I used to dream I’d one day discover a message in a bottle.


The idea that someone halfway around the world could seal up their deepest thoughts and dreams, and that they would find their way to me after months at sea? Incredibly romantic.

I even floated a few paper-filled bottles myself, hoping to hear back from someone in Japan or Scotland (the latter hope courtesy of a page missing from my geography textbook, landing Scotland fairly near Japan. Which it isn’t, FYI.)

Now that I have a better understanding of where countries actually fit on the globe, a notion of how immense and far apart some of those countries are, and a rudimentary knowledge of how currents work, I know that a bottle would have to do some serious work to end up on a beach where folks could actually find it.

It could just as easily end up inside a whale’s stomach, or smashed on a rocky outcropping.

People still seal up those bottles, however, trusting their message will end up in the right hands: hands attached to a body with a brain that speaks and reads the language they’ve written in, and a heart that cares enough to get in touch.

Unfortunately, the odds of a bottle’s success at sea are so distant they’re nearly impossible to quantify.

Is YOUR message in a bottle?

Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of people to help them articulate their values and vision in the form of brand messaging. Together, we’ve figured out:

Who they are
What they do
Why they do it
Who they do it for
Why it matters
Why it matters to specific audiences
What we want those audiences to think
What we want those audiences to do

… and how to say it all in a coherent and compelling way.

It seems like it should be easy to do, on one hand: who knows more about you than you do?

On the other hand, well… most of us don’t know how to talk about ourselves.

Even when we come up with an “elevator speech” (or a “lobby speech” or even a “parking garage speech”) to cover most of the bases with some clarity, we’re not sure what to do with it. Can we just recite it to anyone who asks? Put it up in an actual elevator?

Even if we’ve done the yeoman’s work (that poor yeoman) of getting past the elevator speech to a more broad and deep set of messages (covering our areas of focus, our values, etc.) we’re still not quite sure how to turn them into things like website copy or brochure text or tweets… or even words to emblazon on a blimp.

We end up leaving our hard-won words stuck in a perfect framework, bobbing around like a long-lost message in a bottle.

But where is the bottle going?
Who do we expect to find it?
If they actually manage to find it, are they going to understand what we’ve put inside it?
Will what we’ve said matter to them?
Will they know how we want them to respond?
Will they seek us out?
Will anybody really… care?

When we see messaging cooped up and going nowhere slowly, we feel compelled to swim out, smash open the bottle, and drag those messages back to shore where someone can see them.

But how do we make that happen?

Don’t get stuck in the elevator

An elevator speech (ideally) makes it easy to share who you are in a quick, (hopefully) eloquent way. But most of us don’t spend that much time in elevators.

You should treat it less like a statement than a starting point: a high-level, brief message that hits all the right notes… and then expands into messages that break down each of the important things you’ve introduced.

If you take the time to “drill down” from each concept you communicate to share more about what that concept means, you transform something more brief and general into something more specific and relatable for all your different audiences.

If you stop in the elevator, you’ll be stuck traveling between floors all day… never really getting anywhere.

Get rid of the language barrier

Ah, the language we too often revert to when we develop our messages: industry-speak and jargon.

Have you ever read the “About Us” page for company in an unfamiliar industry? You’re fairly sure it’s written in the language you speak natively… but the way the words and phrases are knit together, along with a host of strange terminology, leaves you completely in the dark.

Sure, some “inside baseball” is to be expected, and you’re never going to be all things to all people — but reserve the truly jargon-y communications for folks who speak Your Business as a Second Language.

So if you’re worried that your core messaging is jargon-laden, find someone who doesn’t work in your industry, and ask them to explain your message back to you. You’ll discover pretty quickly where normal folks are getting hung up, and where you need to simplify.

Take a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl

Another way to ensure that your messages don’t get stuck in the bottle is to work them out with a series of “tilts”.

Take your high-level message and your more detailed drill-downs, and consider what aspects of them matter most to your different audiences. What can you emphasize? What can recede into the background? What can you explain more fully to a particular listener? With those answers in hand, re-write your messages to “tilt” in that audience’s direction.

After a while, you’ll find that tilting becomes a natural step in developing your communications — and that your efforts begin to do a better job of hitting their intended targets.

Gather ’round, children…

Storytelling is one of the of the most effective ways to get your messages out of a bottle: stories transform ideas into experiences. Stories transform brand promises into problems solved. Stories bring all the things you say about yourself to life, and give your audience someone to identify with… even if that somebody is you!

Focus on gathering stories that prove both the high-level message you’ve created, and the drill-downs you’ve developed to give your message greater context and depth. Stories actually fit beautifully with your different tilts to ensure your messages resonate with different audiences.

(Also, anything that Mr. Rogers loved can’t steer you totally wrong.)

Put away the glue

When you’ve spent a ton of time crafting your messages, it can be tempting to want to cut and paste them everywhere.

You got it right, right? You’ve refined! You’ve articulated! You’ve clarified! You’ve drilled down! You’ve tilted!

But messages are starting points, not all-purpose copy. They’re your touchstone for testing the meaning and impact of everything from your salescopy, to your development appeal, to your tweets, to your website copy, to your program brochure, to your blog posts… rather than a template to adhere to.

Did I convey some aspect of my core messaging: my purpose, my values, my identity?
Did I convey the right aspect of my messaging to the right audience? Am I using words they’ll understand and engage with?
Am I drilling down when I need to be clearer?
Am I using the same words to say the same thing again?
Could I tilt more to target more?

If you use your messages as a foundation — rather than the walls, doors, windows, and roof of your writing — you’ll generate copy that gets the job done without becoming (cringe!) cookie-cutter.

Let that bottle go…

I used to dream that a rolled up love letter sealed in a bottle would find a Romeo for me across the sea… when the greater likelihood was that it would end up serving as a football for sea lions.

My heart deserved better — and your messages do, too.