When you pack for a trip, you don’t put your entire closet into the suitcase and start pulling out what you don’t need.

But this is the approach companies often take when formulating their messaging. Like the traveler who says, “I need to make sure I have outfit options in Paris,” companies feel compelled to jam everything they do into marketing materials and sales conversations. In both cases, the villain is indecision and an inability to determine what’s most important.

Luggage over-packers risk sore backs and exorbitant overweight luggage fees. Messaging over-packers risk weighing down their audience with so much information that they don’t retain any of it.

The wrong way to “pack” your messaging.

  • Start by pasting in 50 slides from your most recent sales presentation or 4 paragraphs from your About Us section–and then try to whittle down from there.

The right way to pack.

  • Start with a blank document–an empty suitcase if you will.
  • Now, write a sentence that communicates the most essential thing the audience needs to know. (The most essential item for your trip.) This will likely be your unique value proposition or the problem you solve for your target audience.
  • Add a second sentence with the second most important thing the audience needs to know. This should include the value prop or problem, whichever you didn’t “pack” in the first sentence.
  • Now, add the third sentence with the next most important thing. This can be a credibility statement (“We serve 80% of the Fortune 500.”), a claim (“We’re going to be the Uber of microbrews.”) or capability (“We have developed a patented approach to electron fragmentization and deconstruction.”)
  • Now, here’s the key: Stop adding sentences as soon as you have given the audience the gist of your pitch–the basic contours of your topic (capabilities, product, investment opportunity). Probably 15 seconds total. The analogy is trying to close your suitcase to see if everything fits. This is a critical step that gives you a chance to check in with your audience to see if they’re with you–or whether you’ve “overstuffed” your message to the point where they’re confused. This check-in step is a great opportunity for the presenter. It’s where the audience often reveals their pain points, skepticism, lack of knowledge, etc., all of which are important signals that you can use to guide the rest of your meeting. Of course, after the check-in, you can fill in details on a range of topics, such as use cases, product specifications, customer examples, key features–whatever helps the audience fill in his or her knowledge gaps.

So next time you pack for a presentation (or a trip), remember to start with what you need most–and don’t overstuff.

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