they need to communicate the right messages in the right way, so if you don’t have one it’s well worth building one.