What are you talking about?

In the past few months, the leaders of the world have had their communication skills tested. Some leaders have shone, and some…not so much. We’ve heard ambiguous and unclear messages such as, ‘Stay Alert’ – what exactly does that mean? And then the downright ridiculous: think ‘Disinfectant-gate’ (enough said). It has been a communication circus out there. Luckily here in NZ our leader has come out top of the class.

What has stood out to me is the importance of a good key message. Like with most communication, a lot has been said but not much heard. When the time has been taken to craft clear and solid key messages – these have stood out. They are remembered. Are acted upon. And are therefore effective.

As we all now navigate our businesses through this noisy, murky and uncertain time, we too should prioritise crafting our key messages when speaking to a group. If your audience are only going to remember a fraction of what you say (which they are), how can you ensure they remember the right thing?

To help you with this I want to share 6 questions you should ask yourself to craft key messages that are clearconcise and meaningful.

Question 1: What do I want my audience to know or do?

We all are operating under limited time. Let’s respect everyone’s time by first establishing what you are looking to achieve. Do you want them to do something? Think something? Know something? Write this down and you have the bones of a decent key message.

Question 2: Does it convey a message?

The topic of your presentation is not your key message. Check that you are not confusing the two by ensuring there is a verb in your key message. For example, your topic might be “Health and safety incident records”. Rewrite that into a key message by turning ‘record’ into a verb: “We must record every health and safety incident”. Immediately you transform a general chit chat into a purposeful statement.

A more subtle example of a topic masquerading as a key message is, “How you can make your workplace safer”. It has a verb, but it is not telling your audience anything. Ask yourself – what’s the main thing I want to tell the audience about making the workplace safer? The answer is your key message, which makes for this far clearer offering: “You can make the workplace safer by looking out for hazards”.

Questions 3: Do I talk like this?

There’s a big difference between the language we use when we’re speaking, and that we use in writing. Your key message should be in spoken language. Here’s an example of written language: “Educators should maximise the potential of technology in education”. In spoken language it would be: “Teachers can make better use of technology”. See the difference?

Question 4: Is my key message specific and concrete?

Your audience should be able to ‘see’ your key message. If it is full of jargon or abstract, conceptual words it won’t be clear. For example, “Implementing urban design principles will ensure that this roading project is sustainable”, could be transformed into “Adding cycleways and walkways will reduce pollution”. Jargon might make you feel knowledgeable, but it can easily confuse and alienate your audience.

Question 5: Is the relevance to my audience clear?

One effective way of ensuring this is to include the word “you” in the key message. Take this message for example, “Changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme will allow foresters using averaging accounting to offset their liability by planting an equivalent forest elsewhere”. Say what? This will be gobbledegook for an audience of foresters. But as soon as we think about the foresters and what we really want to tell them, “Changes to the scheme will give you more flexibility over your land”, we transform the message. (Phew)!

Question 6. Does it say something my audience doesn’t know?

Your audience is there for something new. Don’t give them clichés or waste their time. A course participant came up with the key message, “People are our greatest asset”. Hmm, heard that before! I asked her specifically what she meant, so she revised to this key message: “As we’ve grown, we’ve needed different types of people”. Much more interesting.

This doesn’t mean that you have to come up with something clever. There is a risk if you try to be too tricky that your audience won’t get it. Or they’ll spend the next few seconds working out what you meant and then miss what you say next.

In spoken communication, clarity trumps clever.

Note that nowhere on this list is the question “what do I want to talk about”? Leave your ego at the door. Focus on the job you need to do and who we are talking to,  and you will be ahead of the game.

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