Quick! Make your talk’s key message sticky

Smiling man with slip of paper stuck to his forehead saying “Be happy :)”What was your latest talk’s key message? See if you can jot it down.

Then, check out the tips below, which could improve it

You might ask, “What is a key message?” Well, according to expert presentation coach Olivia Mitchell:

“A key message is
the number one thing
you want your audience
to remember or do”
~ Olivia Mitchell

Sadly, most talks don’t even have a key message

Sadly, most talks don’t even have a key message. So, that tends to leave the audience wondering what the point was. (And why they even bothered coming!)

To avoid that for your talks, in this post you’ll find tips and insights from Olivia’s excellent post called:

How to craft a memorable key message in 10 minutes

Plus, you’ll find tips and examples from me – including how I disagree with Olivia. So after reading this post, you’ll be ready to write a powerful key message for your next talk – in minutes.


Here’s what’s in this post

Want to skip ahead? Click any of these links to scroll to a specific section:


Write your key message firstScroll to Contents ↑

When should you write your key message? Olivia says:

“Start planning your presentation
by deciding on your key message.

It will make the rest of your planning easy”
~ Olivia Mitchell

Only spend time on content that sup- ports your key message

Great advice! It gives you a pin-sharp focus, so you only spend time on content that supports your key message. (And your talk’ll be much clearer as a result, too.)


3 steps to write your key messageScroll to Contents ↑

To help you decide on your key message, Olivia lays out 3 steps:

  1. Answer this
  2. Craft it
  3. Test it


a. Answer thisScroll to Contents ↑

To start your preparation, Olivia suggests you ask yourself this simple question:

What do you want people to remember or do after your presentation?

And importantly, she says you should reply out loud:

“Just say what first comes into your mind
– now write that down.

It may not be… perfect… But it’s a start.”
~ Olivia Mitchell

I think that’s a great approach – it’ll make your key message conversational.

Mind you, I had to think hard about whether we ever want an audience to just “remember” something – rather than have them actually “do” something.

Let me explain what I mean.

To me, every talk’s ultimate purpose should be to get people to act. Otherwise, you might as well just send an email rather than giving a presentation

Unless people act, your talk’s had no noticeable impact!

Sure, you might want people to also change how they think or feel. But unless they act on that, your talk’s had no noticeable impact!

So, my immediate thought was to make every key message an explicit call-to-action. Let’s look at an example

Below’s a key message based (loosely) on another one of Olivia’s posts. It’s from a talk by a financial planner to small-business owners: Scroll to Contents ↑

“You need to save for your retirement –
don’t rely on your business for funding!”

That meets all the criteria for a key message (as laid out in the next section). In other words, among other things it’s:

  • Short
  • Simple
  • Specific

But, it’s also boring! So for that financial-planning talk, Olivia actually shared this key message instead:

“Your business is not your superannuation policy”

What d’you think of that version? I much prefer it. That’s because it’s shorter, it’s less preachy, and (above all) it’s far catchier. Yet it’s not a call-to-action as such, either.

It’s no use making your key message a clear but uninspiring call-to-action!

When I thought about the best way to motivate people to act, I realised something. That is, it’s no use making your key message a clear but uninspiring call-to-action!

Instead, it’s far more effective to make your key message:

So it’s true that a key message might just be something we want people to remember . Because only by getting people to remember after the talk – and to feel moved – will they act on your call-to-action anyway.


b. Craft itScroll to Contents ↑

OK, you’ve written down your initial key message. Next, Olivia shares 6 questions you can use to refine it – a process she calls crafting your key message:

  1. Is it short?
  2. Does it convey a message?
  3. Is it in spoken language?
  4. Is it specific and concrete?
  5. Is the relevance to your audience clear?
  6. Does it say something your audience doesn’t know?
    I’d also add a 7th question – despite Olivia’s advice to the contrary:

  8. Is it catchy?
    Let’s look at each of those questions in turn


1 – Is it short?Scroll to Contents ↑

As Olivia puts it, the shorter your key message is, the easier it is:

  • for you to say, and
  • for your listeners to grasp and remember.

I absolutely agree. I’m all for making what you say short, to make it punchy.

But then she warns:

“There is such a thing as too short.
Brevity should not come at the expense of meaning.
The length of a Twitter message – 140 characters – is a good guide.”
~ Olivia Mitchell

Tiny key messages tend to be much more memorable

On that point, I disagree. That’s because tiny key messages (of, say, just 2 to 4 words) tend to be much more memorable than longer ones (of up to 140 characters). And they can even go “viral”.

For instance, did you notice the photo at the top of this post? It’s of a smiling man with a sticky note on his forehead, which simply says:

“Be happy :)”

Imagine those 2 words were your key message. People would be far more likely to remember them (and even share them) than if your key message was this instead:

“Your health will improve if you smile often”

There’s great power in making your key message extremely short (provided it’s clear). So if you can make it just 3 words – or preferably just 3 syllables (like “Be happy” in the photo) – all the better.


2 – Does it convey a message?Scroll to Contents ↑

For this question, Olivia cautions:

The topic of your presentation
is not your key message”
~ Olivia Mitchell

I expressed something similar in my posts about:

In essence, Olivia suggests your key message should make a claim or assertion, like typical newspaper headlines do. (Think of it as a statement your audience will either agree or disagree with.) She uses the following example

Don’t simply describe your topic, like this:

To be more provoc- ative and engaging, Olivia suggests you make a claim

“Recording health and safety incidents”

Instead – to be more provocative and engaging – Olivia suggests you make a claim, like:

“We must record every health and safety incident”

But, bearing in mind what I said earlier about not using an uninspiring call-to-action as your key message, I’d use a different approach in this instance. So, you could use a key message with a bit more emotional appeal (and just an implied call-to-action), like this:

“Every health and safety incident deserves recording”


3 – Is it in spoken language?Scroll to Contents ↑

Olivia contrasts written language with what people actually say. So here’s her (and my) advice for your key message – and for your whole talk in fact: Avoid written language. (It’s more formal, which puts a barrier between you and your audience.)

