Category Archives: Message Development

“Formula” for writing a compelling speech (or Op-Ed)

The AnnoucementA few months ago my teenaged son was struggling with getting started on a speech for his English class. He had a stack of research notes and a ton of ideas (who knew that a tree sloth can hold its breath underwater for up to 40 minutes?), but was at a loss as to how pull it all together. I explained that early in my communications career, my friend and mentor, veteran journalist David Beers, laid out a simple but brilliant formula for writing op-eds. Over several years helping non-profit leaders create and place op-eds, I found it to be nearly foolproof. Happily, I discovered that the formula is also fantastic for getting started on a compelling speech. And while a beautifully crafted speech defies any pat formula, a simple framework can help get those creative and intellectual juices flowing. So, here’s the basic idea, starting with my own addition: beginning with a story. For the rest of it – apologies to David, as I’ve almost certainly mangled his original sage advice!

Here’s the overview, followed by some detail:

  1. Start with a story
  2. Provoke with a compelling hypotheses or main argument
  3. Back it up with 3-5 supporting points or ‘validators’
  4. Describe the solution or call to action
  5. Circle back to the opening hypotheses (or story)

1. Start with a story…

As virtually every communicator should know by now: start with a story. It could be anything: a personal experience, or one recounted to you; a current news story; a hypothetical or fictional story. As the authors of “Made to Stick” describe so well, stories are “sticky” because they engage an audience’s imagination. When we hear a ‘vivid’ story, we literally see pictures in our minds, and in some ways experience the emotions and physical embodiment of the described experience. This dynamic can transform the audience-speaker relationships. As master communicator and brand strategist, Bill Baker, explains, “starting your presentation with a story helps you break through their cynicism, lower their defenses and get your audience to see you as a person, not just a presenter. In turn, this makes them more likely to connect with you, trust you and listen to you.”

Typically, I encourage speakers to think about a few basic elements: setting and characters (it’s ‘stickier’ to see actual pictures in our minds, not just hear about concepts), some sort of tension or ‘quest’, action, and resolution. There are probably a dozen frameworks or elements taught to help create stories; that’s just one approach. I tend to push the visual. At public speaking trainings for the Center for Progressive Leadership and Simon Fraser University I would ask participants to pair up and tell stories that were so vivid their partners could actually draw something to capture the tale.

Your initial audience engagement doesn’t have to be as rigid as a classic story, however. You could:

  • start with a brief visualization (“picture this: you’re driving along Highway 99, when suddenly…”)
  • ask a question that invites the audience to ponder their own perspective before sharing yours (“How do you discern between a genuine and token apology?”)
  • ask for a show of hands to demonstrate some particular common experience (“how many here arrived by public transit?”)
  • share a powerful quote, or poem
  • read out a topical news headline
  • … or something else

2. Launch into your big compelling hypotheses, position or argument

This is fairly straightforward. What’s your main argument or hypotheses? It should be provocative and compelling in some way. It could just be one statement, like, “When it comes to green tech innovation, Canada is teetering on the cusp of become either a global superstar or an industry laughing stock. Here’s why…”

3. Back it up with supporting points

Next, follow with three to five supporting points or ‘validators’ that back up your main argument. You could transition from the opening position statement above with, “consider this”… then follow with your ‘evidence.’ These supporting points could include statistics, facts, even another story – anything to “back up”, prove or make the case for your key position.

4. Clarify the ‘call to action’

For any kind of social change argument, this is where you lay out the solution: what’s your “call to action”? For whom – who is responsible, and what should they do, exactly? If it’s appropriate, you might also describe the next step. And if there’s a role for the audience to play – even better.

5. Circle back to your opening

Here’s where you wrap it all up with your closing paragraph or statement, circling back to the beginning. Basically, this is where you figuratively say: “Snap! See, that’s why I stand by my argument or position”. It could be a sentence or two related back to your opening story (maybe this is where you roll out the story’s ‘ending’), or your main position, or both.

Beyond the Formula

And again – truly transformational speeches are like works of art – there is no definitive recipe for their creation. For some of the deepest, most powerful resources in the field, check out veteran public speaking trainer Gail Larsen’s Real Speaking site and blog. Gail offers both executive coaching and small-group intensive trainings out of both the US and western Canada (I’ve taken two of her workshops), and her book, Transformational Speaking, is invaluable.

