The sharpest tool in my communication skills training box is a message development exercise I call ‘Answers First’.
It is a tightly focused exercise, which I use to prepare company spokespeople for a specific meeting, negotiating session, presentation or interview. It involves identifying, honing and prioritising a brief series of key messages, each supported by an equally brief series of evidential proof points; anticipating likely questions; then working out how to link each question back to one or more of the messages, if necessary via a ‘reactive’ message developed for that purpose.
It is a demanding, sometimes difficult and often exhausting process. When working with individuals or groups preparing for a grilling from a regulator, I have known it to take four hours or more! But I have never known it fail to provide the clearest possible focus for the communication task in hand.
When Q&A documents don’t cut it
It’s not that the companies I work for lack investment in messaging. On the contrary, most of them routinely develop comprehensive Q&A documents designed to provide answers to any conceivable question on a given topic.
These are very useful as background reading and for thorough immersion in an issue. But they are not so helpful when you are under fire from a journalist, your boss or an antagonistic stakeholder and can’t afford to go leafing through a 50-page document in search of your killer point.
That’s when you need three, or at most four, memorable and persuasive key messages that cover all the bases for the situation at hand and to which you can boomerang back from any likely question.
The ‘5S’ plan
The principles underlying successful message development for these scenarios can be summarised as ‘5S’. The messages need to be:
Short and Snappy. This is no time for long, convoluted sentences that build up gradually to the point. You need brief, clear, positive statements, always couched in the active (rather than passive) voice;
Strong, as in powerful and persuasive, using vivid language and designed to sway hearts as well as minds;
Specific to the occasion you are preparing for and designed to achieve the outcome you are seeking. Messages should never be all-purpose and set in concrete: they need to be fluidly adaptable to different scenarios;
Suited to the audience you are addressing, whether directly or via the media. The better you can target your messages – and the language they are couched in – to the interests, needs, knowledge, concerns and beliefs of your intended audience, the more likely you are to win them to your point of view and move them to any necessary action;
Supported by compelling proof points in the form of data, statistics, case histories, anecdotes or third-party endorsements. As a rule, I find it useful to have three messages, each supported by three proof points. That way when you come to repeat your messages – as you will need to do if the points are to sink home – you can vary the proof points on each occasion to avoid sounding like a robot.
You could work through this process on your own, but I always find it more productive to do it as part of a (small) group to provide the elements of challenge and negotiation that will inevitably arise from varying perspectives.
Prioritising your messages
Once you have framed your messages according to the ‘5S’ principles, the next step is to assign them a priority order to create a preferred ‘story flow’; so that if you were asked an open first question such as ‘What is your view?’ you could simply run through the messages from top to bottom.
Once the messages are locked up, you need to anticipate every question you might conceivably be asked by your interlocutors – not just the obvious easy ones but the ‘questions from hell’ that you dread having to answer.
Now go through each question in turn and work out which of your messages you could spring back to from that question. If there is no obvious route, you need an additional reactive message – one that doesn’t form part of your proactive message flow, that you can keep in your back pocket as a specific response to a specific question – from which you can easily segue back into your message flow.
How Clearsay can help
None of this is easy – and that’s where Clearsay Communications come in. We work with business and thought leaders to help them communicate clearly and effectively through presentations, media interviews, negotiations and meetings of all kinds. To find out what we could do for you, go back to the Home Page.