One of my favorite "Peanuts" comic strips is about students who were asked to write about their feelings on returning to school in the fall.
In her essay, Lucy wrote, "Vacations are nice, but it's good to get back to school. There is nothing more satisfying or challenging than education, and I look forward to a year of expanding knowledge.
"Needless to say, the teacher was delighted and complimented Lucy on her fine essay. Leaning over to Charlie Brown, Lucy whispers, "After a while, you learn what sells.
"Lucy had mastered the art of talking points.
New York Times columnist William Safire says he first heard the phrase as a White House speechwriter, ducking dreary assignments for "Rose Garden rubbish." Safire says President Nixon would often say to his writers, "Never mind preparing formal remarks for this bunch, just give me a page of talking points.
"This is a perfectly reasonable request from someone who wishes to speak informally, and not use a prepared text. I'm a big believer in using talking points in many ways: for whatever you're trying to sell or promote or whenever you want to deliver a message.
We live in a soundbite world—you may have only 10 or so seconds to make your case. The objective is to get the idea out there, and fill in the details later. Let the central thought sink in first. Then, as time permits, support it. Studies show that people remember better when you give them information in a short and concise manner.
If you're looking for a job, you should have a 60-second commercial about yourself. If you're selling something, you want to give the buyer the best commercial you can create. If you're raising money for your favorite charity, donors appreciate information presented in a succinct and uncomplicated fashion. The point is to get to the point!
Don't confuse talking points with a fact sheet because talking points don't necessarily have to present the whole story. Talking points should include an item or two with some zip to them—perhaps a really great statistic, a relevant witty proverb or a humorous quotation. And while I write in "USA Today style"—short and snappy—I can take a little more time to reach my destination. The listening public is not as forgiving as the reading public.
Bill O'Reilly opens his popular Fox TV show, "The O'Reilly Factor," with a segment called "Talking Points Memo." It wouldn't be at the beginning of the program if it didn't work!
Consider the political stump speech. Same message, over and over. Same main points, short and sweet, amended to fit the geographic region or particular audience. The talking points remain constant: This is what I stand for. This is why you should vote for me. This is what's wrong with my opponent.
I speak to dozens of companies and organizations around the globe every year. I tell every group a few of the same things: Prepare to win. Deliver more than you promise. Knowledge does not become power until it is used. My audiences may remember my jokes, or some of the personal stories I throw in, or maybe even that I give away my tie sometimes. But I know they will remember my talking points. That's the real take-home value.
On the other side, job applicants who come into my office and can tell me what I need to know about them in the first three minutes fascinate me. Experience, education, knowledge about my company, common ground—these are the things employers want to hear right out of the gate. Make it interesting, and make sure it's accurate. When I'm interviewing for sales or customer service positions, I'm looking for candidates who can get to the point, and let me decide whether I need more details. Good talking points can mean the difference between a second interview and a good-luck handshake.
It's worth the extra time to really edit yourself and hone your presentation. A few descriptive words will trump a lengthy monologue every time. Identify your central message and put it front and center.
Perhaps the ultimate example is an irreverent cartoon by Mike Peters. It shows a giant hand reaching through the clouds to extend the tablets containing the Ten Commandments to the outstretched hands of Moses, with the voice of God saying, "Here, these are your talking points.
"Mackay's Moral: As Groucho Marx said, "Before I speak, I have something important to say."
Reprinted with permission from nationally syndicated columnist Harvey MacKay, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller "Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." Visit his site at www.harveymackay.com