Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Sep-Oct 2016 issue

Message Matters: You Hold the Keys to Memorable Messaging

Quote bubblesBy Don Reeder

Mosquito Heights Councilmember Elvira Gulch (not a real person or city) was feeling pretty good about last week’s discussion of the new roundabout proposed for Maple Street and Fifth Avenue, one of several items on the Council’s meeting agenda.

She felt particularly satisfied with her own contribution to the dialogue, and was pleased when the project was approved in a close Council vote. Though she didn’t use formal written notes in her presentation, Councilmember Gulch included several memorized talking points in her supportive comments about the project. In the three minutes that she spoke, she cited a half dozen safety statistics, mentioned how excited her neighbors are about the project, and talked about the success of similar roundabouts constructed in the city.

But when the weekly community newspaper was published several days later, the councilmember read the account of the meeting with disappointment. The only mention of her comments was a sentence buried deep in the story that said, “Councilmember Gulch also made remarks in support of the roundabout.”

What happened? Why didn’t the reporter write about any of the great points she made? Councilmember Gulch was also troubled that she had not received email or phone messages from constituents reacting to her comments. Had anyone even noticed what she said?

The problem: Councilmember Gulch recited a checklist of good information and offered valid points, but her arguments lacked focus and clarity. Moreover, her presentation was scattered over too many points, obscuring the most important ones. The remedy: Organizing her points into concise and relatable key messages would have helped to give the reporter clear and substantive quotes to include in the published story, and would have left meeting attendees with a takeaway of memorable information.

Make your message stick
City officials and other public speakers who organize information- laden presentations into a few key messages increase the “stickiness” of their words, and receive better buy-in from constituents.

“Stickiness” means that “…your ideas are understood, and have a lasting impact—they change your audience’s opinion or behavior,” according to Chip and Dan Heath, brothers who authored the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

But Councilmember Gulch used lots of factual talking points in her presentation. Why were they not noticed? The terms “talking points” and “key messages” are often used interchangeably. However, the terms should be considered independently, and those who conflate simple talking points with key messages miss a critical distinction.

Key messages versus talking points
While talking points provide context and important information (facts, statistics, etc.), preparing and presenting key messages—and incorporating talking points into those messages— makes what you say stick with your audience, be they residents, reporters, or your elected and appointed colleagues with the city. “Key messages give you a proven tool to influence what’s being said about your city, rather than merely answering a reporter’s questions or allowing a resident to draw their own conclusion,” Scott Summerfield and Sheri Benninghoven noted in a recent Western City magazine article titled “Successfully Communicating with Key Messages.”

Some of the most important characteristics of key messages are that they:

  • Include talking points in their construct, but are not the same as simple talking points.
  • Are concise and memorable—they provide a concrete takeaway for your audience.
  • Are relevant—your audience in the community can easily relate to your words.
  • Are persuasive—key messages help to convince or influence a point of view.

Before preparing your speech to the council or your personal conversation with a constituent, test your comments against those characteristics by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are the three or four most important messages that my audience needs to hear?
  • How can I make those messages compelling?
  • What supporting evidence can I add to my points?
  • What is the most important takeaway for my audience? Your answers to those questions can help you shape effective key messages by employing the use of talking points combined with other useful tactics, including reinforcing values, demonstrating personal qualities, and prefacing your messages.

Reinforce values
It’s important to embed identifiable “values” into your key messages. When thinking about your own key messages, consider your city government’s core values. These likely include:

  • We (city officials) care about the safety of our residents.
  • We are responsive to the needs of our residents.
  • We welcome and encourage community involvement.
  • We are fiscally responsible.
  • We are fully transparent, and we strive to share information with the community.

Now, regardless of the topic you are speaking about (whether it’s a levy increase, building a new sidewalk on Main Street, or reacting to a heated debate among councilmembers), embedding one or more values into your key messages can lend credibility and persuasiveness to your words. By embedding these values into your messages, you are reinforcing that the city cares about and respects residents and is prepared to make decisions or endorse actions to benefit the quality of life in the community.

Let’s return to Councilmember Gulch’s remarks. Which set of the following messages should she have chosen to be more memorable, quotable, and persuasive?

Choice A. Factual talking points:

  • Studies have shown that roundabouts reduce traffic accidents by 42 percent.
  • The city will immediately contract with a firm that submits the lowest bid to build the roundabout.
  • “I support the roundabout because I know it’s best for the community.”

Choice B. Value-embedded messages:

  • There have been 11 traffic accidents at Fifth and Maple in the past 10 months, and our research has shown that a roundabout could significantly reduce that number in the future. (Value added: We care about the safety of our residents.)
  • By contracting with the lowest construction bidder now rather than waiting until the next budget cycle, the city can save property tax payers about $17,000. (Value added: We are fiscally responsible.)
  • The support expressed by residents at town hall meetings throughout the city has convinced me that this is a good move for our community. (Value added: We welcome and encourage community involvement.)

It’s true that both sets of remarks contain useful and factual information. But Choice B, embedded with core values, demonstrates more direct relevance to residents and inspires more confidence in the decision reached by the Council.

Though city officials like Councilmember Gulch can’t control what reporters choose to include in a story, by articulating concise, value-laden key messages in her presentation, she makes it more likely that her comments receive press coverage and are noticed by constituents.

Demonstrate personal qualities
According to Police Chief magazine, studies show that the public appreciates four important sets of qualities in their government leaders at local, state, and national levels, including military personnel and public safety officials. Those sets of qualities are competence and expertise, honesty and openness, commitment and dedication, and empathy and caring.

You can convey these qualities in your key messages by skillfully choosing the appropriate values to embed.

When you are being interviewed by the press (specifically when you are talking on camera or for a radio audience), presenting to a group of residents, or publicly debating with city councilmembers, demonstrating one or more of those qualities in your words and in the way you present yourself helps to inspire credibility. It also helps you better connect with your audience.

Preface your messages
Unless your audience carefully listens to and understands the messages you are delivering, stickiness is hard to come by. With that in mind, another way to make your key message stick is by using prompts or preface phrases that focus people on the words that will follow. Examples include:

  • “There are three important things to remember about this policy …”
  • “Here are the facts we know about the situation …” Or, “Here is what we don’t know …”
  • “This ordinance was passed to address two major problem areas …”
  • “Here are the main themes I heard at last night’s town hall meeting …”

The prefaces might prompt listeners to start making a mental list of the items you are about to mention. When considering these phrases, note that research shows listeners tend to better retain bits of information in groups of three items or fewer. If there are more than three, they can tend to be frustrated and tune out. As we have learned, by converting factual talking points into concise, persuasive, and value-laden key messages, city officials like Councilmember Gulch can communicate more effectively with all important stakeholders. In the coming months, read this recurring column for more useful communication tips.

Don Reeder is assistant communications director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dreeder@lmc.org or (651) 215-4031.

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