As soon as I saw the “key message platform,” I knew we were in trouble. The draft was created with the best intentions—as a framework for communicating a major change program to employees at a large corporation. But it was structured like an academic paper, starting with a premise, adding evidence, then gradually building to a conclusion.
That meant that anyone attempting to read it would have a difficult time finding the “news”—what was changing and what it meant to employees. I could easily imagine someone opening an email based on the key message, scrolling down to try to find the meaning, then pressing the “delete” button in frustration.
Naturally, I wanted to help, so I asked my standard set of questions: “What is the one thing you want people to know about this? What do you want people to remember most? What do you need them to do?”
But then it occurred to me that, although these questions were a good start, the big problem with the key message was structural. What seemed logical to the author—starting at the foundation and building up—would be ineffective at immediately catching the audience’s attention and quickly delivering meaning.
What this message needed was to be restructured, using a classic, but sometimes-maligned message form: the inverted pyramid.
Anyone who’s taken a journalism course is familiar with the inverted pyramid. Here’s an easy way to think about it, according to Ken Blake, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University. Picture an upside-down triangle, with a broad base on the top and the narrow tip on the bottom. “The broad base represents the most newsworthy information . . . the narrow tip represents the least newsworthy information,” Mr. Blake writes. When you write using the inverted pyramid format, you put the most important information at the beginning and the least important information at the end.
Legend has it that the inverted pyramid came into use in the days of the telegraph, when unreliable service meant that if you wanted to make sure you got your message through, you put the most important information at the top. In any case, the inverted pyramid came into general use in journalism in the mid 19th century and remained the standard throughout most of the 20th century, when the newspaper was the major news channel, and editors needed to quickly cut a story from the bottom if the piece ran long. The inverted pyramid made it easy for readers to get the gist of what was happening, even if they had only a moment to scan the story.
Although the inverted pyramid had somewhat fallen into disfavor for being too staid, it has had a comeback with web writers, who know that the most important information has to be first, since only the most interested web site visitor scrolls down past the first screen.
The reason I find the inverted pyramid useful—at least in drafting messages—is that it disciplines you to order information according to priority. The process of deciding what’s really important, what’s slightly less important and so on, helps you think about what’s important to the audience.
Give the inverted pyramid a try. You’ll be glad you did.