Designing Messages to Increase Presence - PRESENCE IS A SKILL NOT A GIFT - Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett

Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)


Chapter 7. Designing Messages to Increase Presence

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”


One’s presence is further established by how communications are structured, designed, and delivered. Content, whether written or spoken, needs to be consistent, concise, and clear. It can be hard to be clear, especially when deeply knowledgeable about the details of a subject. There are a multitude of questions to be answered before delivering information: Who will the audience be? How much complex information should be offered? Will it be a decisionmaking audience perhaps not well versed in the subject? Essentially, what is the goal of the communication?

To design for enhanced presence and clarity of communication, I recommend key messaging. Key messaging is an excellent brainstorming, problemsolving, presentation tool. It’s basically an extension of outlining, which is traditionally taught in middle school, and it’s a core concept of media training. It organizes ideas, actions, and results in a way that can be either very lean and high level or quite detailed. It is very simple, but it is not easy. It takes practice. It’s well worth the effort, as its results are extremely effective. It is rooted in the structure of storytelling, and it is through story, not merely data, that we explain the complexities of our world.

I was recently asked by a leader of a large global team of medical statisticians to teach key messaging to his reports. His people not only have to design highly complex clinical trials for new oncology therapies; they need to keep detailed records of the incredibly varied results of those trials. Day in and day out, they swim in an ever rising sea of data, shifting from the granular details of molecular science to meta-analyses of lab results. “Storytelling has nothing to do with us,” one man said. “The only thing we care about is statistics.”

“I understand,” I replied. “But have you ever considered that behind every single number in each statistic there is a story?”

He was unconvinced: “Our results are all that the regulators care about.”

“Of course. But the biochemistry of a side effect or the absorption rate of a molecule by the kidney can be communicated in story form as well as statistical, can it not? Tell me how a molecule is targeted to arrive at the specific destination cell of the tumor.”

He reluctantly agreed and then went on to briefly and quite eloquently describe the journey of a specific molecular agent as it makes its way from IV drip to cell tumor. The room was enraptured. Even cells make a hero’s journey! Numbers can support and provide backup, but numbers and data don’t engage. Journeys do.

The biggest challenge to implementing key messaging is sufficient time for proper focus. In our increasingly distracted, multitasking, goal-driven world, it’s difficult to carve out the time to sit and think, to get a bird’s-eye view of the specific situation that needs to be addressed. Almost all professionals know how to do what they do; days are composed of taking action. But I’ve found over many years of teaching key messaging, it’s very difficult for most to define the underlying conditions and influences of those actions, what I call the situational demands—or the what. This is easy to understand, as situations are often complex and multilayered. For example, let’s use a backache as a “situation.” Some obvious causes of a backache may be (1) a pulled muscle, (2) a budging disk, or (3) kidney disease. The job of a good physician is to drill down past the “presenting” symptoms and find the underlying cause of the backache so that appropriate medical action can be taken. The diagnostic tools that doctors employ exist to identify the what behind the symptoms. It would be great if all professionals were trained to dig as deeply as physicians into the core of each situation.

In business, for example, a what may be a colleague with whom there is friction. From one person’s perspective, that would be the presenting symptom. But how is that friction experienced? Is the colleague rude (or too stressed and busy to engage)? Is the colleague competitive (or threatened)? Is the colleague cold (or merely preoccupied)? The first step before taking action is to define the specificity of the cause behind the manifest behavior. As should be obvious from this brief example, there may be many complex reasons behind why a colleague acts in certain ways, reasons that may be very personal, or not personal at all. How to diagnose? Accurately attempting to define behavior can prove challenging, but it is well worth the effort. Not doing so would be akin to a doctor prescribing ibuprofen for what might be kidney disease!

The above example focused on symptoms or behaviors, but the what, or the situation to be communicated or formally presented, can be any number of things. The what can be an innovation, a problem, a challenge, a new client, a business plan, a new product. The what is anything that needs to be explored, addressed, communicated, or managed. For example, if the what is a burning building, the next step, or the how, would be to call the fire department to put out the fire. Finally comes the why, which defines the hoped-for results or goals of the actions taken. In the case of a burning building, the why is to put out the fire, prevent spread, and save lives and property. Simple, as indicated, but not easy. Here’s why.

Regarding the above example, no substantial information about the building itself was given. A fully occupied elementary school in a city versus an old, abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere might require very different actions, or hows. For the former, calling the fire department to extinguish the fire is a nobrainer; for the latter, it might make more sense to conduct a controlled burn and demolish an unsafe structure. The actions taken must always be contingent on the situation at hand. In business, most situations are not as obvious as a fire and require nuanced definition and responses. That takes us back to carving out the needed time to fully think through, define, and understand the presenting situation.

