by Wiley Brooks

JFK: Ask not. . .

Back when I was doing writing workshops, I would run people through an exercise that often caught them by surprise. I want to share it with you.

I would go around the room and have people tell me the most famous quotes they could recall. These quotes are what those of us in PR call key messages. What makes these key messages special is that they have withstood the test of time and can be accurately – for the most part – retold years or even decades after they were put into play.

I usually get many of the same messages. Here’s a sampling:

Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

I have a dream.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Sometimes, people will get away from politics and history with quotes such as:

I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Every good boy does fine.

If you study these instantly recognized statements, you will learn an invaluable lesson about how to build a key message that will resonate and be passed along correctly. And that word, “correctly,” is critical. A message that fails to be accurately passed on is a message that has simply failed, regardless of how good it might have sounded when you came up with it.

Now, look at those statements above. What do they share? Here’s a hint for the first one, the John Kennedy quote:

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Messages that cut through the clutter, are easy to recall and are accurately passed along again and again rely mostly on one-syllable words. When a bigger word is used, it is surrounded by one-syllable words.

The next time you are creating a key message find a way to put it into a simple sentence that relies mostly on one-syllable words.

Your reader will recall quotes that rely on one-syllable words. So, use short words if you want people to recall what you said.

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