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What Are Your Talking Points?

What Are Your Talking Points?
What Are Your Talking Points?

    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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