Let’s wade back into the thick of messaging topics this week. Top of mind? How to find that quick short sentence that powerfully and precisely sums up your idea.
Ready? Let’s go!
The quick version
- GOAL: Develop a short statement that summarizes the power of your product, organization, or idea.
- PROBLEM: Statements like that aren’t just summaries of larger stories—they’re summits. That’s because ideas are built, not found.
- TRUTH: What are they built on? The basic structure of stories. Every idea has a story because every idea is a story—a story we tell ourselves to make things make sense. (I call that story a Red Thread.)
- CHANGE: Highlight the one or two most powerful elements of your idea’s core story.
- ACTION: Find your idea’s Red Thread, and then extract your Throughline or short statements from it.
- GOAL REVISITED: Not only will you be able to build a better short statement, but you’ll also have all you need to build any content or conversation from elevator pitches and intros to white papers, case statements, and keynotes.
If you want to go deeper…
Last week I was keynoting the (amazing, seriously you should go) Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. In my presentation—a brand new one on “How to Build Stories That Scale”—I cited a couple of the high-level messages I’ve developed over the years. Things like:
- “We train working artists.” (The Boston Conservatory)
- “We close the gap between learning the work and living it.” (HEAL Initiative)
- “We collect the data that tells you what to do to make the most of carbon farming.” (Regenerative agriculture non-profit)
I get it. Your organization or idea needs that kind of quick clarity that a short statement like that can provide. It’s how you establish right up front what you’re about so your audience can decide if they’re interested in learning more.
And, because you need it so badly, it’s super tempting to just…start there. To start writing that statement first.
If you’ve tried that approach yourself, then you already know: Trying to write that statement first is really, really hard.
Well, think of those beautifully short statements as the top of a pyramid. They’re the pinnacle, the apex, the place you aspire to get.Think of those beautifully short statements as the top of a pyramid. They're the pinnacle, the apex, the place you aspire to get. Click To Tweet
Now, what’s the challenge? Simply this: You can’t build a pyramid from the top.
The same is true for your message, especially the shortest version of it. And that’s because, as I wrote in my book: Great ideas aren’t found. They’re built.
That thing that comes into your head as an idea, or that has come into existence in the form of your organization, is the product of a process. An idea is the product of a thought process that you probably aren’t even aware of. That process is a building process—one where your head is slowly finding and placing the pieces of a story together until something that doesn’t make sense suddenly seems to, or until something without an answer suddenly has one.
That moment that you “get” the idea is the moment your brain delivers the end of that story to you.
- “What’s the best way to make sure young performing artists are successful? Make sure they can ‘perform’ no matter the situation.”
- “What’s the best way to deliver healthcare to resource-denied populations? Build a community of people that contribute both local and expert knowledge.”
- “What’s the best way to make the most of carbon farming? Collect and deliver data that provides understanding at all scales.”
The challenge is, to save mental space, your brain pretty much dumps out the story in the middle. Why that new idea is the right one, why it’s a solution that will work where others don’t or don’t work as well.
But sometimes, it’s something in that “inner” story that provides the “Aha!” your audience needs not only to be interested in your idea, but also to realize that it’s the right solution for them.
At The Boston Conservatory, we realized that many other performing arts colleges focused almost exclusively on developing artistic ability. But we wanted to make sure that we were also developing employability. That, combined with our (at the time) less-than-state-of-the-art facilities—practice rooms that weren’t soundproofed, dance studios with foundation support poles in the middle of them, etc.—meant that we could offer a new and different take on performing arts education: We were going to do everything to make sure our students could work anywhere, doing anything, regardless of the conditions. Or, in other words, “We train working artists…by replicating real life.”
But just as with the other examples, we couldn’t get there without doing the work of reconstructing that now-hidden story our brains told us about why we at the Conservatory did what we did the way that we did it.
If you’re a regular reader (and hello, if you’re not!), then you know that “hidden” story is your Red Thread, and your organization, program, product, service, or idea has one, too. When you want to find that simple statement that draws people in, you need to build up from the building blocks your Red Thread provides:
- The Goal is the Core Outcome you achieve.
- Example: The HEAL Initiative works to improve patient outcomes in resource-denied populations, wherever they may be.
- The Two-Part Problem is the Core Problem you solve.
- Example: HEAL works to close the gap between learning the work and living it.
- The Truth is the Core Belief at the heart of your approach.
- Example: At HEAL, we believe we can learn—and do—more together than we can alone.
- The Change and Actions comprise your Core Approach to solving the core problem.
- Example: HEAL builds communities of caregivers with both shared purpose and practice, living together with the populations they serve.
- Depending on the use case, the Actions can also be your features, offerings, markets served, onboarding or sales processes, etc.
- The Goal Revisited are the Benefits of using your idea, product, service, or organization.
- Example: HEAL’s approach not only improves outcomes in the communities where we work, but it also is creating a new, sustainable model for healthcare around the world.
You see, I hope, how any one of those statements can serve as an introduction to your work. When you start combining those statements, you get other useful ways to talk about what you do:
- A Throughline, or “minimum viable message,” that summarizes both why you do what you do and how.
- Example: At HEAL, we believe the key to improving patient outcomes in resource-denied populations lies in closing the gap between learning the work and living it.
- A Storyline, or “minimum viable case” for your idea that summarizes why you do what you do the way that you do it.
- Example: We can all agree we want to know how we can be a part of improving patient outcomes in resource-denied populations. While there are barriers to that goal we all know exist, our experience working in and with both patients and caregivers shows the real problem often lies in the tension between learning the work and living it — what’s taught in medical schools and books often looks and feels far different in practice. Yet we believe that a group of people living the work together can learn more—and thus do more—than any one person alone. This is why we at HEAL work to build communities of caregivers with both shared purpose and practice, living together with the populations they serve. Here’s how we do that…
You can think of those as intervening layers between the base “blocks” of your message pyramid—the Goal, Problem, Truth, Change, and Actions—and the top, where that precise and powerful short statement lives.
When you want to build longer content, your pyramid stretches into more of an obelisk—a square tower with a pyramid on top. It’s still built on the same foundation, and the same precise point(s) still serve as its pinnacle, but you’re putting in a lot more layers of detail and explanation in between.
So, yes, while it takes a little work to reach that apex of messaging that is that powerful short statement, the work you do to get there pays off over and over again with all the additional messages and content you can now create as a result.While it takes a little work to reach that apex of messaging that is that powerful short statement, the work you do to get there pays off over and over again with all the additional messages and content you can now create. Click To Tweet
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