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How to Say the Right Thing at the Right Time

Have you ever been asked a question that you wish you had handled much better than you did? I was always coming up with my best responses in hindsight (too late!) until I started practicing what I preached to my public relations clients: develop your key messages and memorize them in advance so that when you speak, you can come across as knowledgeable, articulate and on the ball.

Key messages are the main points that you’d like to convey in a given situation. Think of them as a short script or cheat sheet that you can use whenever you’re put on the spot to say something at, let’s say, a weekly staff meeting, an impromptu discussion in your boss’s office, or a run-in with a company executive while getting coffee.

Here’s a five-step approach that you can use to develop your messages:

  1. Identify the topics that you may be asked about. Take a step back and think about the different topics you might be asked about at work. For example, when you’re in your first job, you could be asked how work is going in addition to what you’re working on. Make a list of these possible topics.

  2. Jot down your key points. Come up with two or three key points that you’d like to make about each topic. These are your key messages. (I prefer coming up with three points/messages per topic because less than three seems skinny and more than three can be too much for anyone to remember.) Be clear and concise in your language so that you can say your messages with ease – and keep them simple so that they become second nature. For instance, in your first job when it’s important to be positive and show that you’re engaged, your messages about working at your company can be along the lines of 1) “I’m learning a lot;” 2) “I really like my team,” and 3) “Everyone is friendly and helpful.”

  3. Tailor your messages to your audience. Review your messages from the perspective of your intended audience, making sure that the tone and content are appropriate for both the audience and topic. Let’s say, for example, that your boss likes to randomly stop by your desk. Show your boss that you’re on top of things by putting together some key messages that serve as a quick but informative update on your work.

  4. Rehearse and rehearse again. Say your messages out loud to yourself, making sure that they sound natural and conversational – and not like you’re reading from a script or giving a speech. It’s also a good time to check your tone and practice your delivery as how you say something is just as important as what you say.

  5. Use and grow your inventory. Start using your key messages when given the opportunity – but don’t feel that you have to jam in all of your points every time you speak. Change up your messages as needed – and keep creating them, especially for situations that you can prepare for in advance, such as a scheduled meeting, video conference call or phone call. It may seem like a lot of effort at first, but message development is a process that has helped many executives (and first-time professionals) say the right things at the right time.

By developing messages for different situations, you give yourself the time to truly think before you speak. That way, when you’re asked a question or see an opportunity to speak up, you’re prepared and can speak with confidence.

P.S. In my next blog post, I’ll cover more tips for saying the right thing at the right time, including what to say when you don’t have the answer. Stay tuned.

For more on how to succeed in your first job, please find my book, Starting Out Smart: The Unwritten Rules for Getting Ahead in Your First Job, on Amazon.

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