What’s the Point?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Any public forum — be it in print, on the internet, on the air, or in person — is an opportunity to convey the message you want to convey.

Why waste it?

And, yet, I see my professional cohorts ramble.

Perhaps they equate speaking off-the-cuff with charming spontaneity or beguiling creativity. Hell, I don’t know.

To me, it looks and sounds like blathering.

So, a big part of media training and coaching on public speaking consists of a little thing called a talking point.

What’s a talking point?
It’s a concept. Simple as that.

If you can focus on a few main ideas when you speak, ideas that further your goals, you’re on the road to being effective and memorable . . . for the right reasons.

Talking points can be a word or two that cue you. They can be sound bites. You can write full sentences if you want. The trick is to single out three to five concepts that you really want listeners (and readers) to understand.

How do you develop talking points?
First, figure out what messages you feel are the most important for you.

A person who does this quite effectively is Jan Burke. One of her main points when she talks to the media, posts on listservs, and speaks in public is that crime labs are dreadfully under-funded and under-equipped. She’s determined to inform people about the realities of this situation through the Crime Lab Project.

Jan’s on point all the time, yet never sounds rehearsed, and her passionate concern elevates public awareness. She also is raising her own visibility while doing something tremendously admirable.

We have other excellent examples in our literary community. Whether you agree with them or not, notice how well they’ve honed their points.

Carl Hiaasen is angry about land mismanagement and environmental abuse in Florida.
Tony Hillerman believes that the Navajo culture is important for all of us to know.
Janet Evanovich wants people to laugh.
Otto Penzler never misses a chance to dis cozies.

These people know what they want to say about a cause, their writing, or a pet peeve . . . and they say it with remarkable consistency. Do you think this is simply by chance?

Why Wait?
Right now, think of three points that mean something to you, that you’d like people to know if you’re interviewed or if you speak publicly. Focus on ideas that you want an audience to remember. These points can be profound or light, serious or humorous. It doesn’t matter to me. They should matter to you.

Go on. Write them down.

See? That wasn’t too difficult, was it?

But, I can’t just come up with three.
Yeah, I know. It’s not easy to limit yourself. But the beauty of talking points is that you can tailor them for any situation.

What I recommend to clients is to identify ten or more major concepts, then focus on three to five points in any talk or interview depending on context and time.

The reason to restrict the number you actively use is that most audiences have Teflon (r) minds. If you mention more than a few concepts, they won’t remember any of them.

Do I have to stick to my talking points?
It depends. Politicians cling to their talking points so closely that they can sound like automatons. So, learn from their mistaken rigidity.

Talking points enable you to
     1.  Keep focused so that you don’t run too far astray of what you want to say. (They’ll prevent you from getting too distracted, going off on irrelevant tangents, and wasting your public communications opportunities.)
     2.  Spring into other related topics, when appropriate.
     3.  Control the interview so that you answer the questions you want to answer rather than submitting to someone else’s agenda. (This is especially helpful when you’re being interviewed by someone who hasn’t read your work or who dislikes it.)
     4.  Sound like you’re prepared without appearing stilted or nervous.

Believe me, the majority of public relations is common sense. Talking points, a.k.a. preparation, are the bedrock of successful public communication.

You’d be a fool not to take the time to develop and use them.

Next Saturday, Sept. 30, Evil Elaine won’t be able to post her normal ON THE BUBBLE. In her place, I’ve asked Amanda Sutton, the superb publicist at the University of New Mexico Press, to write about what she wishes authors knew. It should be fascinating.



14 thoughts on “What’s the Point?

  1. Iden Ford

    Pari, you quote some interesting examples (people), some of which (whom) I have a problem with (more later). Your point is excellent about talking points. When I teach a Spinning class, I use every class as a presentation on the benefits spinning has, when done correctly, on a persons fatty metabolisation, vs carbohydrate metabolisation. I am a big proponent of high intensity workouts on a bike, but with proper warm up, hydration, cool down, and monitoring of heart rate. I assume that everyone wants to improve their ability to metabolise fat calories during and after exercise, more so than carbs. This sets me aside from most instructors. I use three to five points during the ride to emphasise the major goal. I am a coach and feel that it is their workout, not mine. Enough about that. As for your examples, I feel mixed about it. I think that if you stray too far from your personal subject matter (you’re own books and their content), you risk taking on a secondary pursuit which may or may not intersect with your own goals. If someone writes crime novels, and gets on a soap box to bring publicity to a worthy cause, that is great, but keep in mind that those secondary efforts may or may not increase your readership, and that soap box may in fact water down your creative energies. I am not judging anyone for this, I am saying that if a bookseller disses a certain genre, bad for booksales. Negative campaigning for anything can have an adverse effect. Better to be for something. Which is not the point of your article. So I beleive that campaiging for something you believe in strongly is fantastic, but one should not hold out any expectation that it will impact on you other career. If it does, bonus. In the meantime, I was planning on putting some spectacular photos of the Word on the Street Festival in Toronto that I took yesterday, including close ups of personalities who posed for me including the Mayor of Toronto, and a number of crime writers. Alas I am grieving today as a man we loved died yesterday in NYC, and who lived in an apartment that I lived in when I was young. Please link to my blog and see Dr Albert Lyons, age 94, mystery fan, and overall amazing human being. There are two photos on the post, one of whch is a composite I did and is the living room the Al’s apt on Central Park West in NY. His neighbour accross the hall is Sting, and above him is Paul Simon. He will be buried tomorrow. Thanks Pari.

