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Staying on Message

Michael Sheehan's Tip Sheet.

  1. Know your objective, know your audience. It sounds easy, but it's really the hardest part of communications, says Sheehan. You must know what you want to do before you can translate that into a clear message — so take some time to figure out your corporate strategy before, not after, someone asks you to distill it. Then make sure you know who you're talking to and what it is they want to hear.
  2. If it's about a sweater, don't show up with a lamb. We are overwhelmed by information, so conveying a message that sticks is tougher than ever. If you can synthesize what you want to convey into a few key points, there's a better chance that those points will make it through the clutter. Using a triangle or a box to structure your message is more effective than talking points.
  3. Overdo it. When first working with a client, Sheehan likes to film them reading the first few stanzas of the epic poem Casey at the Bat. Then he asks them which words were most important, colorful, or vibrant, and plays back the tape to show them how even if they thought they were being animated, they weren't. "The key to the voice is overexaggeration," he says. "If you don't feel a little goofy, you're not doing enough."
  4. Make the first impression count. "When there is a blank slate, the first thing written on it not only has an advantage but its shadow is always there," says Sheehan. "It's much easier to get it right from the start."
  5. No rote repetition. Partly because of the rise of image consultants like Sheehan, people have become a lot more cynical about what they hear. "The worst thing that someone can do now," he says, "is to look like they're on message. It now alienates and drives people away." An example is Al Gore's infamous "no controlling legal authority" press conference in 1997. He was blatantly on message and blatantly avoiding the issues on the table. You should make your point by responding to questions and finding several creative ways to do so, not by parroting one lousy sound bite by rote.
  6. Sound bites can work. Speaking of sound bites, Sheehan is a fan — of good ones, anyway. A good sound bite conveys a message immediately in a colorful way. It's also more likely to be remembered. "So far the most popular sound bite of the year, and I didn't write it so I can't kvell on [boast about] it, was Paul O'Neill's criticism that President Bush was 'like a blind man in a room full of deaf people.' "
  7. Answer the "who" question and the "ooh" question. Know first who's watching or listening. Then ask yourself what you can do to make them say, "Ooh, that's interesting!"
  8. Tell the truth. If you try to hide a problem — or worse, deny it — you're going to get busted (right, Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, Frank Quattrone?). This may sound strange coming from the mouth of someone who worked closely with President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, but Sheehan says that makes his point exactly. "If you go out there and give false info," he says, "you're going to get clocked."

A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.