The Simple Power of Communications Briefs

15 March 2021
Justin Warren

Let’s talk about communications briefs, which is a fancy term for writing down what you want to do with a piece of communications (writing, video, radio ad, whatever), or a comms campaign.

Let’s skip the high level strategy and planning stuff and go with a simple example: writing an article.

What’s Your Goal?

First of all: what is your goal with the thing? What are you trying to achieve? For most comms briefs you have one of six objectives:

  1. Share of Market
    Winning new customers, or attracting them away from competitors.
  2. Size of Market
    Expanding the size of the potential market.
  3. **Customer Retention
    ** Keeping existing customers for longer.
  4. Share of Wallet
    Getting existing customers to buy more from you.
  5. **Increase Margins
    ** Getting customers to pay a higher price.
  6. **Referrals
    ** Getting customers to advocate your product or service to other people.

Pick an objective. Only one.

The central goal of your piece is what ties it all together and makes it one thing. If you have more than one objective you tend to fall over yourself trying to do them all and it’s a confusing mess for the reader.

Now think about your audience. Who are you talking to/writing for? They’ll need to be able to read and understand what you’re trying to tell them, or you’ve failed.

Your choice of goal will affect your choice of audience. Talking to people who aren’t your customers yet about buying more from you doesn’t make sense. Neither does trying to convince them to stay longer. They haven’t even started buying from you yet!

Now while it’s certainly possible to have a more complex campaign that tries to, for example, increase the share of wallet on initial purchase, you should practice the basics before you start trying to juggle chainsaws while riding a unicycle across a tightrope over the Grand Canyon without a net.

Give It Structure

Writing down your comms brief forces you to clarify what you’re trying to do, and helps you to communicate your plan to other people. Things seem much simpler in your head, and telepathy is less reliable than email.

Can you summarise your plan like this?

Get [audience] who [currently think/feel/do this] to [think/feel/do something else] by [communicating this idea] like this [tone].

I like structures like this because it gives me a checklist to run through when I’m struggling. “Hmm, I’m not clear on what I want them to do instead. That’s why this is hard. Better work on that some more.”

Why Is This Here?

You should be able to explain why you’ve chosen to use each element on a website, or slide deck, or even essay. Each piece should link back to the comms brief you’ve set, and you should be able to clearly explain how it will help you achieve your objective.

I do this a lot when working with clients. I ask myself “Why is this here? Can I think of anything that would work better?” And I push my clients to do this themselves.

When I’m providing feedback to clients, I try to be very clear to explain the *why*. “I don’t like this” or “this is bad” is not helpful feedback.

When I make edits, I try to explain why I’ve made different choices, often in some detail. I’m explaining the theory with practical examples, and coaching clients to learn from what I’m doing so they can do it themselves.

I also try to praise good things, and explain why I think they’re a good choice. That also helps to demonstrate “here is what good looks like”.

Perfection is an elusive goal, and there are deadlines and real artists ship, etc. “I can’t think of a better choice” is okay when you’ve consciously tried. You get better with practice (and I have a lot of practicing to do) but it does help you separate “I haven’t thought about this” from “I’ve thought about this and can’t do any better.”

Fail Better

It also helps you to learn the rules so that you break them on purpose, and not by accident. There are all kinds of arbitrary rules that we humans have decided apply to spelling and grammar and layout and colour choice and appropriate voice and whatnot. You don’t have to follow them all the time, but when you’re breaking them seemingly at random, your audience can’t tell if you’re a complete novice who has no idea what they’re doing or not. The failure mode is bad.

John Scalzi coined the phrase “The failure mode of clever is asshole” and I try to be mindful of that. I don’t always succeed, but it’s a healthy way to think about things. It’s a way to minimize downside risk (the pain of failure) while you maximize upside risk (getting lucky).

When you’re making your choices, consider what the failure modes are. Try to avoid choices that have really bad failure modes.

Practice, Practice, Practice

All this stuff is a skill you can learn with a combination of study of theory and practice so you don’t have to consciously think about it so much.

And a lot of my client work is really about making the choices they’re making more obvious so they make them a bit more deliberately. If you can’t explain why something is the way it is, it’s hard to decide when it needs to change, and what a good change looks like.

It’s particularly hard in startups because everything is happening at a million miles an hour and there’s never enough time for anything and they want to go fast all the time. Slowing down can be really beneficial.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Laminar flow has better throughput than turbulent flow.

This is equally true in large organisations. They’re frequently not as organised as you’d think, looking at them from the outside.

You might also be happy to know that the bar is set pretty low on this stuff. Doing the basics well gets you a long way.