Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Week 2: Developing a message

A well-developed message is perhaps the most useful tool in any speaker's back pocket, one you can pull out and use in all sorts of settings, from chatting at a cocktail party to addressing a big crowd. For our second week in the 15 Weeks to Step Up Your Speaking program, I'll be helping contest winner Stephanie Benoit figure out how to develop a message that will help her get across what she wants to say.

What does a developed message look like? What are the advantages of using one?
  • Generally, it's limited to 3 key points you want to make. For centuries, storytellers have used the "rule of three" points to tell their stories (think about all those children's tales with three pigs, three mice, etc.) Three points are easiest for you, the speaker, to remember. (And while you can break the rule of three in some cases, start out with the rule of three if you've never done it before.)
  • It helps your audience follow your sequence. If a message is easy for you to remember, it also needs to be easy for your audience to take away and recall. A good message gives the audience an outline they can hang onto while you are speaking, so they can follow along.
  • It makes your message easier to repeat. If it's short, memorable and compelling, you'll increase the chances that your audience will be repeating your message later--just what every speaker wants to happen. (Far worse: Giving a presentation and hearing people say, "That was very entertaining...no, I don't really recall her point.")

One way to make sure your message sticks with the audience is to put it in terms that are easier to remember or visualize. That does not mean saying "number one," "number two" and so on before each point, as many speakers do. Instead, think about something to tie all three points together: a rhetorical flourish, alliteration, a visual image, an analogy. So, if we were talking about the weather, and our three points were that it changes frequently, it's unpredictable, and despite that, we're getting better at tracking it, we might create a memorable message in these ways:

  • With alliteration: "After 20 years of tracking the weather, I can tell you three things about it: It's always changing, it's a challenge to track, but we now can better track the chain of events involved in any weather system." Or, "it's fast-moving, it's fickle and yet we're far along in the hunt for better tracking tools."
  • With repetition of key words in each point (also called anaphora): "There's a lot we don't know about the weather, but I can tell you it's going to change, I can tell you it's unpredictable, and I can tell you we're finding new ways new ways to track it better."
  • With analogies: "I think of the weather like a good horror movie: The monster's going to change shape a lot, you don't always know where he's coming from, but if the good guys persist, they'll be able to find him in the end."

All those techniques can make it easy for you to state your overall points upfront in your presentation, then return to speak about each leg of the outline in turn, without forgetting where you are--and that's the big advantage of planning a message. It helps you speak without notes and without losing your place.

I'll be helping Stephanie make her three points memorable later this week, but first, she's going to work on the core of the message--the content. No amount of window-dressing will get around the need for three strong points. Here are some things she (and you) might want to do with those three pieces of content:

  • Tell us what she wants us to do and why we should care. That might mean including a call to action backed up by three reasons we should act, three things we can do to accomplish a goal, or three steps we can take to change something.
  • Tell us about herself. That might be three barriers she's faced, three hopes she has, three things she does in her work (or hopes to do), three things that have influenced her.
  • Share knowledge about an issue. When you're explaining a topic, breaking it into threes -- three factors, three parts of an issue, three things no one knows -- can help your audience follow and absorb a complex topic.
  • Add perspective. Maybe there are three reasons why she holds a particular point of view, or three views of an issue she can share that are unique. Maybe she wants to persuade us, with three reasons why we might want to share her view.

Stay tuned for Stephanie's video post and our message makeover, coming this week!

Related posts: Good speeches: Messages in threes

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