In working with dozens of startups, messaging is one of the most challenging things to tackle.

Creating a core story that explains what a startup does, who it serves and why what it does matters is, in theory, a straightforward proposition. But it is hard to succinctly say everything in few words.

There’s so much “important” information but only so much real estate. At the same time, startups have well-established biases about what they do and why people should care.

In the wake of two successful messaging projects recently, I thought about why they worked. Here are six key ingredients:

Engagement: Messaging isn’t something to lightly embrace because it establishes a rock-solid foundation for a startup’s marketing and sales activities. It takes time and effort to make it happen. Given that management understands the product inside-out, the competitive landscape and how their company is handling opportunities and challenges, their engaged participation is crucial, even when there are competing priorities emerge.

While I develop messaging, I often tell clients that I’m a facilitator because they have the insight to drive the project. If management isn’t willing to make a personal investment in messaging, it’s not going to work. I have been in situations in which management expected me to create messaging in a vacuum, which is a recipe for failure.

Being open to change: Change is difficult. Shifting directions, taking an unconventional approach or embracing new ideas is not easy. Long-accepted truisms have to be pushed aside. A client dismissed what I thought was rock-solid messaging because I think it didn’t align with his vision. It was disappointing but he clearly wasn’t feeling it.

Good messaging happens when a startup accepts a new reality and embraces new ideas. It means being open to new keywords, phrases and ideas feel uncomfortable, kind of like trying on new shoes. At first, you want to return the shoes but fairly soon they feel good. Getting out of your comfort zone is part of the messaging process.

Simplicity: At the end of the day, messaging works because it’s crystal clear about what you do and, most important, why it matters to key stakeholders. There is no ambiguity or confusion. Instead, your story is quickly understood. This sets the stage for prospects to turn into customers, recruits to turn into employees, and capital to turn into investors.

It is strange that simplicity is a difficult concept to grasp. Maybe startups are afraid that it undermines the importance of what they’re doing. When I create messaging that appears to be simple, I sometimes cross my fingers because it can be a shock to the system even if it’s good for them.

Many startups struggle with simplicity because they want to deliver the entire story. This doesn’t work because people don’t have the appetite to do a lot of hard work. They want things to be easy, not complicated.

Simplicity drives powerful messaging.

Being able to communicate your raison d’etre offers a competitive advantage in a world teeming with options. To test your messaging, use the cocktail party test: If a stranger understands what your company does in 25 to 40 words, your messaging is bang-on. If they need more details, it’s not working. (Paul Graham’s “Write Like You Talk” essay has good insight into simplicity.)

Different perspectives: Great messaging happens when there are a variety of people at the table: executives, employees, partners, customers and investors. Everyone has a unique perspective and different experiences . A key ingredient is being open to new thoughts and concepts, as well as the ability to transcend well-entrenched views of the world.

In some cases, talking to customers validates what a company’s executives believe. I worked with a client  whose customers confirmed many of the leading ideas. In other situations, customers raise ideas and problems that are surprising and often disconcerting. Having different perspectives creates a comprehensive picture.

Research: As I mentioned earlier, messaging can’t be developed in a vacuum. It’s a big world with other companies scrambling to attract the spotlight. It involves the exploration of new and different ideas, including what the competition is doing.

Research involves a review of media coverage, blog posts, analyst reports, the Websites and marketing and sales collateral of competitors, social media activity, etc. You’re looking for ideas, themes and opportunities to differentiate. It is tough work but research surfaces nuggets of messaging gold.

Be bold: Finally, messaging is successful when it’s assertive, adventurous and courageous. Messaging works when it generates a reaction and an action. It inspires, motivates, challenges and provokes. Success requires a willingness to think out of the box, be bold and assertive. If you want the spotlight, demand the spotlight. Be front and centre, rather than meek and mild.

Bottom line: Messaging that resonates is a challenge but it delivers structure, alignment and cohesion. With rock-solid messaging, marketing, sales and product development can rally around a unified and powerful story. You can start to explore your messaging using my Storytelling Canvas.


More: For other thoughts about messaging, check out Andrew Raskin’s post about what he learned from creating messaging for 15 startups. He talks about how the toughest part about messaging is leaving things out.

I’ve worked with dozens of startups and fast-growing companies looking to establish or accelerate their marketing. My services are driven by frameworks and processes to create messaging, strategic plans and content. If you want marketing that makes a difference, let’s talk. If you are looking for hand-picked startup content, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.