The Message Hierarchy—A Power Tool for Describing the Essence of Your Book

One of the hardest questions that anyone will ever ask you is: What’s your book about? Preparing to answer this question now can help you avoid awkward conversations—and do some valuable work on your book.

I’ve blogged previously about how to answer “What’s your book about?” in a single sentence. Now I’d like to suggest expanding your answer into several sentences (ahh, the luxury).

The tool to use is a message hierarchy. It’s well-known to people who specialize in content strategy for websites. You can also use a message hierarchy to focus your book manuscript.

Following are three approaches to creating a message hierarchy.

1. Rehearse a conversation

I often point clients to Drew McLellan’s post about building a message hierarchy.

Imagine that you’re at a networking event. Somebody named Bob asks what you do for a living. Here’s how Drew suggests you respond:

  • If you could only tell Bob ONE thing about your business (a single sentence) that you hope he’ll remember forever and repeat often. What would you say?
  • If you discovered you had time for a second sentence, what would you add?
  • For some reason – you get a chance at adding a third sentence. What’s next?
  • Wow…Bob seems fascinated.  Add another sentence about your business.
  • You’re on a roll!  Bob hasn’t said a word…he’s so mesmerized. Add another sentence, quick.

Just substitute the word book for business in this list. It works beautifully.

2. Move from a primary message to a call to action

In their classic book Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach explain message hierarchies in a more detailed and formal way.

Like a book, a website can contain thousands of messages. Not all of them are created equal. Some are more important than others. To make sense of it all, group your content into the following categories:

  • The primary message—the most important thing that you want people to remember.
  • Secondary messages—answers to the most common questions that people are likely to ask about your primary message.
  • Details—all the facts, stories, and other material used to support your messages.
  • Call(s) to action—what you want users to actually do based on your messages and supporting details.

Halvorson and Rach offer this analogy:

Think of a magazine article about a business. The primary message is the title. The secondary messages are the subheads, the details are all the sentences between the subheads, and the call to action is the contact information for the business in the sidebar.

Let’s expand this analogy to a book manuscript:

  • The primary message is the book title.
  • Secondary messages are chapter titles and subheadings.
  • Details are the sentences between subheadings.
  • The calls to action appear in a special chapter about how to apply the book’s concepts, in a list of bulleted points at the end of chapter, or in some other clearly defined place.

3. Problem, Causes, Solution, Plan of Action

For another option, consider this example of a message hierarchy from one of human history’s most revered teachers—the Buddha. This is his statement of the Four Noble Truths:

  • Suffering exists.
  • Suffering has an origin.
  • Suffering can cease.
  • There is a path to the cessation of suffering (the Eightfold Path).

In this example, the primary messages boil down to:

  • Problem
  • Causes
  • Solution
  • Plan of action

That’s another decent model for a message hierarchy. You can use it for any book about solving a problem that matters to your readers.

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