She cites this example of written language:

“Educators should maximize the potential of technology in education”

As often happens when writing, that’s full of 4-syllable words (“educators”, “technology”, “education”). In essence, they’re harder to grasp than short words. (And that’s especially true when your audience just hears the words in a talk, rather than reading them at a comfortable pace.)

What’s worse, the example above’s also full of nouns (again, the words “educators”, “technology”, “education” – plus “potential”). On that, let me heavily paraphrase one of my favourite business-writing coaches, Claire Lynch, who warns:

Excess nouns make your writing stiff

So rather than this example of a poor key message:

“Educators should maximize the potential of technology in education”

Olivia suggests rephrasing it in spoken language, like this:

“Teachers can make better use of technology”

If you see the word “of” in your key message, beware!

And I suggest making that even simpler: If you see the word “of” in your key message, beware! It often nestles between 2 nouns – in this case, “use (of)” and “technology”.

To fix that, here’s a shorter version:

“Teachers can use modern tools better”

That’s more dynamic, replacing “make use of” with the more direct verb, “use”. (And it indulges my passion for replacing 4-syllable words where I can.)


4 – Is it specific and concrete?Scroll to Contents ↑

Being specific and concrete mainly comes down to using simple, everyday words and phrases. For example, Olivia suggests you avoid key messages like this one:

“Implementing urban design principles will ensure
that this road-building project is sustainable”

To improve that example, you could use much more familiar terms, like in this version:

“Adding cycleways and walkways will reduce pollution”

She says:

“Your audience should be able to “see” your key message.
If it’s full of jargon or abstract, conceptual words, they won’t.”
~ Olivia Mitchell

Here are 2 specific tips to help you avoid those abstract words:

If you can, replace… Example – original Example – improved
Terms containing
3 or more words
“We’ll apply best-practice typography to this sign-making project “We’ll write clearly when we design this sign
Words ending with “-ion”
or “-ment”
“This city needs a profusion of entertainment venues” “This city needs more cinemas and theatres


5 – Is the relevance to your audience clear?Scroll to Contents ↑

As Olivia says, if you use the word “you” in your key message, that’s a great way to make it appeal to your audience.

Match your key message to your current audience

I’d add one caution on that, though. Namely, be careful to match your key message to your current audience. For instance, suppose you present on the same topic to different types of audience. In that case, don’t reuse the same key message for every audience.

As an example, imagine you speak about mentoring programs at work. In that case, when you speak to mentors or mentees, your key message might be one of these:

Mentors: “When you mentor people, you build skills – theirs and yours!”
Mentees: “You can fast-track your career by finding a mentor”


6 – Does it say something your audience doesn’t know?Scroll to Contents ↑

Communicating’s all about adding value

Communicating’s all about adding value. And you can’t do that if you simply share something your audience has heard before.

For me, this is a crucial aspect of any effective message – not just your key message. And it harks back to a point I touched on earlier – that you should be insightful or surprising.

By doing that, you respect your audience, and the time and attention they give your talk. They’ll thank you by keenly listening, absorbing your whole message far better.

As Olivia puts it:

“Your audience is there for something new.
Don’t give them clichés and platitudes”
~ Olivia Mitchell

For instance, rather than this tired old key message:

“People are our greatest asset”

She’s much happier with something like this unique line instead:

“As we’ve grown, we’ve needed different types of people”

OK, now that we’ve seen the 6 questions from Olivia, let’s look at the one that I suggest you add to the list


7 – Is it catchy?Scroll to Contents ↑

Back when you 1st wrote down your key message, Olivia also said:

“Don’t try and be clever or quirky
or catchy – you’ll freeze up”
~ Olivia Mitchell

I believe that’s true of that 1st step in the process. At this late stage of refining your original key message though, I’d say you’ve more scope to get creative.

Making your key message catchy means it’ll stand out

Making your key message catchy means it’ll stand out from the “message monsoon” that bombards your audience daily. On that point, I like the blunt advice from Sally Hogshead, of the Speaker Hall of Fame:

“Stand out or don’t bother”
~ Sally Hogshead

How can you make your key message catchy, so it stands out? I recommend mnemonic devices like alliteration or rhyme and the Rule of 3, like in this example from a talk about better business writing:

“These are the 3 top tips for your writing – make it:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Compelling”

Another option’s to make your key message very short, as used in this example you might recall from an earlier step:

“Be happy :)”


c. Test itScroll to Contents ↑

Olivia suggests you test how memorable your key message is. To do that, see if these 3 people can remember it:

  • You – without looking at your notes
  • A friend – an hour after you tell them
  • Another friend – a day after you tell them

What a refreshing and very practical idea!


Summary of the stepsScroll to Contents ↑

As a reminder, here’s Olivia’s method for writing your key message:

  1. Answer this
  2. Craft it
    1. Is it short?
    2. Does it convey a message?
    3. Is it in spoken language?
    4. Is it specific and concrete?
    5. Is the relevance to your audience clear?
    6. Does it say something your audience doesn’t know?
      And here’s the 7th question I added:

    8. Is it catchy?
  3. Test it


Over to youScroll to Contents ↑

  • How important would you say it is for your talk to have a key message?
  • And how helpful (or unhelpful) have you found the tips above?

Please have your say in the comments below.


Also check outScroll to Contents ↑


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