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You can’t find your story without a map

Posted by Denise M. Reagan on Mar 27, 2018 10:32 AM

If you want to tell your story, you only have a few words to do it.

The reality of evaporating attention spans means you only have a few seconds to catch people’s attention. A University of California professor found that the average soundbite plummeted from 43 seconds in 1968 to a meager nine seconds in 1988.

Today, it’s just eight seconds, which is about how long it takes to speak the average 140-character tweet. 


Illustration by Cassie Deogracia

If your organization, company, or nonprofit has a message, then you need a map. A message map, that is.

A message map is a tool that helps tell the story of your organization in simple, straightforward language. A map helps you maintain a consistent message no matter who says it, who hears it, or which platform you use. 

Brunet-García has worked on message maps for many clients, including several programs for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention such as Traumatic Brain Injury, Prescription Drug Overdose, Suicide Prevention, and Violence Prevention. 

Why do you need a map?

A map helps you find your way to the story you want to tell. You—and everyone who works for your organization—can get lost without it. It keeps everyone on the same page—literally.

Are you launching a new business? Is your company undergoing an overhaul? Are you changing your identity? Are you creating a new segment of your market? Are you building a crisis communications plan? Any of these conditions is a good reason to embark on the process of creating a message map.

Developing and using message maps achieves several important goals:

  • Crafting clear, concise communications in advance before you need them.
  • Anticipating questions or concerns before they are raised.
  • Building a central repository of messages that can be used for any purpose: social, digital, events, video, print, earned media, and more.
  • Creating content in various serving sizes: 7 seconds, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 20 minutes, etc.
  • Identifying gaps in your knowledge.
  • Promoting open dialogue inside and outside the organization.
  • Helping everyone in the organization to speak with one voice.

What don’t you know?

Before you start writing, you need to do some research. If your company already has documents that outline your organization’s vision and plans, then you have a head start. Is there marketing research that helps you understand key decision drivers, attitudes to reinforce, or attitudes to overcome? Message maps that are supported by research provide the best results. 

If those documents don’t exist, then you have some work to do to create them. You’ll need to gather stakeholders and guide them through a process that will provide consensus about the organization’s mission and goals.

Who is your audience?

Now that you’re armed with some background knowledge, you need to know who you expect to hear these messages. These communications could be directed at one or more of these audiences, and you might have specific messages for each group: the general public, customers, partners, distributors, employees, analysts, reporters, investors, etc.

What do want these audiences to do with this information? Are you trying to sell a product? Are you seeking media coverage? Do you want word-of-mouth references? What are the roadblocks to achieving these goals?

What do you want to say?

Now you’re ready to start writing. Use language that is easy to understand for the broadest possible audience to ensure that your messages are clear. 

  • Overarching message: This is your organization’s mission statement or the goal for that particular set of messages.
  • Key takeaways: Break down your overarching message into three supporting statements.
  • Supporting messages: Support each of your key takeaways with three facts that further detail the issue.

 One guideline to keep in mind is the 27/9/3 Rule:

  • Each message should be about the length of a sound bite or 27 words.
  • You should be able to deliver that sound bite in just nine seconds.
  • Limit your message map to three supporting messages for each key takeaway.

Put your messages to the test

Once you’ve crafted your messages, it’s time to test them on some real people. Listen to what your audience tells you and incorporate their feedback into your message map.