Friday, August 24, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Get Them Coming And Going

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, the place to get great little once-a-week  tips and tactics about basic communication skills.  This week I want to nudge everyone with this old communications saying:

Tell them what you're going to tell them; 
then tell them; 
then tell them what you told them. 

We forget sometimes that the clearest, simplest and surest way to get our message out is through repetition.  So when we really need people to walk away with the right message, we need to give it to them three times:  at the beginning -- in the middle -- and at the end.

Do you follow this rule?  

Do you go back over each of your writing projects and check to make sure your driving theme appears, clearly stated, all three places:  in your introduction, in your exposition, and in your summary?  

If you find that your main idea isn't boldly evident in any one of these three places, do you find a way to insert it there before you send out your final version?  

Just saying your main thought once or twice is not going to drive it home.  I've noticed that in many cases, speakers or writers are so keen on engaging their audience that their main idea gets lost in a maze of supporting points, stories and illustrations.

Is it okay with you if your audience leaves all the happier, but none the wiser?  If they retain a pleasant memory of your communication, but nothing more? If you succeed at entertaining them, but fail at enlightening them?

 I didn't think so.  Then follow the "tell them 3 times" rule, and:

Make The Main Idea The Main Idea 

Of course, all this talk about stressing the main thought assumes that you do have a main thought.  That's not always a sure bet.  Before you start writing, you need to ask: What am I trying to change or accomplish?  What do I want my readers or listeners to KNOW and/or DO when I'me done communicating?

You need to have a crystal clear idea of what your main idea actually is.  If you're hazy about that, or if you're trying to say two or more different "main things" in the same space, then heaven help you.  Get your message clearly defined for yourself first; then design a way to give it a one-two-three punch in your communication. 

The Hazards Of Repetition

Are you worried that repeating your message at least three times will sound, well, repetitive?  Don't be.  Your audience will take it in stride.  

As media consumers, we're all used to hearing product names over and over again within a 30-second TV commercial or radio spot.  That's because marketers know that brand recognition depends on repetition.  In that respect, marketing ideas is no different than marketing cars or beer.  In fact, the more abstract your idea is, the more your audience needs to hear it restated time and again.  

"But won't it get wearisome, or even insulting?" you may wonder.  

Nope. Actually, your audience will probably appreciate it.  Hearing the main idea over and over has an anchoring effect -- and possibly a clarifying one.  After all, your listeners might have been checking their email or daydreaming the first two times you said that payoff line, so that third time is a bonus for their eventual comprehension.  

If you use some of these guidelines, your audience won't even realize they've been told the same exact thing a few times over:
  • Vary your phrasing a bit.  Keep the core statement the same, but use different supporting words.
  • Pose one of your "repeats" in the form of a question. "Why is ______ so important?"
  • Use sentence start-ups that imply sequence and progression: "Today we'll set out to prove that _____..." / "As we think about the importance of ______..." / "So we've seen that _______."
  • Be obvious about your intention. "If you don't remember anything else, I want you to remember ______." 
  • If you're using slides, visuals or graphics, incorporate your main idea into these as well.  Insert your core statement into a diagram, or superimpose it over a picture, or include it as part of a cartoon illustration.   
  • If your delivery is via live meeting or webinar, get your audience to tell you the main point:   "How many of you can tell me the one concept that is the basis of all we've said today?"  That way, your listeners hear their own voices saying it -- a powerful boost for retention.
  • Be sure to incorporate your main idea into any Q & A activity or quiz that you offer at the end of your presentation.  If you're composing your communication as a written piece -- for example, if it will be read as part of a newsletter or web-based article -- then conclude with a question that prompts your reader to mentally respond with your main idea.  (A current ad campaign for a certain credit card is a great example of this tactic;  each TV commercial closes with a character asking, "What's in your wallet?")
Make Repetition Work In Your Favor: Establish A Running Joke

Another way to drive your main point home is to emphasize it by linking it to a recurring image, metaphor, or gesture to which you return periodically throughout your presentation.  Famous comedians us this gambit all the time.  They know that the crowd will start to anticipate that running punch line, gear up for it, and respond when it comes. It's a real engagement-booster in the world of stand-up comedy.  Use this same effect in your world to drill your point home to your hearers.

In fact, you might choose to go the reverse-psychology route and emphasize the opposite of your main idea.  Present its negative in an entertaining way.  You'll set up your audience to spot the difference, "right" the picture, and affirm the positive one by contrast.   

Here's what I mean.  A couple of years ago I developed a sales training course for a group of personnel who didn't visualize themselves as salespeople.  They weren't used to actually selling the company's service;  they were order-takers, plain and simple.  The training course's main objective was to stop  their deeply-ingrained habit of merely pushing an order form at the prospective customer.  Instead, the new idea was to get them to have a conversation with the prospect first to identify his or her perceived needs, creating a bonding experience (and an up-selling opportunity) in the process.

To get this idea across, we included a bit of vaudeville schtick in the classroom training.  In the opening module, the trainer displayed an order form clipped to a large clipboard, which was the way these forms typically appeared in the showroom.  The trainer then introduced the difference between merely hitting the client with the order form and engaging the client in a dialogue. To illustrate the first (undesired) behavior, she comically swung the clipboard at a trainee in the front row and shouted:  "Here's the form! Fill out the form!!"  This drew laughs from the group as they saw themselves through the eyes of the potential buyer and realized the pushiness and insensitivity of this approach.  Next, as the trainer talked about the right behavior -- engaging in dialogue -- she casually tossed the clipboard aside and stepped forward, her empty palms extended to symbolize a friend-to-friend contact with nothing in the way.  This time, there was silence as the learners absorbed the contrast between these two pantomimed episodes.

The end result was that the main concept was made completely clear, right from the start, in a non-threatening way.  At the same time, a precedent was set.  The two behaviors now had symbolic gestures associated with them, making it easy to refer to them in visual shorthand throughout the rest of the training course.  Whenever there was a choice between pushing for an order or having a friendly sales dialogue, the trainer would pick up the clipboard prop -- the symbol of everything wrong with the old process.  She'd brandish it at the group and say, "Get them to fill in the form, right?"   Then, she'd let the group correct her -- "No! You haven't done the dialogue!" Smiling, she would toss the clipboard away again.  The main point was getting across.

It was a simple and powerful tactic. The trainees not only absorbed the idea, they were actually won over by it.  At the very end of the training session, the trainer repeated her exaggerated "hit 'em with the order form" motion and asked the group what they needed to do instead.  "Drop the form, and make a friend!" they replied. They got it!  (Sales success followed, too; some managers reported a 40%  increase in revenue immediately following this training. Yessss!)

The Third Time's The Charm

Whatever your message, don't fool yourself that you can just say it once or twice and leave with it imprinted onto everyone's brain.  Here's my own motto about this:

Just because you've said it,
And just because they've read it,
It doesn't mean they get it!

Three repetitions is the minimum.   It takes at least three repetitions to plant any idea firmly inside another person's awareness.  So make it your habit to go for the triple-whammy.  Our culture is so distractable today, you can't afford to do anything less... if you want your idea to stick, that is.

Now, quickly -- what was the main idea of this post?  Did you get it?  

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