Part 6: One key message (plus something for 'decks')

This email is the sixth in a series on how to persuade and convey in talks and reports (here are the other five). Today's is on one key point. Literally. We see whether our reports need ‘one key message’. You also see a different layout for ‘decks’ (if unsure what decks are, I explain later). 

A previous email said we must ensure bosses have easy unprompted recall of the key points of our reports. So perhaps striving for one key message would help. And I encounter such logic a lot on my training Courses… during the day, a group briefly chats about how to improve a report, and a Wise One in the group will ask: “But what’s our key message?”. Dramatic pause. And if the Wise One is senior – a boss – the group proffer admiring glances and agreeing nods. Also, groups often agonise over the opening sentence – after 10 minutes, I ask: “How’s your chat going?”, and they reply: “Still can’t work out our opening sentence's key message …”.

‘One key message’ seems critical. So let’s review:

One key message is fine if you write slogans to emblazon on buses, posters, lecterns or to chant at rallies, show in ads, etc - e.g. ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’. Or: 'Diamonds are forever'. Most of us don’t do that type of stuff though. We write IT updates or finance packs for bosses. We write tenders. Our readers want more than just a slogan.

And even if one key message is needed, often it’s blindingly obvious. “We’re x% below target.” "Buy this stock." “I need two more staff.” “Surveys show that people hate our product.” “I want a squirrel, Daddy” (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). No great shakes in any of those. And not only are such ‘key messages’ obvious, they’re also insufficient. Often, bosses want more, e.g. what to do next – “people hate our product... so I recommend we do XYZ”.

But to say: “We should do XYZ” is still not enough. Why XYZ? Why not ABC? What risks? Costs? What have others done? What resistance do we face? Etc. Bosses want answers – brief ones – to obvious questions that arise.

Plus there’s our needs as an author (and previous emails have covered these). What do we want bosses to feel? How to give ‘repeatability’? And if we’re pushing on a closed door - if Daddy hates squirrels - how to pass the Cor Doris test? How to think like a journalist?

So one key message is rarely enough. Which is why – if the Wise One is junior – the group is less fawning. No admiring glances or nodding heads. Rather, a curt dismissive shut-down: “Thanks(!) ...’people hate our product’... tell us something we don't know, Einstein”.

Let’s draw the threads together (and to forewarn, what follows are three paragraphs and a click-through, not just ‘one key message’….). When drafting a report:

1) If someone says: “What’s our key message”, don’t be in awe of them (unless you’re dreaming up slogans).

2) Yes, do start with the conclusion (prior emails have covered this), but no, don’t agonise over a perfect opening sentence. It won’t be enough anyway. Strive instead to craft a really good first page or two, one that gets to the heart of what you wish to say. Click here for a 6-page Chapter from my book that tells you how (it's the most important Chapter in the book).

3) The exception? Maybe agonise over the opening sentence if pushing on a closed door. Grab readers with something like ‘pot plants’… (this previous email explains).

Which leads us to two other topics: decks and horizontal lines(!). Decks are written reports done in PowerPoint - usually in landscape - and they nearly always have one key message per page, shown as a headline above a horizontal line at the top of the page. I’ve been told that this helps readers absorb one key thought per page. However, a few years ago I realised I rarely read these ‘headline’ words. Rather, when I turn to a page in a deck, my eyes land on the words beneath the horizontal line.

Others do likewise, I’ve asked around. I’ve even heard how a room of people discussed a page of a deck for 20 minutes, trying to work something out, until someone said: “Woah… the answer is at the top of the page!”. No-one had read the top bit.

I reckon the problem is the horizontal line. It draws me not to the headline, but away from it. The line makes the stuff at the top seem like a header, and at best we mostly just glance at headers. After all, you’re reading this email…. did you read the banner at the top? Probably not. (I thought of changing it to Charity and Intact to see if you'd notice.)

So if you do decks, try this PowerPoint layout (click on 'this', enter details, and it's download 23.10.1). Spoiler alert: the headline is beneath the horizontal line. A future email will look at decks more fully - and here's another spoiler alert: "Most decks are barbarically bad - it is possible to do a decent one, but it takes superhuman self-discipline, and the odds are highly stacked against it.". Watch this space.


PS sometimes, we can’t give an answer. We must give lots of answers, ones that depend on, say, readers’ values. Or on how things might evolve. Tough to write. More on that one day.

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