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How to write an annual report that has impact – Part 3: key messages

Do you sometimes struggle to tell people who you are, what you do, and why they should be interested? Part 3 of my blog on How to write an annual report that has impact focuses on key messages.

Missed the previous blogs? Here are the links:

How to write an annual report that has impact – Part 1: step-by-step guide

How to write an annual report that has impact – Part 2: persuasive writing

What are key messages?

Key messages are the written or spoken equivalent of your visual branding. They’re short statements which summarise what you want an audience to hear and remember: usually, who you are, why you exist, and why people should care. Once agreed, they help you to memorise and then communicate what it is that’s important for people to know.

They also save time (and therefore money). You’re less likely to puzzle over what to say/write each time you come to write about your organisation. You’ll also cut down on time spent trying to reach agreement with your board/team.

The process can be valuable beyond simply improving communications, because it often highlights some useful questions about your organisation’s purpose and values.

What should key messages look like/contain?

Key messages should be:

  • clear – jargon-free, avoid making your reader have to work too hard to understand, and make sure you don’t fall into the trap of using language that only your team/sector uses – beware of the curse of knowledge!
  • concise – not too wordy and easy to remember, keep it simple
  • consistent – it’s said that you need to have 6-13 ‘touch points’ with a customer before they buy your product/service or act on your message. So each time you ‘touch’ people, make sure they’re getting the same message
  • relevant to the audience and their ‘pain’
  • focused on the outcome – how you can address their pain
  • appealing to both people’s hearts (stir emotions) and to their minds (be backed with evidence/facts)

They don’t have to be fixed: you can adapt and evolve them – but not too often or you’ll confuse your audiences.

You don’t have to stick to one set of overarching messages. You can drill down to supplementary messages for particular areas of work or campaigns, or particular audiences.

Examples of key messages

Key messages are often found in the ‘about us’ or ‘our vision, mission and values’ sections of websites. It’s rare that they’re titled ‘key messages’ . Here are a couple of examples, one which actually is on a page called ‘key messages’!:

Girl Guiding


Once you become attuned to key messages yourself, you’ll spot them everywhere. Do share any that you find in the comments section at the end of this blog.

How do you develop key messages?

You can develop your key messages in various ways:

– you may have a communications person who is responsible for drafting and agreeing them with the team/key people in your organisation

– you could organise a meeting or workshop with your team to start the process. There are some good ideas for facilitating workshop here

– you could let them evolve over time, working on them over a series of meetings or away days

Two places to begin when developing key messages

  1. YOU: Who are you, what do you do, why does it matter?

Your overarching key messages will probably be a shortened version of your vision, mission and values. They’ll describe the story you want to tell about the change you’re on a mission to make happen. If you don’t have these, there’s a blog/exercise coming soon about this. In the meantime here are some prompt questions:

  • Vision – what is the change we’re trying to create and if we achieved it, what would the world/our part of it look or be like?
  • Mission – how do we contribute to that change – what do we do, how, why does it matter/is it needed?
  • Values – what do we believe in/stand for and how does that affect our work? What’s important to us and how does this affect our actions and behaviours, ‘how we do things here’?

More campaign-style messages explaining why it matters might be:

  • Problem messages – what is the problem that needs to be addressed?
  • Solution message – what can be done (or is being done)?
  • Urgency message – why is this needed now?
  • Ask message – what can your audience do (your call to action)?

2. THEM: What do we know about our audiences (key stakeholders) and their perceptions of us?

Your key messages also need to answer the audience’s ‘so what?’ – ie explain ‘why should I care’? Think about:

  • What really matters to them? What are they concerned about/interested in the most, in relation to your area of influence/action? What are they ultimately trying to achieve?
  • What do they think, feel, know about your area of influence/action and about you, and about how you can benefit them?
  • What do you want them to think, feel, know – and where are the tensions/what are the gaps? You might add ‘do’ (ie a call of action) if you’re a campaigning organisation, or if your message is about a particular product/service/programme
  • What are the assumptions they make about you, your purpose and your achievements? Do you want to reinforce or question/dispute these?
  • Something that branding specialists call an ‘empathy map’ can help here or you could download and use this key messages table (examples are from music education but this can be used for music, arts or charities)

Some final tips:

  1. When you start writing, just get things down fast, in rough. Don’t edit or refine initially – you can do this afterwards as a second stage. It’s more important to focus on what you say than get tangled up in language and grammar worries.
  2. Think of this as working towards a crib sheet of key messages that your team/partners could use. You may not actually produce a crib sheet – you could create a video, an infographic, a podcast.
  3. Test them with a few people who are representative of your audience groups. It can be helpful to explain what you want their input on. You could give them questions to answer such as:
  • Is this easy to understand?
  • Does it clearly explain why we’re here and why it matters? Does it make you feel positive towards us, motivated to engage with us in some way?
  • What could be improved?

Is there anything else that’s missing that you’d like to know, or anything you’ve found useful to consider? Do comment in the box below.  


* If you work for a charity, it will have to produce a trustees’ annual report and accounts for the Charity Commission. This is a legal obligation, with specific requirements, and is likely to be a more detailed document than the type of report I refer to here. However, some of the writing principles outlined here can also be used when writing your Charity Commission report.

First published: 2018


  1. 13 quick checks to instantly polish your copywriting – Music, arts & charities communications blog on 8th August 2018 at 8:50 pm

    […] How to write an annual report that has impact […]

  2. How to write an annual report that has impact – Part 2: persuasive writing – Music, arts & charities communications blog on 11th January 2019 at 4:59 pm

    […] of writing the report, and the framework you might use for the content. The next blog looks at key messages. In this blog I’ll look a bit more deeply at how to write persuasively to win hearts and […]

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