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Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

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The Power of the “Message Box”

I’m on my way to Halifax getting ready to give a communications workshop at the ALLIES conference on supporting skilled immigrants. There, my colleague Marco Campana and I are focusing on message development and social media. One tool I’ll offer is the classic “message box”. It’s a simple tool to help map out the messaging landscape on an issue, including the clear contrasts between your own core messages, plan and positioning, and that of your opponents.

The concept is both powerful and dead simple – that’s why it’s been used in virtually every political campaign for years. In fact, I was first exposed to it in more detail at the 1999 Campaigns and Elections conference in Washington, D.C. But the message box is also invaluable for not-for-profit advocacy campaigns. Even where there do not appear to be clear “opponents” to a policy solution, there are often unspoken positions that stand in the way of success. Crafting a smart, thoughtful message box will help bring those barriers to the surface, while clarifying the core messages your team seeks to drive home.

Creating your message box
Here’s how to create your message box: draw a square, and divide it into quadrants. Label the upper-left quadrant “Us on Us”; the upper right, “Them on Them”; lower-left “Us on Them”, and lower-right “Them on Us”. That’s the basic framework. It will look like the image on the left. The next step is to then fill it in. To do so, an effective communications campaign will draw on a combination of your campaign team’s values and vision, combined with its deep understanding of the target audiences’ values, beliefs and attitudes (based on thorough research), and a thorough scan of the opposing arguments, plans or positions that may stand in the way. The end result: a message box filled with just a few very short, clear phrases or ideas – usually in the form of 1-5 bullet points for each quadrant.

Us on Us
Let’s start with the first quadrant. What are we saying about ourselves, our issue, or our plan? This is where we distill the core theme and positioning of the campaign –where we describe what we’re for, rather than what we’re against. Sounds simple, right? The irony is that many social change advocates, as well as political folks with a strong history of serving as Official Opposition, are so steeped in what I call a “culture of opposition” that they can find this step surprisingly challenging! But this is the place where we paint a brief but compelling picture about the vision we stand for – a picture our audiences can vividly imagine being part of.

Them on Them
Now turn to the upper right quadrant. What is the “other side” saying about themselves and their position and plan? What is their call to action or solution? Complete the upper right quadrant with 1-5 bullet points, again using the best research available (e.g., based on mainstream and social media scans, or interviews with key opinion leaders). This is another place where I’ve seen some advocacy groups get tripped up: sometimes, because they don’t feel the opponents’ arguments are legitimate, they don’t take the time to deeply understand them. Their counter-arguments then ring hollow, and fail to reach or convince those all-important ‘persuadable’ target audiences.

Them on Us
The next two quadrants are relatively easy. What are our opponents saying about us and our arguments? How will they seek to frame our issues and position us overall? They will almost certainly be seeking to highlight our weaknesses, and to then contrast those with their own strengths and the merits of their positions. In a political or highly contentious advocacy campaign, they will seek to dominate the debate here – to put our team on the defensive. Anticipating those aspects of the message box will help your campaign team prepare to inoculate or mitigate against those message elements.

Us on Them
The final quadrant is where your team prepares to pre-empt the messages of your opponents. What are we saying about the other side and their plan or position? What are their weakest positions and arguments – and how do they contrast with our strengths most starkly? It is from this quadrant, along with “Us on Us”, that a campaign team will seek to dominate the debate through strong, effective messages.

Overall, a campaign will always seek to control the message; in other words, to dominate the debate from the left-hand column. And while you may craft a message box at the beginning of a campaign, it is unlikely to remain static. The communications landscape is dynamic; peoples’ views change, the tenor and intensity of media stories shift, and new players enter the debate. This means that messaging needs to change over time. In a political campaign, while the core messaging themes may remain consistent, some elements of a message box may change from week to week.

Case study: Obama versus McCain, 2008
For a case study of a powerful (and obviously highly successful) message box that changes over time, see this article by communications consultant Kathy McShea. McShea does a fantastic job of laying out the basic message box used by the Obama campaign in the 2008 US election race. And it changed at key points along the way; scroll down to the message box and click on the large arrow on the right to see how.

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