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Punching through the message

A. R. Samson-125


ANALYSES, action plans, and strategies need to be presented in bite-sizes with short titles (three words max) that explain what they are about. A punchy phrase (say “declining market share”) sounds neutral, and devoid of drama. Isn’t this how a doctor’s diagnosis should sound like? How did “positive” become a dreaded word?

The talking points (also called bullet points or “bullet”) are punchy phrases that constitute a situation or action plan. If a profit plan involves laying off unproductive and costly executives who are not contributing to the bottom line, only raising the overhead to unnatural levels, the required solution is boiled down to two words: “right sizing.” This is a nice neutral phrase that takes away the drama from layoffs — you’re not the right size.

Robert McNamara, who served as the American Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War found that situations could be summarized by metrics (numbers that can be compared and turned into ratios) and “bullet points.” With the use of short punchy summaries of situations and accompanying quantification of productivity (“body bags” or “areas under control” became favorites) a complex situation could be boiled down to a few points to show that it was manageable.

Consultants love bullets for their situation analyses. These are at the heart of presentations to the executive committee as well as pitches for new accounts. In the virtual meeting, the presenter is given full attention — “can I share my slides?” Everybody else is on mute.

Here are some rules for bullet points.

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Bullets should be few, only four at most in one slide. This rule allows the eye to focus on a few items on the screen. It ensures that the presenter is not reading his narrative off the page that his audience is looking at. Bullet points serve as triggers for lengthier narratives which the speaker does not flash on the screen.

If you want to convey that department heads do not talk with each other and go off working from home on their own without evaluating resources utilized (and denied to other units) the bullet is shown simply — “silo mentality.” It is good to use words not found in ordinary conversation so that the bullets smack of divine revelations. It also allows the prophet to explain the cryptic titles. The visual for this slide shows agricultural architecture for storing wheat.

Never mention actual persons in bullet points. Characters are described by their behavior, usually dysfunctional (note the spelling of that word). A second-or-third-tier executive is sketched with a few words which carry their own spin. A “thought leader” (good) can also be called a “loose cannon” (bad). These two phrases can embrace the same behavior of going ahead without checking with anybody.

Bullet points address limited attention spans. This time constraint may be due to a busy schedule. Most likely it is a problem of attention span, especially when presenting to many in a virtual meeting (no audio and video) — did the CEO go off to have lunch?

Statistics can be overwhelming. Some numbers are thrown away as irrelevant. Bullet points connect the dots on the remaining ones to draw a specific picture. Stories (or narratives) are considered a way of explaining any development.

The field of “behavioral economics” looks at non-monetary considerations in decision-making and points to the power of the narrative in influencing seemingly pure economic moves.

Why is the price of a stock moving up? Is it just a herd mentality? Maybe there is a story going around of undue interest from some sectors. The bullet point, “bargain hunting” can wake up a sleepy stock which is seen to be undervalued.

Bullet points supply the summary of a story which can be a handy headline for the blogs — recovery, consolidation, hostile acquisition, or vulture funds. Talking points allow the reporter to punch through the message and make it easier to grasp and pass on.

Even in a PR crisis, such as a late-night attack by a sleepy leader holding a pre-recorded press conference, the punchy phrase is important. After the announcements laced with unscripted side comments, a reaction from the mentioned personality or corporation is sure to follow.

Message discipline requires a measured response, mindful of withholding some overreaction. In this case, bullet points can easily be misunderstood to mean something else entirely.

Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda

ar.samson@yahoo.com

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