Getting Your Message Across

DOES THE NAME WINIFRED SKINNER sound familiar? If the name doesn’t, how about the pictures we saw on the nightly news during the 2000 presidential campaign of the grandmother in Illinois who had to go around picking up aluminum cans each day so she would have enough money to pay for her monthly prescription drugs? Remember her?

Politicians, in this case Al Gore, have a knack for finding “real people” to convey the personal side of complicated issues. And often times, as in the case of Ms. Skinner, they don’t let the facts surrounding the issue get in the way of a good story, or should we say, good picture. A few days after Mr. Gore introduced Ms. Skinner as the face of our nation’s elderly who can’t pay their prescription drug bills, we learned Ms. Skinner’s son had been more than willing to financially assist his mother, but she actually enjoyed her morning routine of can collecting. Of course, that revelation came after several days and tear-jerking network news reports later. The picture had been painted and Mr. Gore’s message had been delivered.

Personalizing your message is one of many effective techniques to help you engage, inform and motivate your audience. There are really three basic steps to creating an effective message. First, you must target your message. That means deciding who is your audience. Second, and only after you have defined your audience, you must develop your key message points, what are sometimes referred to as “talking points” or “soundbites.” Third, you must effectively deliver your message. This means using the right tone, wearing the right clothes and making sure you smile when possible. These steps may sound simple, and they are, but unfortunately, too many of us skip number one, never truly fine-tune number two and believe it’s superficial to pay much attention to number three.

Targeting Your Message

The first question you should always ask yourself, “Who is my audience?” Is it male or female? Is it religious or secular? Is it parents of school age children or single young professionals? Are you trying to fire up your base or persuade the undecided? The list could go on and on. When you’re satisfied you’ve found your target, move to step two.

Developing Your Message

First, understand you won’t be able to say everything you’ve ever wanted to say about your issue. You must limit yourself to two or three main points to be repeated throughout your speech or interview. Take what I call the “Obit Test.” What is the main point you want your audience to remember after you’re gone? When your audience member turns off the TV or radio show you were just on or throws away the newspaper article that contained your quote, what is it you want them to remember about what you said? What is the message you want them to be able to repeat to their spouse or neighbor? That is your main message. Repeat this exercise and you get message points two and three.

There are two more tests your message must pass. One, does it connect with your audience, and two, can you state it in less than 30 seconds. In order to connect with your audience, you must use language familiar to them and examples that “are” them. When President Bush was trying to sell his tax cut to the public, he frequently talked about (and had standing behind him) “a family of four making $50,000 who would get $1825 in a tax cut.” The president’s advisors knew if this tax cut was going to gain momentum with the public, the public had to see how it would affect them. When politicians and advocates use big numbers and make high brow philosophical arguments, the public often has a hard time seeing how any of it personally impacts their lives. If you can show them through examples and picturesque language what they will either gain or lose, you have a much better chance of connecting with them, and therefore persuading them.

Why do you have to be able to make your point in less than 30 seconds? If you’re in a debate, it’s rare the other side will let you go much longer before interrupting. There is also something called editing. If you’re being interviewed by a reporter for a two-minute story on that night’s newscast, you should not assume you will be given all two minutes of air-time. Chances are they’ll be interviewing other people to include in their story as well. So, if you talk for one minute solid, the reporter is going to have to pick the 30 seconds of your one-minute statement, the soundbite, to include in his report. Why let the reporter make that choice? It’s always better to edit yourself. Speak, as best you can, in 30-second soundbites.

Delivering Your Message

Americans watch a lot of television, with some studies reporting over 36 hours per person per week. We also know the average viewer changes channels over 100 times per hour. Why are these statistics important? Because they point to the ever-shrinking attention span of the viewer and illustrate how difficult it is to catch and keep their attention. You have about :08 seconds to make your first impression. In that very short time, your audience will come to several conclusions about you. They will decide if they believe you to be credible, if what you have to say affects them, if you are someone who represents their interests, if you are engaging and, last but certainly not least, if they like you. Your voice, your gestures and your appearance are all critical elements in their thought process.

Your tone of voice and rate of speech convey your emotions. If you’re tone is loud, you will likely come across as angry. If you’re speaking quickly, you’re exuding excitement and a sense of urgency. If you’re tone is soft, you come across as compassionate. If you’re speaking at a slow pace, you’re calm and understanding. Make sure you are using the tone of voice that accurately communicates the emotion you want to convey. There is much about the media you can’t control. You can’t control what questions will be asked, the bias of the reporter, or what a caller might say on a radio program, but you can control your tone of voice.

If you remember only one item from the points being made here, remember this one, SMILE. Nothing will improve your performance more than incorporating a smile in your delivery. No, this doesn’t mean you have to grin from ear to ear throughout an interview, but it does mean the more you can do so, the better your performance will be. Have you ever noticed when someone smiles at you, you tend to smile back? Have you ever thought about the fact you can “hear” a smile over the radio? Smiles bring down barriers, open doors and make you someone your audience just may want to have over for dinner.

Of course, smiling isn’t the only way to effectively use gestures. In general, for news and talking head television, the more movement you can give the picture the better. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than watching someone on television who is clearly uncomfortable. If you don’t want the “deer in the headlights” look, you must make facial expressions and use hand and head gestures. Different speaking and television formats call for different levels of usage, but dramatizing your facial gestures by about 25% is a general rule to follow. Using your hands as you talk will give your upper body and head movement. They can also help you draw in your audience and drive home your points. However, this is one area where you can have too much of a good thing. Overusing your hands can distract from your message.

Finally, your appearance matters. It may seem superficial, but it is also a fact of life that some colors, some clothes and all people wearing make-up (women and men) look better on television. Some general guidelines for presenting a credible and appealing appearance: When it comes to colors, it’s not so much which ones to wear as which ones not to wear. Stay away from orange, green, white and pastels in general. When it comes to suits, navy and gray are good basics. Women can brighten them up with colored blouses underneath and men can do the same with shirts and ties. It’s better to over-dress than under-dress. When in doubt, wear a suit, put on a tie. Solids are better than patterns, and this includes ties and scarves. Avoid wearing items that can be distracting to the viewer. When it comes to jewelry, less is usually more. Tie and lapel pins, which are usually too small for the viewer to be able to recognize and often reflect the studio lights causing a glare, should be removed before an interview or speech.

When it comes to make-up, sometimes it will be provided, sometimes it will not. You always want to wear it one way or the other, so be prepared to do it yourself. Because studio lights tend to wash people out, you want to use a foundation that is slightly darker than your natural skin tone. For those who don’t want to use liquid foundation, a bronzing powder will also do the trick. The main problem you want to avoid is shine from perspiration. Try out a couple of products in advance to see which ones work best for you.

Staying on Message

The best messages in the world are doomed to irrelevancy if you don’t get to say them and say them often. That’s why you want to have no more than three points at the most for each interview. To help you stay on message, use transition phrases. Here are a few examples: “That’s an interesting question John, but my constituents are more concerned about…” or “The real issue here is…” or “What’s relevant to this debate is…” You get the idea. The goal is not to avoid the question, the goal is to stick to your message and say what you came to say.

For a very few, like the Great Communicator President Ronald Reagan, the ability to inspire and motivate people seems to come naturally. But for those of us not born with the “gift,” Al Gore should be an inspiration. While we might not like Mr. Gore’s loose use of the facts, we have to give him credit for showing us the effectiveness of personalizing an issue and proving that just about anyone, including Wooden Al, can be a great communicator if they incorporate the right techniques.


Ms. Wood is Vice President of Communications at the Family Research Council.