By Tom Garry
Convey your main point to your audience in the first seven seconds it takes them to read, hear, or see your message.
Just like that sentence did.
Because that may be all the time you get from busy people whose attention span has been conditioned by television sound bites, Facebook posts, 140-character tweets and Instagram images.
Too often, business and non-profit communicators reveal themselves to be aspiring mystery writers – saving the most important fact for the very end. That’s a great formula for “Whodunits,” but it’s a really bad idea for professional communications because it presumes on your audience’s time – and presumes (almost certainly incorrectly) that your audience will give you the time you require for “long-form” story-telling.
What stringers, seminarians, and second lieutenants know
In journalism, this failure to get to the point immediately constitutes the cardinal sin of “burying the lede” (“lede” being newspeak for what the rest of us would spell as lead, as in the most important information that should “lead off” a story).
Speaking of sin, clerics as well as reporters are trained in the virtues of brevity – and preparation. Seminarians of all faiths are advised that, “It takes five minutes to prepare a one-hour sermon and one hour to prepare a five-minute sermon.” The military, meanwhile, stresses clarity, conciseness and (appropriately enough) reinforcement when instructing officers-in-training on how to communicate to the soldiers under their command. The three-step formula is: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.”
Work hard – because your audience won’t
It isn’t always easy to get to the main point immediately in a way that is graceful and effective. That’s why those preparing to lead congregations are told to plan on a 12:1 ratio for time spent preparing to speak vis-à-vis time actually spent speaking.
If you’re not willing to do the work needed to communicate in a succinct yet compelling fashion, you’re shifting the burden of “finding” your main message onto your clients, prospects, or donors. Most of them don’t have the time or inclination to search for the needle in the haystack that is a poorly constructed blog post, video, or news release.
A quick comparison – and a quick test
Think for a moment about how easy you make it for clients or donors to give you their money.
Organizations routinely accept a variety of credit cards, offer secure payment technologies on their web sites, set up automatic bank-account education programs, and even enclose self-addressed (and sometimes postage-paid) envelopes with their bills or solicitations.
Why? Because we want to remove any impediment that stands between us and the money we hope to receive. We should take the same approach to conveying the messages we want our audiences to receive.
Look at your last three communications. What was the main point of each? How hard did your audience have to work to get to that main point? How early on in the communication did you convey it? How effectively did you convey it? And, yes (a topic for another post), once you conveyed it, how effectively did you support it with information that spoke to its credibility and provided a call to action?
Going forward, treat the very first portion of your communication as the only portion audience members are going to read, see, or hear. Given people’s attention spans, that simple practice will automatically expand the percentage of your audience who “get the message.”
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