Why might such a model as key messaging be so vital for moment-by-moment presence? If you drive, take a minute to recall learning how you did so. It was hard to learn all the aspects of managing your own car, not to mention navigating all possible contingencies of the road and other drivers. You had to learn the rules of the road, protocols, and laws. You had to master parallel parking! Now, as a seasoned driver, you hardly give these a moment’s thought; they’ve become automatic. A driver can speed along at 55 miles per hour while having a conversation, listening to a news broadcast, or thinking about work. The body has integrated years of being behind the wheel of a car, so that driving almost seems to do itself; those skills are stored in what’s called “implicit memory.” The reasons why driving needs to become so immediate, ingrained, habitual, and instinctive are obvious: despite thousands of hours behind the wheel, every single driving moment happens in the now and must be handled in the present. If a driver first had to remember and then decide to suddenly brake or change gears, chances are it would be much too late.

My recommendation is to integrate key messaging into daily practice. When this skill is routinely employed as a way to define, address, and communicate, it greatly enhances one’s ability to navigate the quickly changing demands of the present. For example, if a meeting is not going well, there can be several reasons, the two most obvious being (1) the subject matter and (2) the dynamics of the participants. The leader who has integrated key messaging into his or her thinking can assess and far more effectively navigate the constantly shifting whats of the meeting, both subject matter and personal dynamics.

I’ve taught the key message template (see below) to leaders in multiple industries the world over. I’ve instructed country heads in pharmaceuticals from Spain to Turkey, senior bankers from Mexico to Brazil, innovators and tech start-up founders in Silicon Valley, museum curators and advertising executives. Everyone has struggled with it and even resisted it. Why? Because it is hard to do. That said, those who have mastered it have reported back that it is a life-changing technique. It defines problems, ideas, innovations in actionable ways, so that they can be not only communicated effectively but dealt with efficiently. Additionally, key messaging as a problemsolving, management, presentation, and communication tool is highly flexible and can be uniquely tailored for any situation.

These days the majority of presentations are accompanied by a slide deck. If you make time to structure your delivery using key messaging, make sure you do so as well for your slides. (When creating a new presentation, people often refer to previously designed decks, adding or removing individual slides from it. By not starting from scratch, or tailoring the deck to a specific audience, the results are often unclear, haphazard and visually littered.)

Now let’s look at the template itself and how to implement it.


If you search online for an image of a key message template, about a hundred different versions appear. All have value and can be explored. Below is one version of the key message template, where the details, or supporting headlines, of the key messages would be filled in. It is visually uncluttered and very simple. (A blank template that you can use is provided at the end of the chapter.)

Key Messages—Headline Model

Presentation Date:

Presentation Title:


Intended Audience:






Purpose and Audience

The first step in designing your key message is to ask yourself what is the purpose of the meeting or exchange. Often people call a meeting, and within just a few minutes, it is abundantly clear that no purpose has been defined. An agenda is not a purpose. The purpose may be to brainstorm, but not having defined that, things can quickly go off the rails. Is the purpose to provide an update? Is it to inform, educate, convince, ask, inspire? Defining the purpose shapes the tone, tenor, and vocabulary of the entire discussion and should be absolutely clear. That is not to say that things cannot digress from a stated purpose. They can. But a clearly defined purpose, combined with well-structured key messages, like a road map, will always bring the discussion or presentation back to the focus of the exchange and get things moving in the right direction.

At the start of designing any key message, you also need to ask yourself about the audience. When using key messaging for presentational purposes, the content should be relevant to the particular audience. So it’s crucial to define who the audience members will be, what they already know, and what they’ll need to know.

TRY THIS: Purpose and Audience

To start, take an upcoming work conversation or presentation that you anticipate having in the near future. Then answer these two questions:

Who will the audience be?

What will the purpose be?

