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A journalist-led messaging workshop: Searching for the story is like searching for the message

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

By Rhea Wessel

Over the last decade or so, as I transitioned out of journalism and into writing for companies, I was asked to participate in and lead messaging workshops.

One of the earliest ones that I can recall was a workshop for an agency to come up with a claim for their client, a retail holding company. I can still remember the positioning statement I argued for and reflect on why it was not selected.

It seems creation by committee, agency politics and company politics were all reasons the company went with a “safe bet” for a claim, but one that didn’t say much.

Value-driven messaging – led by a journalist

Soon I will be leading another messaging workshop for an account team at a large, knowledge-based firm. In preparation, I was asked to explain how I will lead the team members to generate pages of first-draft claims, messaging and phrases.

For many years, I just did this intuitively, relying on my skills as a journalist and story scout. I hadn’t articulated my methodology for doing that.

As a writer and interviewer, I just knew how to dig for the story and lead the process. Experienced journalists do this multiple times a day and can package their narratives like clockwork, just when the interview is supposed to be over.

I believe the journalistic skill set is ideal for this type of work. Because journalists are used to producing language-based synthesized results every day, they can dive right into the chaos of ideas and extract clarity. Journalists are the professionals responsible for translating new ideas to the masses.

Here are the skills I will be relying on in the upcoming workshop, as we work to generate the conceptual framework and messages that will be used for upcoming campaigns for the account:

Discovery step (additive):

-Interviewing for background

-Interviewing for the larger context

-Understanding the business intent

Initial synthesis step (reductive):

-Interviewing for story (turning points)

-Pressing interviewees to repeat, rephrase and sum up

-Summing up myself and checking that against the team’s understanding

Synthesis in writing:

-Finding connections between ideas

-Honing ideas for news value

-Selecting concepts with an eye to language aesthetics

Journalist-lead messaging vs. standard facilitation

Another reason to bring in a journalist during your messaging and positioning phase is because a journalist is NOT a neutral bystander without critical and creative opinions of their own.

A journalist will have an opinion of what makes sense and works well. This ties back to my point above about so-called “news value.”

When you’re reaching out to your clients, you need to come with ideas which are intriguing, innovative and move the conversation forward. That’s what news value is, even in a corporate context.

Journalists know how to find those ideas.

-Messaging workshops are part of the Thought-Leadership Writing Incubators we conduct for firms.

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