Putting Your Main Message First

Feb 12, 2016

Want to learn how to clearly communicate your message? Watch the new “Put Your Main Message First” video from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Created by USCIS’ Office of Communications, the video teaches you about the importance of organizing your information so that your audience understands your key messages.

“It’s common in government writing to begin a document with the background or history of a program while leaving the important action items until the very end,” says Kathryn Catania, chief of the Plain Language and Content Division at USCIS. “Writing this way decreases the usefulness of your message. Often it results in pushing your reader to find information from another source that may provide unofficial or misleading information.”

A screen capture of a man looking at his watch because getting information is taking too long; from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services YouTube cartoon video, Put Your Main Message First.

Government writing tends to bury the main message for any number of reasons including:

  • Academic conditioning. Having been taught to start with background information to set up a thesis for academic papers, many people may assume that this is the best format for government writing as well. Unfortunately, academic writing does not help someone quickly identify top tasks or clearly find relevant information.
  • “We’ve always done it this way” syndrome. Getting one’s document approved might include several layers of review. Some people might choose not to think of a better way to organize and present information because they fear it won’t get approved in a new format.
  • Fear that it won’t look official. Some people may worry about not sounding “official” enough and simply copy and paste from an existing document without checking to see if the message is clear. However, cutting and pasting verbatim from a wordy memorandum or regulation won’t clearly convey your message especially if you are creating content for non-experts. You can always cite the official guidance as a source for more in depth information.

With these reasons in mind, the Plain Language and Content Division set out to create a friendly, memorable way to teach people how to:

  1. Identify your main message
  2. Think about the needs of your reader
  3. Organize your information logically

The team thought of a scenario where a person asks for bus information only to be inundated with a long speech about the history of the bus route. By using an everyday situation where answering with background information is unhelpful, the video draws a parallel to why you shouldn’t do this in your writing and shows what can happen if you don’t state your main message first.

The three minute video reminds viewers to always answer the reader’s main question: “Why should I read this?” By putting the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” first, you can help your audiences understand why they need to read a document or Web page and decide whether they need to act on the information.

A screen capture of the inverted pyramid with 3 tips from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services YouTube cartoon video, Put Your Main Message First.

For government agencies, this is a key lesson for communicating with the public. Whether you are telling people how to get public benefits or reporting on the latest research funded by the government, your writing should make it easy for your audience to find the information they need, understand it correctly, and know what their next steps should be. This kind of clear communication bolsters your agency’s reputation and its ability to serve the public.

Organizing your message is also helpful when communicating internally within a government agency. Emails, reports, summaries, and other documents are a part of daily life for most government workers. When these items are too vague or too lengthy, it can lead to multiple emails chains, unclear responsibilities, and general confusion. Putting your main message first helps your readers understand what topic is being discussed and what each person’s responsibilities are.

“Put Your Main Message First” is the first animated video in a series of plain language videos created by USCIS’ Office of Communications for the plain language trainings they provide. For more tips on communicating clearly, check out their videos on active voice, pronouns, and more on USCIS.gov/plainlanguage or YouTube. For more information on plain language resources and training, visit PlainLanguage.gov.