Message Development That Drives Residual Value

The decision has been made – the company will participate in a key message session.

Now it’s time to put a plan in place to make the session valuable and effective. There is a great deal to be learned in a key message session when all of the decision makers are together giving input and putting their personal stake in the final messaging. But beyond the messages developed, if that session is conducted well, it often reveals an underbelly or outcome that isn’t expected and the insight gained is invaluable.    

A strategic message session with high-level executives is the optimal situation if the desired outcome is to create sustainable messages. A four-hour commitment is ideal and while there may be some initial push back on the length of time, nine times out of 10 the four-hour session easily turns into five or longer once the group gets into the session and sees the value in what they’re creating. If they don’t see the value, that’s a good indicator there will be difficulty keeping the team on message and consistent when it comes time to execute a solid communications program. 

Nuts and Bolts of Effective Messaging
So what makes a good session? Three important components include: tools and logistics that stimulate contribution; moderation that stimulates collaboration; and a large amount of intense listening and flexibility on the part of the moderator(s).    

Tools and logistics are the easiest of the three. A large room allowing for space to get up and move around, at least 15 feet of whiteboard and technology and equipment that moves information from board to screen quickly, are all essential. Ideally, the group should include no more than 10 arranged in a semi-circle to keep them focused on the moderator. This set-up also allows for dialogue within the group. Preparing a few exercises to have in the moderator’s back pocket will push along the discussion when the inevitable stall in conversation occurs.

Selection of a moderator is one of the most critical factors in planning a key message session. Their role in initiating and maintaining the free flow of information will greatly impact the effectiveness and results of the meeting. The best approach is to bring in a moderator who is not employed by the company to avoid pre-conceived results, biased beliefs or individual agendas.

A strong moderator will be able to stimulate collaboration among the group at the beginning. This is typically the worst hurdle to overcome. They arrive worrying about the value of their time commitment and they might be uncomfortable with an outsider in the room. Sometimes they’ll arrive and start opening up laptops and firing up PDAs. If that happens, let them. They’ll undoubtedly start closing them when they realize that messaging is about making decisions regarding the company’s positioning; if they’re not an active part of the decision, it will happen without them. 

The moderator’s role during the session is to exercise a calm, professional demeanor that demonstrates a high level of respect for time and process. There are no little exercises of breaking into small groups or writing on flip charts. All the participants are expected to do is talk because what is needed is their thinking. It’s the moderator’s job to use all they have to extract those thoughts. 

Start with a brief overview of what key messages are – typically this group is a quick study – and then be prepared to do a lot of listening, writing and probing. If intelligent questions are asked, good discussion will ensue. Capture comments on post-it notes (yes, it’s low tech, but proven) and reference where they came from and for what audience they’re intended. It’s a challenge trying to capture everything that’s said when up to 10 people are talking at once, so the moderator needs to be well prepared and alert. 

The Art of Good Listening
Intense listening to what is being said is critical. As participants become more comfortable sharing thoughts, it becomes easier for the moderator to start asking probing questions that help “peel back the onion” and challenge thinking. Key message ideas will begin to formulate, but they have to be questioned and probed to be sure they can be validated. The session can be recorded, but taping a four-hour session is not always viable or a useful option. Also, taping the session could subconsciously keep the moderator from full concentration knowing that information could be reviewed later and it may lead participants to censor comments.

When you think you’ve exhausted the input, take a good break and start to work some magic on what’s been collected. From all that’s been shared, there are always three to five claims that can be made. A sea of post-it notes may make it seem a daunting task, but if the moderator listened well and captured all that was said and really gained a sense of the heart of the company, they’ll naturally fall into place. 

Here’s the interesting part: While these sessions are intended to expose the exciting claims or messages of the company, sometimes the session takes a different path when a moderator exercises flexibility in the path of the discussion. A new company vision may take shape. A new product may go back to the developers for proof that it works because its capabilities can’t be validated. An undercurrent of leadership distrust or disparate thinking may send the group away unable to agree to what or who is valuable to the organization. 

These residual effects of key message development make this process interesting, exciting and enlightening. Each session is unique and effective when good tools, technology, collaboration and flexibility are utilized.

This is excerpted from PR News' Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. The article was written by Lauren Eisbrenner, executive vice president & COO of Eisbrenner Public Relations. To order this guidebook or check out other resources, please visit