Using what politicians know about talking points to help your company communicate

While the last national election was chaotic, something about it offered an important lesson to companies and organizations with messages to share. Whenever either side took up an issue, they used common language and a common voice. Even more remarkable, they achieved that unanimity almost immediately.

It wasn’t magic, nor were the politicos mind readers. They arrive at their common language through a very simple communications tool known as talking points.

Talking points are a short list of statements that summarize a stand on a particular issue, or an explanation of an important matter. They can save your company hours of confusion and marketing missteps.

“But we’re not involved in politics!” you protest. “We’re selling industrial products in a crowded, competitive marketplace. How could talking points help us?’ Most business leaders understand the importance of consistency in branding. That’s why so many companies have brand guidelines and graphic standards. Walk into a Starbucks in El Paso, and it will be just like the one you visited in suburban Denver. We typically choose national brands not because they’re the best, but largely because they’re predictable.

Consistent messaging is every bit as important as consistent branding. When everyone in an organization uses the same language, it strengthens and supports important messages.

Suppose your company was forced to implement a two-percent price increase in a price-sensitive market. Simply raise prices and you’ll have little control over how customers and employees react. Your customers — as well as your sales team — may wonder why you upped the cost. If you fail to supply information, they’ll come up with their own explanations. Given human nature, their explanations are likely to be negative and disparaging. “I guess the CEO just wanted to buy a bigger house.” “All I know is that when the price went up, I didn’t get a raise.” “Does anyone ever know what those idiots are thinking?”

Now suppose you took a different approach, and sent that price-increase announcement to your team with a list of five simple talking points:

• 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.

Now employees are ready to respond with meaningful insight if a customer asks a question or expresses a concern. Just as important, if that customer talks to three different people within your company, they’ll hear a consistent message. When we hear the same explanation from multiple people, we don’t think they’ve been brainwashed — we assume they’re telling us the plain truth.

I recently developed a set of talking points for a group of organizations that joined forces to address concerns about specific legislation. The organizations were diverse, but all shared similar views of key aspects of the proposed laws. Through talking points, I helped them simplify the message and make sure every time a member of those groups had a conversation with or wrote an email to a legislator, they used the same language.

When a legislator hears the same things from a long list of constituents, they assume the view is commonly held. Often, the legislators will start using the same language as they talk with their colleagues and the media.

It’s easy for your sales team to memorize your talking points. It’s easy for your advertising agency to make them the basis of ads. Your graphic designers will add them to your packaging. Know what else? Your customers will remember them, too.

When developing talking points, don’t try to say everything. 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.

You can distribute talking points in many ways — from mass emails 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.

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.