I once attended a presentation given by Nobel Laureate Eugine Fama (he of the “efficient market hypothesis” fame) to a group of investment professionals. He began his remarks by illuminating a screen with a large grid of numbers by way of an overhead projector, turned his back on the audience to survey the numbers, turned to face the audience, and stated, “as you can see, it’s fairly self-explanatory.” I can assure you that to most folks in the room, it was not. The primary substance of the message was lost on the audience, to say nothing of the subtle nuance so carefully woven into the professors’ comments that followed. If you’re a Nobel Laureate, you can get away with that kind of thing (it gets chalked up as “eccentric”). For those who are not, spending some time constructing a message to maximize its impact on an audience is a worthwhile pursuit… especially if your livelihood depends on it.
For years I have toiled away at the craft of developing messaging on topics informed by the data from academic and original research for audiences of various degrees of sophistication. I have learned that constructing a truly impactful message for an audience can be done without a beautiful mind, artistic brilliance, strokes of luck, or any significant degree of unique talent. Anyone can do it in a systematic way that can successfully be repeated. It begins with asking “why”…five times.
The origin of asking five “whys” is credited to Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist and founder of Toyota Industries. It became a method of cause-and-effect analysis successfully employed by Toyota and later adopted by industries deploying six sigma processes that helped to popularize the concept. I adapted the methodology to help simplify and improve my work.
The first step in developing an impactful message for an audience is to identify the core piece of information you want to share and put it to the five “why” test.
Asking the five “whys” of message creation:
- Why is this information essential to share?
- Why are you the one sharing it?
- Why do you think they (the audience) should care?
- Why is “X” (spoken, written, graphically) the most effective format to share it?
- Why is this the right time, place, and venue for sharing it?
Putting each information element you want to share through this five “why” process helps clarify the concept, review critical assumptions, and ultimately streamline the editorial process. It is a disciplined first step, but one that will help you save time down the road and improve the overall impact on the audience of the final message.