You probably won’t get to the end of this article.
In the time it took you to read that sentence, two seconds have passed. By the end of this paragraph, you’ll have lasted about as long as the current average attention span of eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000.
Put this way, effective and efficient communication seems like a much more daunting task, and your odds harder to scale. But you’ve read this far — with the help of a strategy you may not have known about or known how to use effectively. Let’s face it: To get the media, clients and the public to pay attention, you’re competing against everything else in this fast-paced digital age that wants their attention, too. And it pays to be a little ruthless.
To lay the groundwork to develop even more skills I’ll discuss in later posts, I want to focus first on message development and discipline. On how to create powerful messages and develop strong sound bites (or concise solutions). And on a tactic called pivoting that it helps to identify and master mentally before you put it into practice.
Everything you say counts, and while your words can often be mitigated, there are never take-backs. Message development, put simply, requires you to determine your strategy, which in turn requires an awareness and responsiveness to the situation you’re in.
Depending on their audience and what they are trying to achieve, I tell clients they can choose between myriad options. You can attack, counterattack, defend or sell. You can ignore — keeping quiet, in other words. You can deflect onto something or someone else. Or, you can apologize.
The examples are numerous, and there may even be times when the situation warrants a mixture of approaches — or trying one, having it not work and then shifting to another. But that is where message discipline comes in: keeping your communication process both flexible and as seamless as possible. In other words, helping you stay on point, whichever option is chosen, and whether or not you have to shift or switch.
Remember how curious you felt at the beginning of this article, right from the first line? I mentioned short attention spans for a reason. Think of the exercise you did at the beginning to measure how long it took you to read a paragraph. Now, consider that the average person speaks about three words per second. A 1992 study from Harvard University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs suggested that the average sound bite in politics lasted approximately 7.3 seconds[BW1] — probably even shorter now. But using that first figure means we have only 21 words or so to communicate something of meaning.
I never stop telling clients about the 3–21 rule: developing no more than three initial message points, each of which have no more than 21 words. The “KISS principle” is another way of looking at it: Keep it Simple, Stupid, or Keep it Stupid-Simple, whichever you prefer.
Don’t dumb your information down, but make sure everyone can understand it. Steer clear of technical jargon. At most, stick to three clear message points, and be brief about them. Three is the right balance between too few points, leading to boredom, and too many, with a risk that your audience won’t retain much.
At first glance, simple doesn’t seem so sexy. To circle back to where we started, a good sound bite, strong statistics or both can effectively hook your audience.
We’ll talk more about just how to use these in my next piece on dealing with reporters, but I’ll share an example with you. A peer of mine sometimes speaks to a group of part-time firefighters who work to reduce the number of injuries suffered in house fires. He once opened a talk by saying, “I’m going to speak to you for one hour this morning. During our hour together, someone, somewhere in America is going to be badly injured in a house fire.” He mapped out the audience’s day through lunch, dinner and bedtime: with one person dying in each segment.
That stuck with me not just for one day, but several – though your hook doesn’t have to go quite so far. You can ask a rhetorical question to your audience, or you can simply challenge them to stop and look at themselves and the way they behave. My hook was pretty simple — and you’re still reading.
As a rule, staying on point can be tricky, so I like introducing clients to a technique called pivoting. There are two main ways of doing this. One is blocking and bridging, basically taking a question and transitioning it into a point you want to make. The other is simply called blocking, or avoiding an unwelcome or unproductive question. That could be something hostile or controversial, a hypothetical situation with little bearing on reality, or a request for information you can’t disclose about a subject.
You might start a pivot with something like, “What I believe is most important here is…” Or, “That’s an interesting point. However, …” Or still, “I don’t know, but what I do know is…” Think of being in the front seat of a car and turning the steering wheel a different direction: By pivoting, you’re doing the same thing. In a paradoxical way, it can actually help you and your audience stay on point, guiding everyone to stay on track and steer clear of thoughts and issues not relevant to your message.
It can be a fun game to see if you can spot interview subjects on the news, or even people in everyday conversation pivoting, maybe without realizing they’re doing it. Sometimes, effective communication techniques are quite natural. Learning how to add them to our toolkit and then consciously use them to our benefit takes both awareness and practice.
Stay tuned for my next two pieces in this series on how to deal with reporters and effective crisis response. Until then, Keep It Simple.