Communicators, is this why you’re not getting “buy-in” for your work?

Message map cartoon: "If this is a map, how comes I'm lost?"

So, have you ever developed a message map?


Well you need to, according to a certain well-known organisation for internal communicators whose purpose is “to embed IC best practices and skills”.

No idea what a message map is? Don’t worry.

This well-known organisation for internal communicators can tell you all you need to know about message maps.

This well-known organisation for internal communicators believes “effective communication leads to positive business and social outcomes”. So they must be worth listening to, right?

Here’s what they say:

A message map is the foundation for all communications relating to an organization, a specific project or initiative. This guide walks you through a best practice process for the successful development of a message map including how to define and prioritize your audiences, how to identify the current mindset of your audience to address concerns and negative perceptions or to leverage positive assets, outline the key behaviors and expectations for each audience – what you want them to “think, feel and do” when receiving the messages, and how to align leaders and teams charged with communicating messages.

If, unlike me, you didn’t get lost in that meandering, jargon-addled and haphazardly punctuated second sentence, you may be intrigued to learn more.

Well, you’re in for a treat. Because there then follows another 5,877 words – 5,887 words. About how to have a meeting to discuss what to say to your staff.

Unsurprisingly, it’s 5,877 words – 5,887 words – of the bleeding obvious (e.g., “BOX TWO: The difference between ‘think’, ‘feel’ and ‘do'”).

All dressed up with drivel about “unleashing dialogue”, “driving groups into alignment” and “populating messages into a variety of tactics” (huh?).

And then, finally, we get to this advice, quoted from somewhere else:

BOX SIX: Techniques to grab and hold people’s attention

1. Say it quickly, simply and so your audience members know what’s in it for them.

2. Don’t try to say too much, or you may risk losing your audience’s attention.

3. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I need the audience to think, feel or do?”

4. Avoid vague concepts.

5. Tell a story – it’s the most effective way to get people’s attention.

Is it just me or is there a breathtaking lack of self-awareness here? Or do internal communicators just have a greater attention span than the lesser mortals they’re communicating with?

And is it any wonder so many professional communicators feel frustrated at not “getting senior leadership buy-in” for what they do?

If overcomplicated gumph about message maps is what they’re passing off as expertise?

Next week on Good Copy, Bad Copy: the simple, more powerful alternative to developing a message map.

10 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. It’s quite astonishing isn’t it, how an organisation which communicates so poorly can actually be selling communication?

    Sadly, there seem to be hundreds of takers, paying no doubt large sums of money for this snake oil and twaddle, and that’s where the real problem lies.

    Here’s another one. We were asked to quote for some writing and editing work which also included running some workshops to discus the organisation’s messages. For this it was apparently vital we were familiar with Message House methodology, so I looked it up.

    Of course the four questions for determining the key messages are spot on (and unlike Melcrum’s, they’re in meaningful English), but seriously, do we need to draw a house to get grown ups to answer these questions?

  2. Dave says:

    Just been to that Message House Method link, where it says:

    “Congratulations. You’ve just turned using key messages from something abstract and onerous into something visual, emotional and fun”.

    Er, “Congratulations. You’ve just turned using key messages from something abstract and onerous into something patronising” more like!

  3. Thanks Dave, I quite agree. So it’s a little worrying that it was one of our major government departments that was telling me that this was the technique I should be using to talk to an audience of their senior managers.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    What an awful position for them to put you in, Richard. How did it go down with the senior managers?

  5. We didn’t get the work actually, though we’re on the roster and do stuff reasonably regularly. We tried to play ball and act as if the message house was an important part of the process, but it’s possible that they saw through that and gave the work instead to an internal communications consultancy who live and breathe message houses, and unleashing dialogue to drive alignment and all that sort of thing.

  6. Marc Fest says:

    Hi everyone, this is Marc, the guy behind

    Dave, I think you have a point regarding your feedback about the sentence starting with “congratulations”. It can indeed be perceived as condescending. I’ll change it.

    Richard, I’m glad you agree with the usefulness of the four questions inside the message house. In regard to the value of using the shape of a house to make the abstract concept of key messaging more concrete and “sticky” : I can only say that I have experienced again and again that it works very well, especially in organizations that are still in the beginning stages of developing communications capacity. I agree that you may not need the message house metapher if you deal with a sophisticated client. But if you want to seed the habit of key messaging, it’s a great tool.

    Thanks again for the input.

    Cheers from Miami,

  7. Painful. It’s hard to believe people actually get paid to write so badly.

  8. Clare Lynch says:

    Hi Mark – thanks for stopping by and responding so well to some honest feedback.

    Whatever criticisms people may have about the presentation of the message house idea, the concept is fundamentally sound and useful.

    Unlike the other organisation’s 5,877+ words of advice about message maps…

  9. Marc Fest says:

    Hi Clare, you’re welcome. Your community gave me useful feedback for which I’m grateful. I’ve already made some changes to the explanation of the message house method (at ).

    All the best to you all,

    Marc Fest
    Founder, The Message House Group

  10. Hi Marc, I take your points. I was more irritated about the client’s insistence on it (which is good for you, of course), rather than discussing how we might run the session.

    As for my own comments, I’m horrified by my 10.55am entry where I should have removed all three instances of ‘that’ (and a ‘was’) before posting. Clare, please forgive such poor self-editing.

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