How to explain first time

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Thomas Heath / 2012

‘If you’re explaining you’re losing.’ That phrase recently came out to bite President Obama, after he gave a 17-minute answer to a short question about healthcare and taxes.

Healthcare and taxes, human rights, banking, the environment … too many of the most vital messages get beached like whales in our attention deficit disordered world. People have to understand first time. Get it? Got it. Good. If not, you lose.

To avoid losing, answer these questions before you try to explain:

1. Who cares and why?

2. How will I make a difference?

3. What’s the big idea?

We use this approach for scripting everything except Post-it notes. You can too.

Step One: Who cares and why?

Who’s your audience? What are they thinking? And why exactly would they be interested in you? Great if you know these people as individuals. If not then imagine them into life — and don’t be afraid to get creative. One trick is to find and print off an image that fits the person you imagine, then brainstorm the page into a collage of all the things that matter to them, personally and professionally, publicly and privately. (This is also a great way to profile customers. You can go further and turn the collage into a magazine cover.)

When you’ve decided what they want, ask how they’d like to be told. You can do communication preference analyses, or just use gut feeling: would they prefer a slick presentation, a detailed document and time to reflect, quick-fire emails, a phone call, or lunch?

Step Two: How will I make a difference?

What exactly are you going to explain and what will be the outcome? President Obama spent 17 minutes attempting to explain the inexplicable. Healthcare and taxes? That’s a game without frontiers: you lose before you begin.

So take time to define an outcome that is specific, achievable, positive, imaginable and measurable. A well-formed outcome sets the parameters for explaining. And there’s a good reason why this is step two: to set a relevant outcome you need to see through the eyes of your audience.

Step Three: What’s the big idea?

You wanted to explain something, remember? Since then, you’ve worked out who wants to know, why they’re interested and what you can do for them. So take all this insight and sum up your message as one big idea. You can do this using the situation/challenge/answer method for introductions: if you describe the situation and the challenge first then the big idea should fall into place as an answer to the challenge. You should be able to state your big idea in no more than a Tweet (140 characters).

Get this right and you’ve won: from here it’s just a matter of reinforcing the message. By explaining first time you can start to change the way people think. Here are three starting points that have helped shape our world:

Earth moves round the sun – Galileo

People are basically good – Ebay

Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do – Dyson