Key Messenger

A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre


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Communicating to the Power of Three

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am a firm believer in the power of three.

Three is the magic number when it comes to finding order and meaning – in religion, in corporate thinking, and ultimately, in communications.

It begins with the three-part structure of our brain: instinct (reptilian brain), emotion (limbic system) and thought (neocortex). We exhibit three levels of consciousness: the subconscious, the conscious, and the super-conscious, each representing differing degrees of intensity of awareness.

Let’s consider religion: the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three jewels of Buddhism, Islam’s three levels of faith.

That other great religion, business, also seeks order and understanding. From what I’ve experienced, three-part models often appear in systemic thinking frameworks for leaders to better understand patterns and trends. (See McKinsey & Co.’s “three horizons” model).

It is no surprise then that the mystical power of three applies to so many aspects of communication.

In brand management, we see the relationship with consumers across three levels of engagement: the rational (thinking) aspects of the brand; the emotional (feeling) aspects and finally, the values-based (belonging) aspects.

When it comes to communicating a corporate story, whether in a media interview or through a presentation, we assume the role of storytellers – so why not make it easy for yourself and your audience?

First, get ready to convey solid key messages. Our goal is to communicate conclusive, relevant insights, messages that provide the “so what?”. Your distillation of information into memorable chunks is the point, the service you, as storyteller, provide to your audience. They give you their attention, you provide the thinking.

Next, identify three key messages as a framework for your story. It’s back to our brains, which remember patterns of three (ready, steady, go… one, two, three… ABC… Curly, Larry and Moe). As the storyteller, you can easily remember three key messages; more importantly, your audience will easily remember them.

Whether packaged according to past, present, future; people, products, service; context, action, vision; or boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl… feel free to repeat your messages. Repetition is vital to audience retention. In a media interview, repeat as often as possible without seeming robotic; in a presentation, aim for the “three-peat” – at the beginning, middle and conclusion.

Conveying information through three messages is a tough discipline, especially for business leaders, technical spokespeople and professionals who have a lot of information rattling around in their heads.

I once had a client who had to give an important presentation about building a new railway to the Chinese Ministry of Transport. He was distraught because he had over 500 slides. We boiled it down to messages which covered the opportunities, the challenges and finally, the resource requirements – supported now by only 200 slides.

The information that was cut? Saved for another presentation!

That’s another trick to good storytelling: leave them wanting MORE.

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About that presentation…

Recently I attended a luncheon speech by a senior executive from one of the world’s leading technology firms. I even sat next to be guest speaker. During lunch, his colleague indicated that the presentation had technological issues: the file wouldn’t speak to the laptop, which was angry at the projector from a different generation (my paraphrasing).

“Oh well”, said the speaker. Someone had to figure this out.

Being a communications trainer, I mentioned that slides and video, while wonderful, were not essential for a great talk. I joked that Martin Luther King never used PowerPoint; I had seen Margaret Thatcher in Parliament and she hadn’t relied on slides…

By the middle of the main course, the guest speaker turned to me:

“Wouldn’t it be funny if the guy from a major tech company couldn’t get the audio-visual to work?”

I said don’t worry you’ll be fine. Tell us a good story… Just talk.

So he started to speak, but the slides refused to cooperate. The text was cut off, mostly invisible. Stuff happens, we know, but rather than laugh it off and proceed, he wallowed in it: Trashed the hotel’s equipment; blamed the software. Ran his videos, but abused his slides:

“What this is SUPPOSED to say is…” or

“If this hotel would enter this century, the slide would show…”

And so it went.

I talked with audience members afterwards and what they remembered were terrific on-line videos, no analysis, and a frustrated presenter.

It’s a shame, because he’s quite a funny and charming gentleman with interesting things to say, all of which was lost due to technological betrayal.

So if I could rewind my conversation with Mr Technology, I would share these as my key messages:

Tell us a story, one that grabs your audience. Understand that audience, prepare insights in the form of messages which resonate. Package these in a meaningful structure, so our overburdened brains can absorb your bite-sized bits of information.

Next, BE the storyteller. I can watch video clips at home, download a slideshow from anywhere. What I want is human, passionate and purposeful engagement. (Imagine if Mr Technology had said screw the slides, I’m just going to talk… He would have held that audience).

Finally, don’t rely on technology to tell your story. Technology makes it easier to communicate, but makes us lazier as communicators. And if you must present with technology, then YOU personally must check it in advance.

Welcome you my blog. It’s about training people to be better communicators; about misguided communications that drive me crazy, and great examples of communication that need to be recognized.

Without the slides.