  2. Pari

    Iden,You’re absolutely right about getting off track when you promote — or denigrate — something tangentially related to your writing.

    It’s a problem I face often. In my PR hat, I know quite a bit. But, when people associate me with that facet of my life, they DON’T necessarily buy my books or even think of me as a novelist. It’s frustrating because I thought since my protag was a PR pro, it would have all fit together.

    Oh, well.

    I don’t praise folks like Otto Penzler who raise personal visibility by negating other people’s work. But, he’s a superb example of keeping on point.

    Finally, please accept my condolences about your friend who died. Dr. Lyons has the face of someone who has long and well — has known sorrow and has met it with strength.

  3. Pari

    Oh, Sandra, I’m curious now.

    Ron,I think you can develop talking points to pitch to an editor, but that they’re much more flexible and useful than that. You can use them to shape interviews, your comments on panels, your interactions with the media.

    With an editor, you want to mention the salient points about your book — but you might not get into some of the other aspects that you’d do if you were in other situations.

    For example, if I were to pitch to an editor to get a mass market paperback deal, I’d emphasize my marketability, my award nominations, the fact that I continue to build audience and have a national draw.

    But in media interviews, I often focus on why I write about New Mexico, why intelligent humor is important in today’s world, and . . . my award noms (to give me credibility).

    Does that make sense?

  4. Elaine

    Pari – absolutely terrific advice! I think everyone reading this should print it out and keep it for reference. Your reply to Ron is particularly valuable.

  5. Pari

    Elaine,Thank you.

    Sometimes what I consider really, really basic . . . isn’t.

    Since I’ve been working in PR and generally have a PR-strategic kind of mind, I forget that what I take as second nature is new to many people. Or, maybe, it’s just that they haven’t quite spent the time to take things apart (and put them back together)the way a PR pro does.

    I appreciate your comments because when I write these pieces, I sometimes worry that they’re clunkers — too obvious, too easy, too je ne sais quoi.

  6. Naomi

    Excellent post, Pari. I think that this is a nice segue from Jeff’s entry yesterday. (I was meaning to post a comment, but time got away from me.)

    I’ve observed two types of effective presentations from authors. Some, who have national recognition and are well read, focus on their main protagonists or storyline. Others, such as Jacqueline Winspear, speak more about the background and research behind their books. Both can work.

    There’s a danger, of course, if we speak of themes or background because like in Jeff’s case, the interviewer assumes that he’s an expert on Asperger’s. And we may not necessarily be experts. I remember hearing Kazuo Ishiguro speak and he said that he purposefully began to write about non-Japanese characters because the British press began to assume that he was an expert on UK-Japan trade relations. He wanted to be seen first as a writer. Really interesting perspective.

    But, on the other hand, there’s nothing more offputting than hearing a panelist go into detail about their characters and plotlines when you have never read that author’s book. It’s like going to a party and being trapped in a conversation when people start talking about people you don’t know. It doesn’t necessarily motivate you to find out who these people are; you just tune out and want to move on.

  7. Pari

    Naomi,Great comments. Thank you.

    A lot depends on how long the interview is as well. If it’s short, you can use your talking points quite effectively. If it’s longer, there’s more opportunity to go on interesting tangents. In that case, talking points can bring you back on YOUR task rather than just going with the flow.

    That said, some of the best interviews I’ve ever seen and read have been good precisely because the interviewee was willing to take chances with the answers, to explore . . .

  8. JT Ellison

    Since I’m gearing up for publicity runs for both myself and Killer Year, these points are especially useful. Thank you for sharing — you’ve never laid an egg here. It’s always valuable, informative and insightful, and I appreciate it very much!

  9. Pari

    J.T.,Talking points will be especially important for you because you’ll be promoting on several different levels. You’ll want a few consistent ideas for each thing you market –otherwise the messages will become confused.

    Re: laying an egg . . .I appreciate the comment. Whenever I write a pr article on this blog, I seem to get just a few comments. I think it’s because some people — even if they’re not writers — don’t understand that just about all of the principles about which I write can be easily transferred to other professions.

    Or, my pieces are simply too specialized.

  10. Naomi

    I wouldn’t judge people’s interest based on comments. Your p.r. posts provides information, and people usually aren’t motivated to post a comment unless they disagree. Now martial arts, now that’s a different matter altogether!

    –Naomi, who, for some reason, has been seeing a lot of “boy” movies and DVDs, including Bruce Lee’s GAME OF DEATH (really strange stuff with the body double), Tony Jaa’s THE PROTECTOR, and GRIDIRON GANG (all of my girlfriends have been drooling over Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson)

  11. Elaine

    It may be, Pari – that your posts are so thoughtful and relevant – that readers are taking the time to fully absorb them and then dash off to follow your advice!!

  12. Pari

    Elaine and Naomi,Thank you. As you’ve noticed, I continue to post the PR articles because I truly think people can benefit from them.

    Naomi, I went through a real kung-fu phase in DC. They had films from Hong Kong every weekend and I’d go — even though I could only understand 10 words out of 10,000.


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