How to Stick to Your Talking Points

When you’re trying to get a point across, embrace your inner candidate

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

EEveryone knew the question of “electability” was going to come up at last night’s Democratic presidential debate. And when it did, Sen. Elizabeth Warren — fired up after reports emerged that Sen. Bernie Sanders had told her that no woman could win the presidency — was ready to strike: “Can a woman beat Donald Trump?” she said. “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women! Amy [Klobuchar] and me.”

But Warren, intent on hammering home her argument about electability, didn’t stop there. “And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the last 30 years,” she added, “is me.” It was a powerful real-time lesson in how to stick to the point: Warren avoided getting sidetracked and stuck to her sound bites. Even those of us who will never set foot on a debate stage can glean some wisdom from this. Whether you’re prepping for a big meeting or a tough talk with a friend, here’s how to make sure you stay on message and say exactly what you mean to say.

Avoid getting sidetracked

According to the debate coach Jacob Thompson, a professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, two pitfalls are common during debates. One is a lack of preparation, which includes anticipating how your rivals might respond to questions or attacks. The other is playing to your opponents’ strengths, instead of your own.

“I think this is most obviously illustrated by the Trump-Clinton debates in 2016,” Thompson notes. “Trump, as a reality TV star, tended to treat the debates as a reality TV show, and when Clinton got into it with him, that played to Trump’s advantage, and not hers.”

Thompson points out that we can all glean ways to improve our speaking strategy from the experiences of the candidates in Des Moines: “If you’re going to have a difficult conversation, you need to think through what the contents of that conversation are going to be,” he says, “and be ready for any eventuality that may come up during the conversation, or that the other side may bring up.”

Remember that talking includes listening

Of course, getting an important point across is easier said than done, in part because communicating is a two-way street. Sure, you may have all your brilliant thoughts laid out clearly in your own head. You may march into the office on a Monday morning prepared to convince your work rival that your marketing plan is the best one to pursue. Or into a family dinner, certain that you can sway your aunt to vote a certain way. Or into a Super Bowl party, positive that you actually have a better strategy than either head coach and that you are finally going to convince your friend Dave that this is so.

The problem is that often, the people you’re talking to aren’t receptive to your message. You may be a football wizard the likes of which the NFL has never seen. Dave doesn’t care. Hell, Dave might think he’s the strategic genius, and spend the whole night trying to convince you.

So if you feel like you aren’t being heard, how do you make sure to channel your inner Elizabeth Warren and stick to your talking points?

Begin by acknowledging that your sentiments, however strong they might be, do not exist in a void. You want to have your say, and you want to be heard. But this is a dialogue, not a monologue. Never think of these encounters as opportunities to simply deliver a message, as the authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen write in their book Difficult Conversations: “Instead of wanting to persuade and get your way, you want to understand what has happened from the other person’s point of view, explain your point of view, share and understand feelings, and work together to figure out a way to manage the problem going forward.”

You may be presenting new information (are you listening to this offensive strategy, Dave?), but you will likely also be receiving some as well. Good talking is good listening; without being able to listen, conversation becomes bullying.

“Part of what makes good conversation hard is if you come in saying: Here are my talking points, here is the whole truth,” says Elaine Lin Hering, a managing partner of Triad Consulting Group, a communication consulting firm. “It leaves no room for the other person to engage in the conversation, and they’re more likely to get defensive.” If you want them to hear you, leave them some space to be heard, too.

Memorize your sound bite

Presidential debates are inherently limiting — a lot gets lost when you boil down a nuanced position into 10 seconds of instantly quotable rhetoric — but they can be a master class in focus and precision.

“From the perspective of having a difficult conversation, maybe a zinger isn’t the ideal way to craft agreement and understanding,” says Thompson. “But being able to encapsulate your point succinctly and clearly is very important.”

Perhaps the most important way to keep to your talking points is to, you know, have them. Any time you’re about to participate in an important conversation, it may be wise to pull out an index card or Post-it note — or a notes app — to jot down those crucial points you don’t want to forget to mention. In a face-to-face encounter, you’re probably not going to want to actually refer to these notes while you’re talking, but the exercise of having written them down may be enough to crystallize them in your mind.

And while talking to yourself is generally frowned upon in public spaces, it is often helpful to practice speaking the words you want to say out loud. This is particularly helpful if it’s usually tough for you to speak up or to present ideas smoothly. Try running through the conversation in advance, so that you can have an image in your mind of the hoped-for outcome. “Envision communication success,” as Bento Leal III writes in his book 4 Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work — Anywhere.

“Character is on the ballot this time around,” former Vice President Joe Biden argued in his impassioned closing statement at last night’s debate. We know, as well, that our own character is on display each time we profess our beliefs, stand up for ourselves, or argue for a cause. Let’s make sure we communicate effectively enough to let others vote for us.

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.

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