I come from an English educational background, which informs much of the way I think about communications. I’ve taught college-level English Composition for several years, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve graded more than 5,000 essays. I’m a fairly practical guy in and out of the classroom, and I don’t require any steps that aren’t necessary. If an outline doesn’t fit into your writing style, don’t write an outline. If you can write a great essay in just one draft (and you probably can’t), just write one draft.
Most students think of writing a thesis statement as a throw away step, something that they do simply because I tell them to do it, but while grading those thousands of papers, I’ve determined that a great paper absolutely has to have a great thesis statement. In fact, by the time I’ve read the thesis statement, I have a pretty good idea what the grade on the paper will be.
There are dramatically different forms of communication—a tweet is different from an essay, which is different than a radio commercial—but there are foundations for all types of communication. I believe a thesis is one of those foundations. Having one simple sentence that defines your purpose, even if it doesn’t appear in the actual project, will sharpen your work.
In professional communications we’re more likely to use the terms “main idea” or “purpose statement,” but you’re essentially creating a thesis, and you should have one for each sizeable piece of a communications campaign. You don’t need a purpose statement for each tweet, but you need one for your Twitter campaign. A purpose statement isn’t a throw away. It isn’t just something to write on a proposal. It’s an essential part of your communications project. You and your team need that one central idea to bring focus to your work.
Your purpose statement needs to state your main idea in a clear, narrow, and specific way. Clear, of course, means that it’s easy to understand. Narrow and specific are slightly different. Narrow refers to the scope. Specific refers to the details. You want the scope to be as narrow as possible, and you want as many details as you can include without sacrificing clarity.
In my experience, purpose statements fall apart in two main ways. First, the statement isn’t specific enough. Here’s an example. Let’s say the purpose statement of your brochure is this: We will convince consumers to eat more dry beans by explaining the health benefits of beans. That sentence explains your intentions in a clear way, but it’s almost useless because it is not specific. It could be applied to almost every bean communication project done in the last decade and not seem out of place. Which consumers? What demographic? How will you explain the health benefits? Which health benefits? The more focused your purpose statement is, the more focused your work will be.
How about this as a purpose statement instead? We will break down barriers for families who don’t traditionally eat beans by portraying beans as a trendy protein source and providing simple recipes. In this purpose statement, we know that we want to target the primary shopper in non-Hispanic families. The fact that we want beans to appear trendy means quite a bit for our design and word choice. We know that we’ll focus on protein as a health benefit. Finally, we know that we want trendy recipes, but we also need to make sure they are family-sized and easy to make because of our audience.
The second way a purpose statement falls apart is that the actual work doesn’t reflect your statement. Maybe the statement isn’t taken seriously, and it goes in a desk drawer. Maybe it isn’t shown to everyone working on the project. Maybe it is amended to include anything: We will use social media to explain the health benefits of beef to registered dietitians. Also, we will have a billboard. Maybe the focus of the project unravels, and you simply can’t rein it back in.
Both of these errors are a result of wanting to have a purpose statement, but not understanding the significance of having it. If you find that your statement isn’t strong or if it isn’t focused on throughout the project, it’s likely better to not have it at all. If there is no value in it, the purpose statement is simply another hoop to jump through in your creative process.
If you don’t currently use purpose statements for your communications projects, give them a try. If you do write them, see if you can do better. Maybe they have gotten stale or become a forgotten part of the process. The better your purpose statement is, the better your project will be.