Presentation Title

Whether or not you use a title, pushing yourself to think of one is an excellent exercise. Titles set the tone, direction, and parameters of the content. Titles can be witty or have a strongly embedded point of view. By jotting down a few ideas for titles, you will discover a lot about what you need to say and how to say it. Creating a good title is hard, as you’ll discover. But it is hard for a reason: it must accomplish a great deal in a few words. Depending on the audience, situation, or corporate culture, titles can be evocative, provocative, rhetorical, interesting, challenging, funny—in essence, not boring. (This is very business-specific, as some companies have very strict rules for titling.) Aim for a title that embeds a word or image that connects to the five senses. For example, a title such as “Fourth Quarter Annual Report” (yawn) can have a subtitle such as “Sailing or Sinking?” That will immediately ignite curiosity in an audience. A mental image of both will be created instantly in the mind of the audience. A well-worded title can capture the whole intention of a presentation and set the direction for the discussion that follows. Even if you wind up not using it, practicing titling is an excellent discipline that enables you to be concise and to the point.


Take three or four recent business events or challenges and give each two or three different titles, each of which should take into consideration both your point of view and the audience.

What did you learn by doing that?

Key Messages

All key messages need to answer three questions:

Key Messages

✵ WHAT: The what can be a key concept, situation, innovation, challenge. It is the single overarching element and should be described in under ten words.

✵ HOW: The how refers to the actions to address or implement the above. One main action is recommended, also to be described in very few words.

✵ WHY: The why focuses on the desired outcomes; these are goals to aim for, the hoped-for results. List the single most important result in as few words as possible.


Headlines further develop and define specific aspects of the situation, key action, and main hoped-for result. The headlines can and would change depending on the purpose of the exchange, as you will see from some examples filled in below. Strong headlines set and guide the agenda, illuminate your key messages, and generate questions and responses from the audience. The examples below are a guide. Keep in mind that the more you begin to employ key messaging, the more you’ll be able to tweak it and make it valuable for your purposes.

What a Key Message Might Look Like

Here are a few samples of how the template might be designed depending on different audiences and goals regarding a burning building.

✵ Presentation Title: Everyone Is Safe (versus, for example, “Raging Fire Puts Lives at Risk!” Note the difference.)

✵ Date:

✵ Purpose: Update

✵ Intended Audience: General population

Key Messages

✵ WHAT: Burning occupied property

✵ HOW: Call fire department

✵ WHY: Save lives


One of the benefits of this design tool is its flexibility. For example, if this presentation is to the firefighting crew, the whats, and thus the hows and whys, might be entirely different.


The firefighter audience for this message needs to know wholly different things than does the media or the public at large. Tailoring the message to the given audience is critical to make connection work. As you can see, the headlines, which deepen and develop the content, are completely different in these two examples. Why? Because of the different audiences and purposes.

Also the flexibility of this design allows the presentation to drill down into any of the specific whats or hows in as much detail as required. The what of asbestos could have its own key messages:


Here is another example, and a not infrequent one in business:

✵ WHAT: Competitor’s product launch will cut our market share

✵ HOW: Speed up timelines for our product rollout

✵ WHY: Beat the competition


Any of the above whats can be described in much greater detail than the chart provides. The chart serves as a guide that sets the direction and organizes how the information will be delivered. So, for example, advertising inefficiencies might be due to any number of factors: workload, indecision, budget, regulatory approvals. That particular what could be given its own template as a way to take a deep dive into the reasons behind the delay. Following that, its own set of actions could then be established.


After filling in the title, purpose, audience, and three main overall key messages, drill down into the specific aspects of the what (situation, idea, innovation, or challenge) that elaborates or builds on the big key message (see “The Key Message Template”). Those are your headlines. List each as it occurs to you in random order, without prioritizing or explaining. If, during list making, ideas of how to address any of those aspects arise, jot them in the “How” (actions to address) column. The whats and hows do not need to apply to each other. Each column is its own separate unit. (When this message is delivered through either a conversation or a formal presentation, each column should be presented separately, as the audience will be better able to track the information as opposed to constantly tracking back and forth between whats, hows, and whys.) Finally, list the hoped-for results, or whys. Put the list away and come back to it in an hour to review, prioritize, or delete items that may not be necessary. In other words, edit it. Why prioritize? Two reasons: First, prioritizing will identify where to place emphasis on key points that will receive the most time. Second, due to time constraints, meetings or presentations are often cut short, and if the most critical content isn’t delivered first, it may not be delivered at all.


Why do we use metaphors and similes? What purpose do they serve? We are connected to our surroundings by our five senses, and metaphors are the linguistic equivalent of providing someone a map when in a foreign city. The last sentence was a metaphor. It provided an imaginary picture and sensory recall. Metaphors trigger an emotional response in the brain. Metaphors allow us to feel and respond at a sense level to ideas or concepts. They bridge the gap (there’s one!) between the idea and the body. They litter (there’s another!) our speech. They hit the mark or leave us in the dark. (Two more!) The previous three are rather standard issue, and not terribly original. Better to attempt something a bit more creative and less hackneyed. Why use them? Because they work! And if the goal as a communicator is to connect with your audience, metaphors provide the emotional glue. Using the situation or idea that was key-messaged above, consider which metaphors might adequately capture it. To what is the situation similar or analogous? Search for metaphors that aren’t commonplace, but descriptive.


