Speaking off-script and concerned you might be about to ramble off on a tangent? It’s a common worry. But getting straight to the point and sticking with it all the way through all comes down to knowing your message. This way, the actual words you use to communicate it can change without you ever losing the thread. Here’s how to do that every single time.
Six Things Every Message Needs
Before you open your mouth, make sure that whatever you’re about to talk about meets these six criteria:
1. It’s one idea. Streamline your thinking down to a single, essential idea–the point you want your audience to buy into. Sometimes speakers have too many ideas, or else they have no idea what they’re trying to say. Too many ideas or no idea–both produce the same thing: confusion.
2. You can express it in a single, clear sentence. Because if your message is more than one sentence, or is a long, convoluted sentence, your listeners won’t “get it.” If you say to a client, for instance, “We’re here for you, we can deliver. And of course we want to work with you on this next opportunity, which sounds very exciting,” you’ll be leaving the client with multiple messages. Instead, try: “We’re conﬁdent we can deliver for you.” In an internal meeting your message might be, “Let’s explore that plan” or, “To succeed as a team we need to work more collaboratively.”
3. It’s engaging. Your message should engage the hearts and minds of your listeners, otherwise they’re less likely to buy into your main idea. This means knowing what will move your audience in the first place. I once asked a director of strategy who’d just joined a ﬁrm, “What would your message be if your boss asks you, ‘How do you see your job?'” He replied, “I’d say, ‘My goal is to get the company to live the strategy.'” That would’ve been music to the ears of the VP of strategy.
4. It carries your convictions. Make sure your message is an idea you believe in. When Lou Gehrig announced to fans at Yankee Stadium that he was ailing, on July 4, 1939, he delivered a deeply felt message. Instead of expressing regrets, he said, “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.” Don’t undercut yourself or your company with halfhearted statements or decorous platitudes that you don’t really believe in.
5. It’s positive. Yes, there are times when you’ll need to deliver bad news, but even then, you should spend more time on the high ground and end on a high note. No matter how sobering your message, it should move the room in a hopeful direction, highlighting aspirational goals, possibilities, and accomplishments. Sometimes circumstances make this easy and your message is just, “I’m thrilled by your performance as a team” or, “We closed the deal, and you all made it happen.”
You can still sound a note of positivity when that isn’t the case, though: “While we face major challenges, I’m conﬁdent we can remain the provider of choice in our industry.” Whatever you do, always move from negatives to positives. This lets you build a sense of urgency and concern in your audience, then rally everyone to action.
6. It’s recognizable. Make sure everyone can identify your message when they hear it. This has to do with your delivery. Expressing it as a strong, clear, declaratory statement–in a tone of conviction–is usually enough to ﬂag it as your main idea. But you can also precede it with phrases like, “My point is,” “My message is,” “My view is,” “As I see it,” “I believe that,” or even “Here’s the thing.”
Getting To The Point (No Matter How Uncomfortable It Is)
When you don’t have a message, your listeners are left to sort through the details and ﬁgure out what you’re trying to say. Here’s an example of what it sounds like when someone’s struggling to get to the point because they don’t have a message. James, an operations director in an oil and gas company, is sharing bad news with his CEO, Glen:
James: We have a situation that’s kind of out of the ordinary, and it’s not one we’re very happy about. While drilling one of our wells, we unfortunately cemented the drill pipe in the hole. The well bore is junked and has to be abandoned. We need to re-drill the well. We have $11 million in the well, and that’s money spent with no recoverable reserves. The good news is that the last casing, which we set, is well positioned and we can get down to that point.
Glen: How the hell did this happen?
James: It was human error. Instead of putting 15 cases of cement down the hole, we put 70 cases down. We’ll do a full postmortem on it and come back to you with a report.
James is delivering bad news without having a message. No single sentence stands out as the deﬁning idea. There’s a lot of information, and it’s clear he’s trying to be conscientious, but there’s no focused argument. Without a positive message, negativity takes over–it’s mostly just a litany of bad news. No wonder Glen sounds frustrated.
Here’s what James should’ve said–getting straight to the point, with a clear, positive message Glen can’t possibly miss (italicized):
James: Glen, do you have a moment? We’ve lost a well, but we have a solution to the problem. We inadvertently put too much cement down the hole, and cemented the drill pipe into it. We’ve done our best to address the situation over the past two days and have come up with a fix for it. We can still use the good casing in the hole and drill a new one from the bottom of the casing past the cemented drill pipe. We’re ready to go. All we need is your approval.
Glen: Sure, let’s get this thing ﬁxed.
This script is more focused and shorter. It’s also overwhelmingly positive–the negative, defensive details are gone–and it meets all six criteria that together help James deliver the bad news and win Glen’s support. No matter whom you’re speaking to or what you’re speaking about, all your listeners–including your boss–want you to be clear. They need you to get to the point so you can all move forward together.
This article is adapted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from the forthcoming Impromptu: Leading in the Moment by Judith Humphrey. Copyright© 2018 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is currently available for preorder and will be available all bookstores and online booksellers on December 11.