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The first minute of any discussion is the one opportunity to get the attention of your audience, and prepare them to understand the message you are about to deliver.
Whether you are talking to your boss, your team, a room full of developers, or the CEO, the first minute can make the difference between getting your point across successfully or leaving your audience confused and frustrated.
This article will show you how to use a technique called ‘Framing’ to start any work conversation. Framing prepares your audience to receive your message before you go into the detail. If done well, it lets the audience know what is expected of them right from the start and they understand the core of the message within a few sentences.
Framing has three components:
• Provide context for your audience
• Set expectations
• Deliver the key message.
If you use these three simple steps you will immediately improve the clarity and efficiency of any meeting or work-based discussion. The result will be less confusion, fewer misunderstandings, and you will have more confidence when communicating because you will know you are delivering a clear and concise message.
“The first minute can make the difference between getting your point across successfully, or leaving your audience confused and frustrated.”
1. Provide context
When you start a work conversation with a colleague or your boss make sure you give them the context of the topic right at the start.
You already know the context, it is in your head, you’ve probably been thinking about it for a while, but your audience doesn’t have the benefit of that knowledge. They have no idea what project you are talking about, or what topic you want to discuss. They almost certainly have other things on their mind, other projects, budget issues, a challenging problem at home, and so on. Whatever they are thinking about it is almost certainly not the thing you want to talk about.
“When you start talking your audience is thinking about anything else except the topic you want to talk about.”
Before you start talking about the detail of your message you need to provide some context, you need to orientate them so you are both clear on the topic you want to discuss.
Luckily this is an easy thing to do. Start your message with a simple statement about the topic and they will immediately have a frame of reference for whatever else you need to say.
Here are some examples of how to do this:
• Name the project
• Name the issue
• Name the system you are working on
• Give the customer name you are working with
• Name the task or objective you want to talk about.
The options are endless. The key is to quickly give the context so your audience knows the topic or area you are going to talk about.
2. Set expectations
Setting expectations is an important step to prepare the audience for the message you will deliver.
Whenever we receive information, it takes our brains a while to work out what to do with it. On a subconscious level we try to work out if we must answer a question, if we need to take action, give advice, and so on. Our brains do this all day, every day as we constantly process the information we receive and work out the appropriate response.
When you start to communicate, your audience’s brains are trying to work out what your message means from the moment you say the first word. They spend the first few minutes trying to work out the purpose of the discussion and are not concentrating on the detail of your message.
By setting expectations in the first few lines of your message, you are taking the guesswork out of the process for your audience.
If you have ever found yourself thinking ‘why is this person telling me this?’ it is probably because they didn’t’ set your expectations at the start. This meant you didn’t know how to process the detail they gave. When we don’t know what to do with information, we don’t retain it because we subconsciously label it as unimportant.
“If you don’t provide context up front, your audience will subconsciously label your message as unimportant.”
Fortunately, it only takes a few words to set expectations. Most work-related expectations fall into small set of options, there are others but these are the most common.
• I need help/advice
• I need you to take action
• You need this information
• Here is the information you asked for
• Something is about to happen, and I don’t want you to be surprised (Heads up)
If you started every interaction at work started with one of the sentences, or something similar, it would be clear, every time, what your audience can expect from the rest of the conversation.
3. Give the key message up front
Having provided context and set the audience’s expectations it is time to give them the key message. The key message is a one-line summary of your entire topic. It is the one line that, if you don’t get to say anything else, your audience will have received the most important message.
Another way to think of this is to consider the key message as the headline for your message.
News articles use headlines to grab our attention and to put the most important message at the top of the page. Then they go on to explain the detail in the body of the article. You read the headline and then you absorb and interpret all of the detail in the article in a way that relates back to the headline.
“The key message is the headline for your conversation.”
If you don’t provide a headline for your message, the audience will create a headline for themselves by guessing what you are talking about, then they will evaluate everything you say against it. The problem is we often guess wrong, and this is one of the most common reasons for misunderstandings in conversations.
A situation you may have experienced that highlights this well is any conversations where you have thought, or said, “Oh! Now I get it. Up until now I thought you were talking about something else.” This happened because the person speaking to you hadn’t given a clear headline and you’d been evaluating the message against the wrong headline. There was some moment when you realized the detail you were receiving didn’t make sense against the headline that you had guessed. By re-evaluating the headline, the message suddenly made more sense.
“If you don’t provide a headline for your message, the audience will guess what you are talking about and nine times out of ten they will be wrong.”
A typical conversation starting without a clear headline:
“We were working on the system enhancements for the Sales team, the ones they asked for last month, and we released a patch last night to test the new database connections. Something didn’t work and now the Sales team can’t use the system. It might be a problem because we think it will take some time to fix, maybe a week.”
In this example the key message is hidden in the detail of the lengthy description. The loss of a key system for a week is the headline, everything else is just background detail.
Rewriting the example using the Key Message approach:
“The Sales system is down and it will take a week to fix.”
The original sixty-word description can be condensed into thirteen words. Not only does this get the message across faster, it is also much clearer what the important information is. The audience may ask questions about how this happened but they are more likely to want to know the steps to fix the issue.
“Giving a key message gets the important information across quickly and clearly.”
4. Putting it all together
So far, we’ve covered the three components of Framing, Context, Expectations, and key message. You’ve seen how each component of delivers valuable information, but by themselves they don’t deliver a complete message. To give your audience a clear, well framed message you need to put them all together.
The first minute of any discussion is where you start to succeed in communicating.
You’ve learned a little about the three components of framing and seen how to combine them into a complete, well framed message. If you do these three things at the start of each work conversation, your audience will appreciate it and you’ll quickly become known as a good communicator.
“Frame every work conversation using Context, Expectations, and Key Message, and you will be known as a GREAT communicator.”
Chris Fenning believes that clarity of communication is critical, and his success in working with both technical and business teams comes from a few simple tools that anyone can use.
Throughout his career, Chris has worked in Asia, America and across Europe in both technical and business roles. He has extensive experience in multiple sectors and industries including aerospace engineering, defence, telecoms, web hosting, the travel industry, sports equipment design and healthcare.
Chris has taught how to simplify workplace communication to hundreds of people face-to-face and to thousands through webinars and online.
He currently manages IT teams with resources in America, India, and the Philippines, and has tens of thousands of hours of first-hand experience starting and receiving business communications. The best and worst parts of this experience have been combined into the training courses, articles, and coaching he provides.
Find out more at GetTheFirstMinuteRight.com.