Talking points papers list key facts and ideas regarding a particular topic or event. Used extensively in public relations and communications, talking points papers help those with a responsibility for speaking to the public provide clear, accurate and consistent information. Talking points papers are used both to reach out to the public to provide information and to respond to public inquiries during crises. By "speaking with one voice" using a shared talking points paper, an organization can increase the effectiveness of its communication program.
Understand the Problem
Before starting work on your talking points paper, you will need to be sure you have accurate information. Seek out those who are most closely involved. For instance, if you need to create talking points regarding a budget problem, speaking directly with a senior executive with oversight of the budget. Don't rely on word of mouth. Ask your source detailed questions and request that she try not to "spin" or sugercoat the details. Make sure to take detailed notes.
Use the Correct Format
Your talking points paper will consist of a series of bullet points, each with one or more sentences following it. There is no need for an introduction or other text. Title it: "Information for Public." Do not mark your talking points paper as "confidential." You are not trying to hide anything, and the information on the talking point paper is for the public.
Begin With Facts
Begin with facts: who, what, where and when. Put yourself in the shoes of a person with no knowledge about your business or organization, its history or recent activities. Your first bullet point should simply state the facts of the situation. For instance: "On July 1, Company X will cut 30 percent of its domestic workforce at plants in Oregon and Idaho." This basic information is provided in the talking points so that those who deliver the information do not accidentally make a factual mistake, leading to confusion.
Describe the Event
The next few bullets should provide more detailed information on the process or activity. If your talking points paper is responding to a negative event, share positive information, but do not attempt to understate the negatives. Media and the public will want information on the details. For instance: "What is the process for notifying workers when they will be terminated? Will there be severance pay or retraining?" Try to anticipate these questions and have answers ready. Remember, the wording you choose for each of these points will be re-used by those delivering the news.
Lay Out the Message
The final bullet points of the talking points paper should focus on the essential message you want your speaker to leave. This could be a key fact, a plan or a vision. For instance: "We are saddened by the problems we know families will face as a result of this decision, but are hopeful with the economic recovery that these will be short-term cuts." Do not, in any case, include in your talking points paper points you do not want your spokesperson to make. Talking points are not private documents and may be read by the media.
Gather Feedback From Leaders
Once you have completed your talking points paper, meet with those involved and with senior leaders in your organization for review. Incorporate any feedback and develop a distribution list that includes those who will likely be asked to speak or to share information with the public. This might include the executive or leader involved, a spokesperson, others involved in communication at your organization and staff with roles that involve the public.
Be honest and clear. Keep your points short. Fewer points is better. Speakers can remember only a few points at a time.
Never put information in the talking points you do not want to be made public. Don't overstress the positive.
Byron Walsh has been a freelance writer and manager of communications since 2001, working with universities, hospitals and government agencies. His work has appeared in internal and trade publications for major West Coast health providers and regional newspapers. Walsh holds master's degrees in creative writing, literature and secondary education.