Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Don't get caught speechless: What's in your message wardrobe?

You want some tried-and-true pieces that are versatile enough to suit many occasions, that make you look good, and that travel well. Ideally, they'll all be pieces that make it easy for you to get ready quickly. If you can mix and match them to create variations, so much the better.

Oh, snap--you thought I was talking about a wardrobe. Well, I was. A message wardrobe, that is. 

Developing a message is just a plan-ahead way to make sure you don't get caught speechless in the variety of situations where you might need to explain yourself. From speeches, media interviews and presentations to one-on-one conversations with that investor or donor, messages are the crisp, thoughtful response or takeaway you wish were always on the tip of your tongue. Ironically, the more you prep and practice a message, the less planned it will look.

Mostly, thinking about a message wardrobe means you're ready. I've put hundreds of executives and experts out in public, and I can tell you from experience that memorable messages rarely show up unbidden and without advance thought and planning. Perhaps the best example of this was the late Senator Ted Kennedy's inability to answer, back in the 1970's on national television, why he wanted to be president of the United States. His failure to have an answer ready cost him a campaign even before he'd announced his intentions:

As amazing as that may seem--really, you want to be president but can't tell us why?--it's the same situation you face when someone at a networking event asks "What is it that you do?" or your neighbor asks "what is biochemistry, anyway? I'm not sure I know," or you're up on stage with the assignment to get the audience to do something, and you forget the main thing you were going to say. I've done messaging workshops with teams in which no one could articulate briefly the mission of the organization...because they'd never given thought to it. Those are all missed opportunities to communicate.

I know an easy way to avoid getting caught on this one: Take the time to think through and develop some messages you can use as the core of any answer, speech or presentation. It helps if you take the time to think through how that message might fit (or not) particular audiences you expect to reach, how it might be challenged or questioned, and how you can customize it for specific situations. Here are the pieces I'd put in a message wardrobe:
  • Your introductions: How shall we introduce you? If you just hand a stock bio to the moderator and hope she'll wing it with your best features, you're missing the chance to present yourself as a speaker and expert to your audience. Keep this short and specific, and use it when you introduce yourself as well. 
  • An explanation of what you do, in layman's terms: You've got plenty of people you can test this on--your loved ones, for starters. Pick three things that explain some of your work, and field-test it at the dinner table until you get somewhere. You'll use this set of answers with anyone who doesn't do precisely what you do, from donors and policymakers to the scientist in a different specialty or the executive in marketing. You'll need this type of message for your overall company or organization and its mission, as well as for your specific role there.
  • Answers to the questions you expect: If you're running for president, expect to be asked why you want the job. If you're in the middle of a controversy, expect tough questions about how we got here and what you're going to do to get us out. This category is worth spending time on, because in most cases, these really are the questions you'll get.
  • Answers to the questions you fear: Oddly enough, the questions you fear don't always turn up, but it's still a good practice to have answers ready for them.
  • Answers to the questions you want: You might call these "softball questions," the ones that cheer rather than challenge. Many do--until they get posed and you have no answers for them. There's really nothing sadder than someone who's stumbling to answer, "Have you always been this successful?" or "Isn't it wonderful that you can do so much good for the community?"
  • Your call to action, or what you want others to do, aka "the ask:" Of all the things not to leave out of a pitch, presentation or speech, it's the action item. What do you want to inspire/ask/compel the crowd to do? What decisions need to be made?  From money to votes to an up-or-down decision, "the ask" is another core message. If you can't articulate what you need, don't expect us to act.
I work with all sorts of organizations and companies to help them develop messages--it was among my specialties as a senior public affairs official in the Clinton administration. Sometimes it's a one-on-one effort, sometimes I facilitate team retreats so everyone works through message development together. Let me know if you need help with your message wardrobe. Email me at eloquentwoman[at]gmail[dot]com -- yes, that's the new and only email.

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