When I started doing my own research after completing my graduate coursework, I was advised by a mentor to have three descriptions of my work ready to recite at a moment’s notice: a three-minute overview, a 12-minute presentation, and a half-hour discussion. The three-minute version is what you tell someone when you’re sharing an elevator at an academic conference; the 12-minute version is suitable for giving a conference presentation; and the half-hour version is what you pull out when you’re sitting down for an interview with a potential funder or getting permission from a local community to do research there.
Businesspeople face similar kinds of situations, and are often told to have similarly-timed versions of their presentation at hand for different contexts — the “elevator pitch” of a few minutes, the short PowerPoint presentation, and the longer version for an interview with funders or others. But how do you talk about a project you’re passionate about in only a couple of minutes — without leaving out anything important? And if you can do that, how can you fill out a half-hour or more on the same material without running out of steam?
The trick is talking points. While we’re accustomed to think about talking points in the context of political campaigns, the idea is applicable to any project where you need to be persuasive and compelling. Having a set of clear, easily-remembered, and well-supported talking points means you always have an outline to work from, so you don’t leave anything out — and so you can hang as much, or as little, as necessary from that outline to fill out whatever time is allotted.
In the current (October 2007) issue of Writing that Works, a newsletter for business writers, speechwriting coach Joan Detz suggests that you have three (no more, no less) talking points for any given project. Two is too thin and unsubstantial, and four and higher is more than anyone can easily grasp. Three points is a comfortable amount to comprehend and because we tend to remember things easily when they come in threes, more memorable than a higher number of points.
Sitting down and working out talking points offers an opportunity to really dig into your project and what you hope to accomplish with it. Once you have three simple statements of what you’re project is all about, you can start building up supporting material directly aimed at those points. Research results, statistics, current events, and other material you come across can be assessed for its value in explaining or illustrating your talking points. Keep a file — either physically in a folder or virtually in a word processing document — and add material under the relevant talking point.
In a three-minute elevator pitch, you may only have time to list your talking points, and maybe add an item or two for clarification. When it comes time to make a formal presentation, open your file and pull out enough material to fill the allotted time. The idea is not to add more talking points but to explain and expand the same talking points more depending on how much time you have. This means you’re not muddying the waters by adding too many key issues or diluting the impact of your talking points; instead, more time allows you to be more persuasive, to build a stronger case.
For example, let’s say I want to develop an online learning strategy for introductory classes at my university. To get a project like that moving, I need to get funding, either from the university or an outside party, and I need to get the university to provide technological resources and other support — which means I need to convince several different parties that the project is worthwhile. I might have the following talking points:
- Students are comfortable using online resources and enjoy using them.
- Social networking is the wave of the future and gaining competence now will better prepare them for life after graduation.
- Creating an online learning environment will allow students to pull together resources from across the Internet.
I should note that I’m not actually doing this project, so maybe those aren’t the best talking points. But they’re fine for illustration here.
Now, if I find myself standing on line in the dining commons with a provost or dean, I might casually mention my project and list the talking points above more or less as they appear here. If my line-mate is interested and asks me to come by her office for 15 minutes next week and discuss it further, I could open up my file of supporting material and pick out a few compelling things for each point — say, a recent study of college students’ Internet usage, an editorial from a teaching magazine on using Internet resources in the classroom, and an article from Wired on the use of Facebook in businesses — and talk about that in our meeting. If I were asked to make a longer presentation, I would pull out more supporting material.
Staying focused on talking points gives your audience, whether one person or a hundred, an instant take-away, and prevents you from getting off-track. Each becomes a kind of mission statement, preventing you from dwelling on the trivial at the expense of the truly important. Like a mission statement, they direct your attention as well, helping you to avoid tangents and wild goose chases. In an organizational setting, talking points are doubly important, for the same reason political campaigners rely on them — they help prevent people from giving conflicting messages to funders, potential supporters, and the press. And, most importantly, knowing your talking points means never being caught out without anything meaningful to say.