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The Case for Communications Training before High-Stakes Conversations

Remember that time mom stomped in with her mouth stretched taut and fire in her eyes? She demanded a straight answer: Yes or no: Did you shampoo the dog with barbecue sauce?

You were four years old. You had only one option: Yes or no.

A similar scene played out in the third grade: Did you do your homework? Your options were essentially the same – although you may have gamely tried to blame Stumpy the omnivorous beagle.

These experiences condition us to answer questions plainly and directly. That’s a useful skill, but not always the right one. Professionals who face important media interviews and other high-stakes conversations must develop new instincts and habits to successfully navigate these shoals.

That’s the purpose of messaging training.

This training seeks first to persuade trainees that answering questions on the questioner’s terms seldom serves personal or organizational interests. The higher the stakes, the more important it is to prepare messages for these interactions. Messages are high-altitude assertions about your organization, its activities, and its values. Each message must be supported by proof points – that is, facts, statistics, and examples that help prove the assertion in the message.

This training also teaches professionals to use messaging to adroitly field every kind of question –dumb, cunning, loaded, whatever.

There’s nothing natural about preparing, delivering, and fielding questions with messaging. It requires commitment and practice. But the professional who enters any high-stakes interaction without messaging training can put an organization’s image, stock value, and very existence in mortal peril.

The landscape is littered with prominent individuals who flopped in interviews because they relied on experience and expertise but weren’t prepared with messaging they needed. YouTube offers a famous example: a single, obvious interview question that derailed Sen. Ted Kennedy’s candidacy for president.

By Matt Maguire, Senior Counselor, Public Affairs