Message guide: A tool every small business can use

Are you ready with your elevator speech? Flickr photo by robinsonsmay/CC License

At networking events, I can usually separate the new business owners from those who have been at it for a few years. The veterans tend to have their elevator speech – that quick way you describe your business to a new acquaintance – down pat. But the newbies often struggle to describe what they do and how it might relate to the person they’re talking to.

This is not universally true, of course, because it is certainly possible to find someone who has just opened their business who has done a good job figuring out how to answer the “What do you do?” question. I’ve also met more than one business owner who has been around for a while who still hasn’t managed to perfect his/her elevator speech.

Having a good elevator speech is important. You want to be able to succinctly tell someone what you do and how your products or services benefit customers, because, in fact, the person you’re talking with might be a potential customer. You definitely don’t want to be that person who drones on endlessly when asked what they do. And you also don’t want to give an answer so short that it sounds like you’re not very excited about your business.

What you do want to do is to open the door to a conversation. Public relations professionals use a tool called a media message guide to help clients figure out what they want to tell the media about their business and its products or services. This tool can easily be adapted to help you figure out what messages you want to share about your business, whether it’s in introducing yourself to someone new, in press releases, in your marketing brochure or on your website. Here are the key elements of a media message guide:

• Single Overriding Communication Message (SOCM): This is, in essence, your elevator speech. It should be two or three sentences that describe what you do and how it benefits people. It’s that last part that many people forget to include when they are asked what they do. They may offer up a cut-and-dried answer that merely names their line of work, without sharing anything about how that work helps others.

For example, when I’m asked what I do, I could say, “I am a ghostwriter and public relations consultant.” I could just leave it at that, but instead, I add, “I help businesses and nonprofits get their news and ideas in front of key audiences. I write everything from press releases and bylined articles to Web sites and books.” That gives the person I’m talking with a thorough picture of my services and its benefits and, I hope, provides them an idea of how I may be of use to them.

• Supporting Messages: These should reinforce the SOCM and provide additional information or proof points to solidify your credibility and tell the story of your business or your products/services. Combined with the SOCM, these facts provide the “short story” you want to consistently tell your key audiences.

• Key Words: This list, preferably no longer than 10 words, includes the touchstone words used in your SOCM and supporting messages. If your messages are about a product or service, be sure to include adjectives that bring that product or service to life and express the emotions you’re trying to evoke.

• Words Not to Use (optional): In some cases, you may also want to make a list of words that you want to avoid when describing your business or your product/service. We all know that there are positive ways to say something and negative ways to say something, and you want to avoid any words that may have any negative connotation. Also, I frequently advise people to avoid overly scientific or technical terms that the vast majority of listeners or readers won’t understand.

For example, in working with a participant in a recent workshop on the topic of messaging, my co-presenter, Karen Utgoff, and I urged a woman who runs a swim school to avoid using the term “hydrodynamics” in her elevator speech on the grounds that most people had no clue what hydrodynamics means. By the end of the session, her elevator speech was significantly improved since she now was talking about how she helps children who are terrified of the water learn to swim. Not only did her new elevator speech now convey much more clearly the value of her work and set her apart from other swim schools, but it also was a sure conversation starter and much more memorable than her original version talked about hydrodynamics!

Honing the components of your media message guide takes time, but it’s definitely worth the effort. Once that work is done, you’ll be able to turn to it time and again as you work on components of your marketing effort. And you’ll find that you’re more at ease at networking events and having much more meaningful conversations with the new people you meet.


  1. Lee says:

    This is really useful information. So many times we let opportunities pass by because we haven't given it enough thought in advance – what we mean to communicate (or not) and what our goals are.

    • JeanneYocum says:

      Glad you found the post useful, Lee. And you're right; too few small business owners take time to think through their messaging. And often their messaging is from their point of view instead of the customer's point of view. It's all about features instead about benefits.

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