Know your key message — how to start conversations that get to the point

20 Jan 2021

If you want to start conversations that get to the point, you need to know your key message.

The key message is part of framing the conversation and is the line that contains the most important piece of information your audience needs to know. If you haven’t read the article about framing, I strongly suggest you read it first. But, if you want to keep going here, you need to know that framing is how you start the first 15 seconds of a conversation to ensure your audience is mentally prepared to hear what you have to say. Framing provides context for the topic, shows the intent behind the message (why you are talking) and delivers the headline in the form of the key message.

The key message doesn’t have to summarize every detail of the topic you want to talk about, but it does have to be the most important message you need to communicate.

If you’ve ever found yourself listening to someone and wondering ‘Why are they telling me this?’ it may be because they hadn’t made their intent clear, but it could also be because they haven’t given you the key message early enough. Delivering critical information early in your communication is an important part of being a good communicator.

One sign that you are not giving a clear key message is if people respond with the following questions or phrases:

  • ‘Why are you telling me this?’
  • ‘Is there something you need me to do?’
  • ‘I’m not sure what to do with that information.’
  • ‘So what?’

The response you get may not be exactly these words, but if they say something similar, it’s a strong indicator you haven’t given a clear key message.

How to create good key messages

Before you start talking or writing an email, think about all the details you could share, and then imagine your audience asking ‘So what?’.

Often the answer to this question is a simple description of the most important and impactful part of your topic.

‘So what?’ doesn’t always mean describing what happened. It might mean stating the consequences of an event. Often the implications are more significant than the event itself. If that is true, the impact might be the key message.


Let’s look at some examples to see how this works.

“I was talking to Anne and she told me things are going well with the Davison Group. They have some concerns about our ability to handle their newest products. It’s nothing we can’t work out together, and they agreed to continue. Apparently, they liked our presentation and would like to sign a deal for $50 million. Ethan is sending over the paperwork now, and it’ll all be done by the end of the day.”

In this example, the key message was closing the deal with a big new client. All the events and information leading up to that were less important and buried the good news. The most important piece of information in the update is the signing of a high-value client. This should be stated first, not hidden toward the end.

Key message: We are closing the Davison Group today.

If this conversation started with the news about closing the new client, the rest of the information would have had more meaning. The audience could have shared in the excitement instead of wondering where the story was leading.

This example is how many everyday conversations occur. We share information, including the highs and lows and the twists and turns of the story. Our stories also tend to come out in the order that the events occurred. By sharing events in the order that they happened, we automatically leave the outcome (the result, and usually the most important thing) until the end. This can turn a simple update into a rambling, long-winded story.

In addition, when we talk through the highs and lows, we lead the audience through them too. When the audience doesn’t know how the story ends, they feel each high or low as if it were the potential outcome.

Here’s another example

“We were working on the system enhancements the sales team asked for last month. We released a patch last night to test the new database connections, but something didn’t work. Now the sales team can’t use the system. It might be a problem because we think it will take some time to fix, maybe a week.”

In this example, the key message is the loss of the sales system for a week. Everything else is background detail about the how and the why of the situation. The audience may ask questions about how this happened, but first, they need to know the ‘So what?’.

Key message: The sales system is down, and it will take up to a week to fix.

A 57-word description can condense into 13 words. Not only is the message delivered faster, but the important information is also clearer.

This example is short. It only takes half a minute to say all 57 words in the original version, and it doesn’t take long to get to the point. But what would have happened if it were longer? How long would it take for you to wonder what the point of the message was?

Do you always know your key message?

Think about the conversations you’ve had at work that have taken two, five, or even 10 minutes to get to the point. How often do you have to wait a long time before you understand the ‘So what?’ of the message? Did the person speaking know the key message?

Do any of your conversations take longer than necessary to get to the point?  If yes, try framing the topic and putting the key message in the first 15 seconds.

Learn more with my book

The First Minute

The First Minute book by Chris Fenning

My multiple award-winning book is a step-by-step guide for clear, concise communication in everyday work conversations.

Being concise is not about trying to condense all the information into 60 seconds. It’s about having clear intent, talking about one topic at a time, and focusing on solutions instead of dwelling on problems.

Throughout this book you’ll discover how to:

  • Have shorter, better work conversations and meetings
  • Get to the point faster without rambling or going off on tangents
  • Lead your audience toward the solution you need
  • Apply one technique to almost every discussion, email, presentation and interview with great results