Messaging Mastery: how to write to trigger emotion

Tessa Parry-Wingfield

The Power of Words

The Power of Words’ (TPW) inaugural vodcast was on messaging mastery, with founder Tessa Parry-Wingfield and guest speaker Vanessa Cuddeford, Strategic Comms Expert.

Here’s the vodcast recording. TPW has pulled out the best bits here in this blog.

Tessa and Vanessa covered:

  • how we make decisions based on emotion, not logic and why that matters
  • why you need to channel your inner Trump (yes, that one)
  • how to call on short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words (not Latin)

Intrigued? Then tuck in.

TPW: Messaging or key messages – such incredibly dull words – but why is crafting standout messaging so important in business communications?

VC: There’s just so much noise out there, isn’t there? You can’t move for information in this day and age – whether it’s on social media, emails, newspapers, online, or on the radio.

And so, we’ve got so many calls on our attention that if your message as a business isn’t super clear the moment people see it, then they’re simply going to bounce off. And the mistakes that people often make is that they talk often about the features of what they do rather than the benefits.

One of my favourite TED Talks of all time is by Simon Sinek, and he talks about the importance of having a why – and that people buy into your why and that then appeals to people’s emotional brains.

We often think that we make decisions on information, but we don’t. We make decisions on emotion and then we justify them with logic. And so, to get a really good message, number one, it needs to be clear immediately. But it also it needs to appeal to people’s emotions.

We make decisions on emotion and then we justify them with logic.

TPW: What do you think are some common mistakes when crafting key messages?

VC: Saying too much is a big mistake. We tend to overload people with information and not just keep it simple. You and I, as journalists, know how difficult it is to be simple. And often you’ll get a very complicated story. It’s a journalist’s job is to make it easy and understandable for people who aren’t experts and create a headline so that people can immediately understand what that story is about.

Businesses need to do that as well. Another problem that I see is that businesses make it about themselves. They’ll want to say things like: “We’ve got 14 offices around the world. We won this award. We work with these clients.” But your audience doesn’t care about you. They only care about you in so much as you can help them. A feature is – this car has an airbag. A benefit is – this airbag saves your life. That’s the critical difference.

Your audience doesn’t care about you. They only care about you in so much as you can help them.

TPW: There’s often a misconception that colloquial messaging is somehow dumbing down

VC: When I’m training people to speak in meetings, often they’ll want to show that they know all the lingo and all the jargon because they think it makes them sound more intelligent. It’s quite exclusive and it’s a real skill to be able to describe and talk about complicated ideas simply. There’s a big difference between simple and simplistic.

One of my favourite quotes of all time is by the French writer Paul Valerie, and he said, “Everything simple is false, but everything complicated is unusable”. And what he meant by that is you’re never going to be able to get all the information across in one go if you make it simple.

It is, to an extent going to be false because you can’t get everything in there. But if you try to get everything in there, then it’s unusable anyway. So, you’re going to have to slaughter your darlings and cut stuff out. Painful though it may be.

TPW: Going back to the emotional part of our brain – the emotional intelligence can often be left out of messaging, can’t it? But strong key messages are all about the feel

VC: Emotion is key and there are some really great examples when emotion has been more persuasive than fact. If we think back to the London 2012 Olympic bid, it should have gone to Paris. Paris was the shoo-in; it was assumed that Paris would win that bid.

But when it came to that presentation to the IOC, Paris really majored on the logistics – the fact that they had hotel rooms, they had all the transport infrastructure, they were very well set up for it.

Whereas London talked about the legacy, the sporting feeling and how this would be so great for generations to come. And ultimately, at the last minute, that’s why London pipped Paris to the post, because the feels worked.

TPW: What kind of language works best for key messages?

VC: It was Winston Churchill who said that short words are the best; the old words best of all. English is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Latin – from when the French came over. If a word has more than three syllables, it’s probably Latin-derived, rather than Anglo-Saxon. Day-to-day, we tend to speak in Anglo-Saxon. If you’re writing in formal language – like legalistic language – it’s more likely to be Latin. If you’re writing in words with more than three syllables, then you’re probably speaking in Latin. In that case, go back to the drawing board – the shorter, the better.

TPW: Do you have any good books people can read to get advice on messaging?

VC: There’s a great book called ‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath. They talk about what makes a message sticky and have an impact. And they came up with an acronym – the ‘SUCCES’ formula. Simple. Unexpected. Concrete. Credible. Emotional. Stories. And if you can include some, if not all of those then you’re going to be creating a good message.

I remember reading about Margaret Atwood describing how to tell a good story. And she said: “If you were telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood and you started with ‘Once upon a time, there was a little girl’, we’d all go – boring! We’ve heard that story 100 times before. But if you start from the point of view that says, ‘It was dark inside the wolf’, you’re taking people right into the middle of the action”. Now we’re intrigued…

The SUCCES formula: Simple. Unexpected. Concrete. Credible. Emotional. Stories.

TPW: What famous person would you say is good at messaging?

VC: Controversially, I think Donald Trump is a good example of someone who was quite surprising in his messaging. And that’s why he was so successful; he would say things that people didn’t expect and couldn’t quite understand in the moment.

So, when he said, “We’re going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”, how does that add up? How the heck is Mexico going to pay for it? Now, that turned out not to be true, and obviously, we want to be truthful in our messaging. But what he did was created that intrigue. He piqued people’s interest and they wanted to find out more.

TPW: To wrap things up, what 3 things should businesses do to crack the messaging nut?

VC: Speak to the benefit for your audience, not the feature – it’s not the what you do, it’s the why you do it. And really to find that out for yourself again, look to your own values. Why did you join this organisation? Why did you set up this company?

You will have had a why. Most of us want to get some kind of benefit. That’s your why. In terms of the writing of your messages, use short Anglo-Saxon words. And then finally, less is more. Better to say one thing and it really cut through, than say five things and it all just gets lost.

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