I’ve spent a fair bit of time this month writing talking points for clients. Some are short and sweet, like a stock response to a frequently asked question. Others are more involved, such as a script for a difficult phone call or meeting.
But they all stem from a similar space: the desire to say something appropriate – and appropriately – without stumbling or stepping into a bigger mess.
That’s often when my team and I are called in – and where we shine. When we tackle talking points, I keep these nine considerations in mind.
- Start with context. I’m a big one for framing the picture, providing the background for the message. Clients often want to start right with the nugget of the issue, but I’ve found it helps to remind listeners of the history and context. While it may be the single most important thing our client has been living with, it’s a mistake to think stakeholders are following the story as closely as you’ve been.
- Seek common ground. Even in this time of fractured discourse and rage rhetoric, we’re all still connected by our shared humanity. It’s wise to start by establishing common ground, the things we can all believe in. These shared beliefs provide a good foundation for the rest of your message.
- Remember your voice. In times of panic and trouble, organizations can temporarily forget who they are as they struggle with the issue at hand. If you have articulated your mission, vison and values, re-read them. If you have key messages or a voice chart, get them out. Remembering who you have pledged to be, in good times or bad, is a great place to start.
- Write for the ear. Lovely and complex sentences have no place in talking points, particularly those that are to be read aloud. Alliterations can be great, until you’re trying to pronounce them. Since talking points are often meant to be read aloud, do so – you can catch and correct things that will twist the tongue.
- Simplify. By their nature, talking points are meant to be heard rather than read. As such, your message needs to be as simple and clear as possible. Edit ruthlessly – get rid of any details that will deter comprehension. Replace jargon with understandable concepts. Edit ruthlessly at this stage.
- Mind the attorneys. It’s often a good idea to let legal counsel review talking points before they are finalized. Their risk management role can prevent a well-intentioned mea culpa from turning into a lawsuit. Do read after they have edited to ensure their additions don’t violate points three, four and five.
- Answer questions. If organizations take the time to develop talking points, it’s likely they have faced questions on the issue at hand – or worry those questions are coming. Bake in the answers to some of the key questions in your talking points, which will preempt the need to answer them at the end of your remarks – and ensure you stay on script.
- End strong. Be sure to have a solid conclusion, whether that’s a call to action or the laying out of next steps. You can also recap the key points, accentuating the one or two you most want your stakeholders to remember.
- Know when to stop. This last point is perhaps the hardest of all – and the most critical. Organizations can fall into the trap of over-explaining, which can raise eyebrows among stakeholders. If you’ve covered everything you need to share, just stop talking. You’ll be glad you did – and your lawyers and communications team will be, too.