Talking about talking points

Much of what we learn from politicians teaches us how not to do things. But there’s something that the folks on the national political scene do exceedingly well, and that’s speak with a common language and a common voice on key issues. There’s a valuable lesson in that for companies and other organizations.

The lesson isn’t simply in the fact that everyone shares the same message. It’s in how they do it so quickly. An issue will arise, or one party’s leadership will make a statement, and within hours, everyone from the other party is using the same phrases and descriptions to explain their viewpoint.

“Talking points take just minutes to develop, yet they can prevent hours lost to unclear and misspoken messages.”

It isn’t magic. Nor are politicians telepathic. They arrive at their common language through the use of a very simple communications tool called talking points. Talking points take just minutes to develop, yet they can prevent hours lost to unclear and misspoken messages.

Most businesses understand the importance of branding and ensuring that their brands are presented in a consistent manner. There’s less awareness of the importance of consistent messaging. When everyone in an organization uses the same language, important messages are strengthened and supported. Talking points are a remarkably simple way to do that.

A simple definition of talking points is a short list of statements that summarize the organization’s stand on a particular issue, or an explanation of an important matter. To explain, let’s examine a situation in which talking points can be very helpful.

Suppose your company has had to implement a two-percent price increase on a product line that’s in a very price-sensitive market. If you simply announce the price increase to the marketplace and your employees, you’ll have very little control over how that announcement is received. Your customers wonder why you’re charging more, as will your salespeople. In the absence of any additional information, they’ll develop their own explanations – most of which will be negative and disparaging. (Sorry to say that, but it’s a fact of human nature.) I can hear their words now: “I guess management just wanted to make more money.” “All I know is that when the price went up, I didn’t get a raise.” “Ach, we never know what they’re thinking.”

Now let’s consider what would happen if your company coupled that price-increase announcement by sharing a short list of talking points with your employees. In fact, you decide to present just five:

  • Our raw-material costs have increased by 27 percent in the last three years.
  • This is our only price increase in that time.
  • We’ve absorbed most of the increases by becoming leaner.
  • Our quality remains much better than that of our competitors.
  • We have no plans for additional increases in the foreseeable future.

Thanks to those simple talking points, when a customer asks a question or expresses a concern about the increase, your employees can respond with a very simple answer. What’s more, if that customer talks to three different people at your company, he or she will hear a consistent message. Contrary to what some people might think, it won’t sound like brainwashing; instead, it will sound like everyone is speaking the plain truth.

How about another example? Suppose you develop a new veeblefetzer that offered 27 distinct advantages over what’s in the marketplace. Your customers will never keep that many benefits straight. Nor will your staff. So instead of trying to overwhelm everyone, you concentrate on the three most important benefits and make them your talking points:

  • It cores radishes 40 percent faster.
  • It reduces radish waste by 10 percent.
  • With fewer moving parts, there’s less costly maintenance.

It’s easy for your sales team to memorize those talking points. It’s easy for your advertising agency to make them the basis of ads for the new product. Your IT folks will know exactly what to emphasize on your website. Your graphic designers will use them as call-outs on your packaging. And do you know what else will happen? Your customers will remember them.

By taking a little bit of time to create some simple talking points, you’ve saved yourself hours of confusion and marketing missteps. Every aspect of your marketing, sales, and communications efforts will work in concert, strengthening your message and differentiating you from your competition.

The concept is just as valuable outside the business world. For example, a non-profit trying to raise money in a capital campaign can try to share every aspect of its story with potential donors. Or, it can simplify its compelling case into even-more-compelling talking points like these:

  • We served 640 young mothers last year.
  • We had to turn away at least 400 others.
  • Our expansion gives us room to serve 1200 mothers/year.
  • It also allows us to offer prenatal care.

Those simple points are the gist of the message. They’re exactly what you want people to remember when they’re trying to decide whether they should support you.

Talking points can be distributed in an amazing number of ways — everything from a mass email to employees to a printed business card-sized summary that your team can refer to when making a sales call or working in a trade show booth.

When you develop talking points, keep some basic ideas in mind. First, you can’t — and shouldn’t — try to say everything. That’s the whole idea behind talking points. Your goal is to distill the most important issues into short statements. Don’t make your talking points long, either. The fewer you have and the shorter each is, the more powerful they’ll be. You can go into greater detail in places like your website, or in response to specific customer questions.

Finally, as you develop your talking points, remember that the most effective communication is designed around what matters most to your audience, not to you. Instead of pushing messages that are important to your organization, consider what your audience — whether that’s customers or employees — would like to know about the issue. That’s what you need to share.

Talking points are a great way to get your key audiences to talk about you. Even more important, they’ll make sure everyone is saying the right things.