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Clarify your core message: Up the value of your presentation

Great work deserves a great presentation. Here's advice on discovering your core message so senior leadership knows what you've accomplished.

5 min read


Clarify your core message: Up the value of your presentation


In a previous post for SmartBrief, I introduced four simple steps for creating a powerhouse presentation. This post goes deeper on the first of the four steps, discussing the finer points of crafting your core message so it is easy to remember and repeat. Read the whole series.

I once coached eight business leaders who had been asked to develop a presentation about an organizational success story — a project in which they had played a key role. Sounds easy enough, right?

To heighten the challenge, these eight leaders would be presenting to their executive leadership team. Far beyond a “show and tell” exercise, the presentations — slated for the main stage at an internal leadership conference — represented a defining moment in their careers.

It was easy to understand why these participants had been identified as standout performers. Each one could describe in detail their results, what it had taken to achieve those results, and the lessons learned.

No doubt, they each had wisdom to share. Yet as I listened to them practice, it was clear that nothing about any of these presentations was remotely memorable. Any one of the presenters could have been any professional, in any organization, sharing a briefing on just about any business project.

If these leaders wanted to elevate their message and engage their audience, they needed to craft a core message.

What is your core message?

A core message is a simple sentence that clearly summarizes the essence of your presentation. It provides the focus for your content and directs the development of your content. Your core message enables your audience to “get it,” to remember the specific purpose of the presentation, and to take needed action. It is what makes your presentation unique and memorable.

When you were writing a paper in college, you called your core message your thesis statement. In a science course, it was your hypothesis. In presentations, it is also referred to as the central idea or takeaway message.

Identifying a core message can be messy, but it’s critical. Without it, your audience will be left wondering, “What am I supposed to know?” or “What am I supposed to do?” or “So what?” If your audience leaves not knowing what’s important, you’ve wasted their time and yours. When you distill your core message, that becomes “home base.”

How do you develop your core message?

Assuming you understand who your audience is and the gist of what they need to know, you are ready to tackle crafting your core message. This is one of those tasks that is simple, but not easy. We often feel so compelled to convey everything we know about the topic that it’s difficult to identify the one overarching message the audience needs to remember.

Ultimately, your core message should answer one of these questions (in 10 words or less):

  • If my audience doesn’t remember anything else, what is the one idea I want them to recall and repeat?
  • By the end of this presentation, will my audience be prepared, motivated or inspired to [fill in the blank]?

So, when the eight leaders I was coaching finished their first run-through, none of which was particularly memorable, I asked them to consider:

  • What made this project successful?
  • What went wrong (that dirty little secret)?
  • What did you uncover that surprised you?
  • What got you excited about this project?
  • What was your most significant insight?
  • What made this experience remarkable?

At first, they were baffled. But each soon came to realize that their presentation was not having the desired effect. As they kept digging deeper with their answers, they realized they had distinct perspectives that made their stories more compelling.

Eventually, the core messages evolved from “Our project was a success” into powerful statements such as “Igniting our company culture will allow us to thrive,” “Elevating store associates to brand ambassadors is critical to connecting with our customers” and “In a digital world, we have to keep our business personal.”

With each presentation, the executive team would now have a sound, persuasive core message that’s easy to recall and repeat.

How to know you’ve found your core message

Not sure you’ve found your core message? Here are three signs to look for:

  1. It describes the essence of your entire talk
  2. It’s simple enough to be repeatable
  3. All your content maps back to it and supports it

As you develop the body of your presentation, anything that doesn’t map back to your core message requires a decision: Do you cut it, confident that your core message is home base? Or do you revisit your core message to see if it needs to be refined? Remember, crafting a presentation is an iterative process, so both options are valid.

As my coaching clients happily discovered, identifying their core message made for a more compelling story — and a positive, dynamic reaction from the leadership team. By defining your core message up front and building your presentation from there, you’ll know just where you’re going and exactly where your audience will end up.


Intrigued? Be on the lookout for my third post in this series, where we’ll look at organizing information so your audience can understand it. If you’re like many who fight information overload, you’ll find my tips useful.

Stephanie Scotti coaches leaders and their teams for every type of presentation, from Fortune 500 CEO keynotes to TED Talks to multimillion-dollar pitches. Find her bestselling book “Talk on Water: Attaining the Mindset for Powerhouse Presentations” at Professionally Speaking Consulting.

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