It Takes Skill, Guts to Craft a Quotable Key Message and Keep Repeating It
Developing a quotable key message is the first step to effective communication. The next steps involve staying on message, which requires the skill , will power and discipline to keep repeating the main message.
Message discipline is one of the hardest communication skills to master. For most of us, it seems unnatural to say the same thing, with roughly the same words, over and over again. In critical communications, where specificity and clarity are essential, that’s exactly what a spokesperson must do to ensure a reporter or target audience recognizes and remembers your key message.
Repetitive sounds are like music for the brain.
Benefit of Repetition
Repetition isn’t necessary because reporters are dumb or audiences are inattentive. Repetition is necessary because reporters may be listening to multiple people for a story and audiences may be distracted by their smartphones. Repetition represents the best insurance policy that your key message is heard, remembered and reported. Repetitive sounds are like music for the brain.
In media interviews, good reporters come armed with questions, which many times can shift the conversation away from a spokesperson’s key message. The job of the spokesperson is to pivot back to their key message, repeating it as often as necessary to stay on message. Their job is to tell their story, not get entangled in someone else’s story.
In adversarial settings, the biggest risk of getting off message is stumbling into the message track of your adversary. Mixing it up may seem like a great strategy in the moment, but it all too often turns out to be a communication disaster. The best advice is to stay in your own lane and deliver your key message and supporting points.
Knowing When to Quit
Another tripwire for effective communication is the inability to know when to shut up. You may have been chosen as spokesperson because you know a lot about the subject at hand. But the job of a spokesperson is to deliver a message not a lecture. Knowing a lot about a subject is most useful in knowing what to say and what not to say to get across the key message.
Key messages need to be strategic. Sometimes issues demand more complex key messaging. But a data dump is never a key message, or a good idea if you want to see your main point in print and your audience in the know.
The job of a spokesperson is to deliver a message not a lecture.
The Money Quote
Message retention is aided by what professional communicators call the “money quote”, the punchline for a key message. Some people are frequently quoted in the news media because they are reliably quotable. They spend time to inject an earworm-worthy phrase into their key message. And they aren’t afraid to repeat that phrase.
The money quote is not only a good friend for your key message, it is also a useful partner for reporters. The money quote provides a succinct, irresistible summary of your key message that fits in a 12-second sound bite in a radio or TV report and a 30-word lead paragraph in a print story.
Keeping Key Message Relevant
For ongoing issues or labor negotiations, key messages must evolve to remain relevant and newsworthy. But they should build on, not stray from, the original key message. That’s the best way to prevent news coverage or public awareness to shift or be highjacked by someone else’s key message. A quotable key message is easier to refresh and update – and for reporters and a target audience to track.
Because a key message must be durable as well as memorable, careful consideration should go into preparing it. Few people, including professional communicators, can devise a powerful and quotable key message on the fly. Key messages must fit the task at hand as well as the personality of the spokesperson delivering them.
A touch of humor might work in some key message situations but probably not many. Jargon and slang rarely delivers a key message effectively. The best approach is relying on clear, active language that rolls off the tongue with ease – and is easy to remember and repeat. The task is similar to a songwriter whose first lyric introduces a subject, sets the mood and draws and retains a listener’s attention.
Success Not Accidental
Delivering a key message with a money quote isn’t an accidental success. In addition to preparing the key message, the spokesperson needs to practice how to make it sound natural and use it as if in a conversation. Performing in front of a mirror or turning a family member or fellow worker into an audience are tried-and-true practices that lead to more polished key message delivery.
In addition to making a key message sound natural, practice also makes a spokesperson aware of facial tics and hand motions that can distract an audience or a reporter. Audiences typically want speakers to succeed. Reporters count on speaker success to get what they call “good air” that makes it easier to piece together a compelling story their editors will feature.
At the heart of communication success is message discipline – from developing a key messages, investing them with quotable language and repeating them as often as needed to ensure the messages are delivered and heard. The best compliment you and your key message can receive is when other people, including opponents, quote you.
Case Study from the Headlines
Secretary of State Antony Blinken serves as the principal spokesman for President Biden on foreign affairs, including on the attack by Hamas on Israel and the Israeli response in Gaza. Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Blinken has provided a master class in how to handle an explosive and heart-wrenching situation.
Blinken consistently begins his remarks by repeating this key message with a money quote, “As we’ve said from the start, Israel has not only the right but the obligation to defend itself, and also to take steps to try to make sure that this never happens again.”
The second part of his key message is also consistently repeated, “We’ve also said very clearly and repeatedly that how Israel does this matters.”
Amid reports of mounting civilian casualties in Gaza as a result of Israeli bombing, Blinken has evolved his initial key message by calling on Israel to allow for “humanitarian pauses”. “We will focus as well on steps that need to be taken to protect civilians who are in a crossfire of Hamas’s making, and we want to look at concrete steps that can be taken to better protect them.”
Blinken’s basic key message has a third element: “Of course, we’re intensely focused every single day on the hostages and taking every possible step that we can, in concert with others, to secure their release.”
The final part of his key message features another Blinken money quote: “We will be talking about how we can set the conditions for a durable, sustainable peace; durable, sustainable security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. We’re focused on the day of; we also need to be focused on the day after.”
The BBC interviewed a State Department press officer one month into the Israeli-Hamas war. Displaying message discipline, the press officer gave responses that mirrored Blinken’s key messages.