When it comes to challenging conversations, prior planning indeed prevents poor performance. From feedback discussions to executive presentations to negotiations, the moment in time when you open your mouth should never be the first time you’ve thought about what you’ll say for a tough topic. A tool that I’ve used and taught extensively for planning challenging conversations is Message Mapping. This simple. but not simplistic planning technique might just be the difference-maker in your future challenging conversations.

Message Mapping Uses:

Here are just a few of the many potential uses for message mapping:

• Developing and delivering a speech
• Presenting to executives
• Preparing and participating in a job interview
• Launching a new product
• Communicating a new strategy
• Announcing organizational changes
• Helping to get a group on the same page
• Preparing for an interview
• Delivering difficult news

And just about any communication situation, you will encounter.

The Message Mapping Backstory:

I learned this approach along with my colleagues, from a public relations professional years ago. We adapted it to serve our firm’s needs in creating corporate and product messaging and helping to ensure members of trade show and briefing teams were on the same page for new product launches.

I attribute much of the success we had in winning positive rankings from industry analysts and in defeating much larger and deeper-pocketed competitors in the marketplace to the discipline imposed by message mapping. We were all on-message with tight, data and evidence-backed messages. More than a few industry influencers commented on the consistency they heard from all members of our team.

Creating Your Message Map:

The approach is simple to explain, easy to visualize and darned challenging to master all at the same time.

In its’ simplest incarnation, the map is constructed on a single sheet of paper (landscape), with the core message placed at the center, no more than four key supporting points external to the core message and then supporting data or evidence adjacent to each supporting point. That’s the easy part.

The challenging issue is to distill your core message down to its bare-naked essence and get it right. If you are preparing for a job interview, the core message is your personal-professional value proposition, which for most of us, is something that takes a lot of teeth gnashing and revision work to capture and describe properly.

If you are launching a new product, this is the core value proposition of your offering…the essence of why this is important and for whom and how it is uniquely different. If you are communicating a new strategy or an investment proposal, the same rules apply: clear and concise.

Once your core message is defined, you need to back it with points (examples, facts, experiences) that support this message. Once again, you face the task of distilling a lot of examples and supporting points down to the very few that most effectively support your case. For strategy, it’s key drivers. For interviews, it might be statements referencing your smaller value propositions for leadership, strategy, management, and technical skills.

And yes, I’m serious about limiting yourself to three or at most four supporting points that make a case for your core message. Any more than that, and you’ve not worked hard enough to sharpen your messaging.

The outer ring of the message map is used for the facts and supporting points that back your logic. This is the evidence, often in the form of behavioral and quantifiable examples. The constraint of a single page or flip-chart challenges you to summarize the critical points and to jettison extraneous anecdotal information.

Clarity is Great and Using the Map is Priceless:

Once the map is in place and learned and quality checked with some test audiences, it becomes an invaluable personal or group tool. Constructed properly, your map drives your script and serves as an aid in answering questions.

Proper use of the message map involves making your case according to the flow and answering questions by referencing back to the supporting evidence, key supporting points, and core message every time. Yes, regardless of the question, you find a way back into and through the map. A challenge to your justification for your proposed strategy is an open invitation to start in the evidence ring, deftly move back into the key driver and then recap your core strategy statement.

One point of caution: politicians are often observed abusing this tool by answering questions using their maps, with complete disregard for the question being asked. Don’t disrespect your audience this way.

My Advice—Practice the Technique:

Just recently, I explained message mapping to a senior software developer. He decided to use the technique without explaining to his team what he was doing. He grabbed the marker and used a whiteboard to capture their ideas, and then organized it around the diagram. This was so much fun and so useful, he practiced the technique with several other groups. His quote to me was, “I want you to go long and teach this communication technique to the world!”

The moral to the story is to create opportunities to practice. I like the idea of facilitating a discussion and building a map with a group. Or, use the technique to plan for an upcoming important meeting or presentation.

The Bottom-Line:

I’ve worked for weeks with teams using this tool to form corporate and product messaging and days and weeks with individuals to help frame their professional value propositions. I’ve also used this in minutes to prepare for interviews or executive updates. This flexible, simple concept imposes the discipline most of us, and our teams require to achieve clarity, completeness, and consistency. Go long with the technique, make it your own, improve upon it, and mostly, use it in great communications success!

Art's Signature