Attempt to find three or four metaphors or similes (which use the word like or as to compare two ideas) for each of the listed subjects below and see how they tilt the point of view or subtextual feeling regarding the subject:

Traveling these days is ____________________________________________

A new product launch is like _______________________________________

Meeting with my boss is like _______________________________________

Managing office politics is as difficult as ______________________________

A job interview is ________________________________________________

Public speaking is ________________________________________________

PowerPoint is like ________________________________________________


In an article in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Larry Jacoby writes: “Priming refers to an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience. Because priming is believed to occur outside of conscious awareness, it is different from memory, which relies on the direct retrieval of information. Direct retrieval utilizes explicit memory, while priming relies on implicit memory. Research has also shown that the effects of priming can impact the decisionmaking process.” In Psychology Today, priming is defined as follows: “Priming is a nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects. It refers to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. For example, a person who sees the word ‘yellow’ will be slightly faster to recognize the word ‘banana.’ This happens because yellow and banana are closely associated in memory. Additionally, priming can also refer to a technique in psychology used to train a person’s memory in both positive and negative ways.”

Regarding presenting, priming is critical, because once that sensitivity has been created, the listener’s mind will be waiting for whatever was primed to be further enhanced. So in a communication, for example, imagine the metaphor “We’ll be on thin ice if” followed by “we meet with this customer,” “buy this property,” “don’t follow these regulations.” The listener’s mind will have instantly, and unconsciously, created an image of walking gingerly on ice or even falling into freezing water. That prime will set up a quiet alarm, or inner stress, in the listener. That may very well suit the message and do precisely what is needed. However, if that is not the goal, it would be best to choose a less worrying metaphor. Metaphors and priming are powerful. The famous “Don’t think of elephants” is a perfect example, as the animals are conjured with the word before you even have a chance to resist.

Here is a very basic example of priming: Let’s say a communication is introduced with the words, “There are three critical issues to discuss,” but then only two are covered. In that case, the listener’s brain will have been primed for three issues, will be expecting three issues, and will be distracted, perhaps even unconsciously disappointed, if the third is not delivered. Or conversely, if the brain is primed for three and four are delivered, the fourth might be missed entirely, as the brain might have either tuned out or felt misled. In other words, to make sure connection happens—that the thoughts, ideas, suggestions, feelings from the speaker easily leap into the audience members’ minds—priming should be used appropriately, judiciously, and carefully.

No matter what the purpose of any communication may be, at root it must be supported by the speaker’s conviction. Data can be compelling, and often it is vital information that must be conveyed. But data alone will not sway or move an audience. Imagine Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy delivered as just raw data, mere lists of words. No one would care; no one would listen. It is the emotional quest beneath the words—the confusion, fear, and ambivalence with which the actor infuses the language—that moves an audience. Often clients say, “But in business the data is all-important; it is what an audience expects.” There is no discounting the value of accumulated information. But data can be put on a chart! Data does not need a voice. But communication does. It needs you, and to be effective, data needs to be driven by what you think, know, and feel. Just as Hamlet’s speech needs to be infused with varying emotions, data needs to be infused with your suggestions, advocacy, gut sense of what’s right or wrong, your passion. Passion does not need to be overly emphasized. Yelling, overtalking, wild gestures, over-the-top emotions are not passion. (That’s overacting, or as is said in the theater, “chewing the scenery!”) Passion is conviction. Conviction combined with knowledge has the power to sway an audience.

A CEO with whom I work admits proudly, “I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am. I listen to them, weigh their expert opinion, and make my decisions.” His decisionmaking process is a soup of raw data combined with knowledge, expertise, and gut sense upon which he relies. For him, his advisors’ feelings hold as much weight as the data. Why? Because they are feelings informed by history and knowledge. No one can know the future, but predictions can be made based upon past experience. Brains, as pattern seekers, predict outcomes based on previously experienced patterns. That happens on the most basic physical level. If you’ve ever taken one extra step up or down on a stairway that wasn’t actually there, you know exactly what I mean. The brain established the distance that the foot automatically needed to go, and whoops, no step! It’s a shocking feeling, but it describes exactly what prediction is. We do the same with other kinds of information, or attempt to, all the time. You can predict the word at the end of this … That’s an easy one! But since we predict so automatically and unconsciously, it’s vital as communicators and presenters that we have a comprehensive understanding of how design, as well as delivery, can move or impact an audience. Organization, key messaging, metaphors, priming, passion, and prediction—all these are tools that enable the raw data of content to be shaped into meaningful and effective exchanges between people. Key messaging provides an architectural story form. That is another great reason why the structure is so effective, as it follows an organic story format.

