How to prototype and test your messaging before you invest in it

Originally published at

When we do our messaging strategy workshops with teams, we always build in time for prototyping and testing.

The first part of our workshop sets the stage for the frame of mind you need to be in when you write any messaging for your business — whether it’s a proposal to win funding, an event announcement to attract participants, or a website to attract customers.

There are a few feats of mental gymnastics that help you write in such a way that your words light up in the hearts and minds of the people you want to influence. I cover the basics of these techniques in this companion post, Why is it so tough to write good messaging for our business?

Once we cover those topics, we start prototyping some messaging ideas.

Here’s the team from  League of Creative Interventionists  as we helped them test their messaging for their website

Here’s the team from League of Creative Interventionists as we helped them test their messaging for their website


In this post, I want to quickly cover some of the techniques we use to prototype and test our messaging. These techniques come from my time working with Tom Chi and Prototype Thinking Labs, which is something you can learn more about in our Practical Guide to Prototype Thinking

Technique #1: Rapid Prototyping for Messaging

Usually, teams we work with are creating messaging that will appear on a website or a pitch deck. So we quickly and very roughly sketch on a piece of paper the boxes and rectangles that represent the structure of a basic website or Powerpoint slides.



  • Plain 8.5x11 paper turned horizontally (it’s about the size of a computer laptop screen!)

  • Black sharpies for nice, thick, bold lines — no need to get super detailed here!

  • Scissors

We then take a new piece of paper and cut it into 2 or 3 strips. These are where we’re going to write the headline or whatever piece of messaging we want to test.

We write one potential headline on one strip of paper. Then we write an alternative headline on another strip of paper.

Repeat this process for all the pieces of messaging you want to test. The idea is to have a paper prototype of your website or pitch deck or social media post or whatever you’re creating, with multiple pieces you can swap in and out to test multiple alternatives.

Also keep handy blank pieces of paper and your sharpie, in case you come up with new ideas while you’re testing!

Technique #2: Recruiting Test Participants

In a pinch, we’ve gotten super valuable feedback from pulling random people in the coffee shop next door into tests (people are pretty good at roleplaying!)

Ideally, though, you would want to recruit someone who matches the persona of the person you are writing your messaging for — the person you hope to influence to do something after reading your messaging.

So if you’re working on a proposal to an investor, you would want to ask your good friend, who happens to be an investor, for 15 minutes of her time.

If you’re creating a social media post hoping to attract millennials to volunteer at your event, ask the twenty-something barista at the coffee shop if she’ll help you out for a few minutes.

If you’re building a website to entice high-earning professionals to donate monthly to your cause, ask a few friends who match this description over for dinner on a Sunday night to chat about your new venture.

Craft your invitation to appeal to the type of person you’re recruiting. If they work full time, create an opportunity for them to help you out on an evening or weekend — or offer to meet at a coffee shop next to their office. Better — go to that coffee shop and find people who look like they might match your target market who are on a break.


Don’t approach people when they’re busy, find them when they have leisure time. Look for the person leisurely strolling, not the fast walker looking at his watch with a furrowed brow.

Whether you approach a stranger or reach out to your friends, here’s a formula I learned that can make your request more appealing:

  1. Make it lightweight — “Do you have 5 minutes…”

  2. Frame it as asking for their help — “…to help me with a quick research project?”

  3. If they say no, let it go. If they act interested, follow up with something like, “I’m working on a service that will help people like you, and could use your feedback.” — tailor this to the person you’re talking to, but generally help them understand that by helping you, they’re contributing to the creation of something that will benefit the part of the world they care about.

Technique #3: Testing Your Prototype

Direct your willing test participant to sit in front of your paper prototype and give the following instructions — and feel free to have fun and laugh during this process!

  1. Ask them to pretend this is a beautifully designed (website, powerpoint slide, etc.) — people have a great imagination and can easily overlook the sketchy paper prototype.

  2. Give them context — where would they be if they were discovering this beautiful website / powerpoint slide in their day-to-day life? “Imagine you’re in a funding meeting with a potential new portfolio company, and they’re presenting this pitch to you.”

  3. Ask them to react as they would in that situation with full honesty. Give them the instructions to think out loud so you can hear what they would normally be thinking in this situation.

By doing these three steps, you help guide the participant into a scenario where they can react as if they were actually viewing the thing you’re going to build. Once you get practiced at this guidance, you can help reduce a lot of bias and find valuable, authentic feedback from your very early prototypes.


Proceed with the test:

If you have multiple messages to test, you can gather feedback on one message, then act like a movie director and call out “Cut!” You can then update the prototype with the new messages, call out “Rewind” and reset the context back to the beginning — “Pretend you’re seeing this for the first time again, and now it looks like this.”

Never underestimate people’s ability to play along and use their imagination! It’s amazing how well this works.

What to watch for:

As your test participant responds to your different prompts, it can be really helpful to have someone on your team be a notetaker.

Record any comments and impressions your test participant offers verbally, as well as their body language and facial expressions. (At this point people often ask if they should be video taping — I find that to be too much trouble. Just jot down notes, like *eyebrows raised* or *brows furrowed*)

If your test participant looks confused but isn’t offering any further comment, feel free to prompt them: “You look confused,” or “Remember to think out loud — what’s going through your mind right now?”

If there are times when your test participant gets excited, gestures wildly, raises their voice, or has an enthusiastic, “Wow!” eyes light up moment, be sure to take particular note of this! This means you are striking a chord emotionally. This is good!

If there are times when the person is just not responding well at all, remember, you can always say “Cut!” and go back to the drawing board.

It is totally okay to leave the person waiting for a few minutes while you rewrite a headline, given the information you just learned from them.

This isn’t about creating a nice, pleasant experience for your tester — this is about getting your messaging right! (Of course, respect their time as well — don’t keep them with you for more than 15–20 minutes unless they are clearly happy to be there.)

What not to do:


Don’t co-DESIGN with your test participant

During the test, your test participant may get into the process and start offering suggestions for how to improve your messaging. Try not to get sucked into a design session with your test participant.

Instead, focus more on asking them why they like or do not like an idea. This will steer the conversation more towards their insights and mental models, which will help you to later design a better solution on your own.

Don’t INSTRUCT your test participant on how to use your product

If your test participant isn’t understanding your messaging or your idea, this is not the time to teach them about it.

You are the student now. They are teaching you how to make your messaging understandable! Simply take notes, and thank them for helping you see what’s confusing.

Don’t PITCH to your test participant

If your test participant is confused or doesn’t like your messaging, do not try to convince them to change their mind! This is not the time for you to pitch or convince.

Adapt an attitude of gratitude. Your test participant is helping you find errors and blind spots that you might have otherwise published into the world. This is priceless information they are kindly offering you!

When testing your ideas, you are the student, your test participant is the expert.

Get several months’ worth of insight in 45 minutes!

If you spend just 15 minutes with three different people in your target market, you will be amazed at the amount of insights and improvements you’ll uncover.

Most people spend weeks crafting their websites or pitch decks in a vacuum, then spend months wondering why they’re not getting the results they’d hoped.

By realizing that we’re not going to craft the perfect messaging on our own, no matter how long we spend iterating in our heads, we can save ourselves so much time and frustration by putting our very early prototypes out for a few people to see.

We get valuable insight into our target market’s thought processes, and we use that insight to rework our messaging before we’ve invested very much time, energy, or money into it at all.

That’s just smart business!