As a medical writer, and as a consultant to several healthcare PR agencies and other organizations, I am pleased to see so many pharma and biotech companies investing the time and effort to develop carefully crafted messages for their communications initiatives. Those companies appear to appreciate the importance of clear and coherent messaging as vital to building and sustaining a brand, and of training spokespersons to communicate agreed-upon messages to various audiences.

However, there is one trend in message-crafting that I find rather disturbing: the impulse to cram every conceivable message into every soundbite. It simply cannot be done. And yet, some companies seem determined to try.

Message-cramming is perhaps most evident in the draft press releases that I’m often called upon to review, proofread, and/or edit. The most egregious examples are often found in the KOL quote, which most of us know is not what the physician spokesperson actually said, but an invention by the company or the agency (or, in many cases, a medical writer such as myself), to be ultimately approved by the spokesperson.

The typical message-crammed quote goes something like this: “Prolixity syndrome is a devastating disease, one that affects 80 million people around the world, and is associated with a mortality rate exceeding 80% in its late stages,” said Waldo Shill, MD, chief of the department of Fictitious Surgery at Solid State University in Neverland, CA. “People living with prolixity syndrome constitute a severely underserved population, as they have had very limited therapeutic options. The availability of Wonderdrug — the first FDA-approved anti-prolixity treatment, and the first in a class of new therapies known as gab-factor inhibitors — fills what was a significant unmet medical need in this population. With its unique mechanism of action, convenient once-daily dosing, demonstrated efficacy and safety in clinical trials, and favorable pharmacokinetics, Wonderdrug is truly a breakthrough therapy for prolixity syndrome.”

Facetiousness aside, that quote has way too many messages — too many to count. What’s more, people don’t really talk like that, though many of us who write press releases are resigned to working within the strictures of the form. But more importantly, if you were a consumer who heard Dr. Shill give that little spiel in a TV or radio interview, or saw that quote in a newspaper article announcing the launch of Wonderdrug, how much of that quote would you actually remember?

I’m not a doctor; nor have I been to medical school. However, I have heard of medical education programs that encourage would-be doctors to tell their patients one thing when giving them instructions during an office visit, because that’s about as much as most people can remember. Presumably, when the patient comes back a few weeks later for a follow-up appointment, you can tell him/her another thing, and then another thing a few weeks later, but giving a patient multiple instructions at once can be a recipe for non-adherence.

I think the principle of one instruction at a time has important implications for communications. For a communications effort to be truly impactful and memorable, you should choose to incorporate the most important message (or perhaps the two most important messages) into a KOL quote. You may have a suite of a half-dozen or so approved messages to communicate, and you may be anxious to disseminate all those messages as widely and as often as possible, but if you choose “All of the above” when crafting a KOL quote, chances are that your audience will remember “None of the above.”

Years ago, I had a client who directed me to limit messages to 29 words or less. The rationale was that 29 words was the maximum length for a memorable soundbite. The 29-word limit was not rigid; there was some flexibility in terms of exceeding the limit by a small handful of words, as long as those extra words added value. But when I got close to 40 — or even 35 — words, I knew I needed to be less verbose. I wonder if any companies or agencies still operate under such guidelines, as crafting the clear, concise, and coherent message appears to have become a lost art.

I have a few other pet peeves, such as overuse of the phrases “unmet medical need,” “limited treatment options,” and “devastating disease,” but I’ll leave those for another blog.