The last step when designing a communication for presentational purposes is to return to the needs of the audience. Once the key messages have been established, it’s important to anticipate what questions a particular audience may have. Write down those questions and your answers. Return to the presentation and embed any information that the imagined questions brought to light.

The aim of all of the above exercises is to enable communication that is clearly designed, purpose-driven, and audience relevant. Practicing key messaging so that it becomes second nature will increase your ability to navigate complex people dynamics, as well as challenging business imperatives. One client discovered that by having all the people on his team key-message ideas or problems together, they came up with far better solutions. (His boss noticed so much improvement with the team that he too asked to be taught the system.) Because the model can be either very detailed, with long lists of whats or hows, or extremely lean, with just one key message for each category, it can be employed both for deep dives with peers and experts and for high-level executive summaries. The architecture will support either detailed or streamlined approaches. See the following example using the human body systems:

✵ WHAT: Human body systems

✵ HOW: Each system works

✵ WHY: To support life


Now drill down into the digestive system with its specific list of whats, hows, and whys.

✵ WHAT: Human body systems: digestive

✵ HOW: Each system works: absorb nutrients

✵ WHY: To support life: provide energy



Sometimes the goal of a communication is to influence rather than inform. In those situations, begin with the why instead of the what. This is most critical when the why is aligned with the audience’s values and aspirations. Returning to the analogy of the physician, is the why to heal a sick patient or merely to reduce pain? In business, is the why to make a profit, to provide customer satisfaction, or to be socially responsible? (It can be all three, but which is the driver for which audience? Which might inspire action?) A communication that is driven by values or intent places the purpose at the beginning and can persuade an audience precisely because it is so candid. Always know the purpose of the exchange so you can design it accordingly.


Finally, the beauty of key messaging is that its architecture is story-driven, and stories are our glue. Stories are how we describe our world to each other. They allow us to understand events, ideas, and people beyond our immediate experience. They engage our emotions and imagination.

Think of your business innovation, idea, problem, or solution as a character in a journey. Many novel ideas face fierce resistance. Galileo’s notion that the earth circled the sun, so radical for its time, took hundreds of years to become accepted reality. If your idea is ahead of its time or conflicts with your organization’s culture, it may clash with management’s expectations. How can you express an idea in a way that changes your audience’s mind? Don’t shy away from the conflict. Explore it. In his classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the arc of the mythological hero: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Heros venture into new territories, navigate obstacles, and overcome them. So too must novel business ideas. Describe the current circumstance, detail how your idea will address that given challenge, dig into the potential conflicts, and unpack the ways your idea will overcome those obstacles to arrive at, it is hoped, its flourishing. The architecture of myth and the hero’s journey have been around for thousands of years for a good reason: they work! They move hearts and minds. Give them a shot.

A journalist with whom I’ve worked told me he spends more time on crafting his lead, the first sentence of a story, than almost anything else. He knows that that single sentence alone will determine whether or not the reader continues reading. Granted, everyone is motivated by personal interest, but think back to a surprising story you fully committed time to reading because of a captivating headline or lead. Capture your audience’s attention with a powerful lead; use the key message template to design the message; think of how you might use the hero’s journey to craft the story of your idea. Priming, metaphors, vibrant vocabulary, point of view, these will carry your audience through the story to your conclusion. Never forget that architecture is essential and that story structure is in our social DNA.

Chapter 7: Designing Messages to Increase Presence

Review Exercises

✵ Purpose and Audience—identify intention of exchange and who will receive it

✵ What’s the Title?—frame the content in a way that elicits a strong response, embeds your point of view

✵ Detail the Key Messages—design impactful, clear, concise delivery of content

✵ Metaphor/Simile Practice—find images to create parallel ways of explaining content


Key Messages—Headline Model

Presentation Date:

Presentation Title:


Intended Audience:


WHAT is the situation (concept, problem, idea, challenge):

HOW can you address it (recommended actions):

WHY (goals, results, desired outcome):