On message or off-the cuff: Lessons from Biden and Besser

By Brad Dodge on May 1st, 2009

We all witnessed “regular Joe” Biden answer a question the way he really felt on the Today Show yesterday--a definite deviation from the message points that were undoubtedly prepared for him in advance. In the ensuing damage control, perhaps the most telling remark was from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “Let me tell you what Vice President Biden meant to say.” In this extreme example, being slightly off message can have a catastrophic effect. If paranoia about the threat of swine flu caused the entire economy to shut down, that would have lasting effects and cause a great deal of damage. His message was supposed to be one of “it’s OK to fly, keep on keepin’ on, just wash your hands and stay home if you’re sick.” Dr. Richard Besser, acting head of the CDC, is a perfect example of staying on message. Smooth. Poised. Articulate. Hey, it could be that he’s telling his family to stay away from airplanes, too, but his message to the people is one of caution, not alarm.

The lesson here for healthcare organizations is to always be prepared with clear, concise messaging that will keep you from having to shoot from the hip. You should be preparing messages that address your products and services, your vision for the future, your advantage over your competitors. It takes a good deal of effort to craft, edit, polish and refine the messages, but the investment of time will be repaid over and over in demos, presentations, press interviews, analyst calls and those pesky interviews with Matt Lauer.

Three tips for healthcare companies to create better messages:

  1. Keep it simple: It’s easy to clog up simple messages with “interoperability, clinically-oriented, patient-centered” and other terms that aren’t easily understood. Test your messages with people that don’t know anything about your business and make sure they can understand every one.
  2. Pretend you’re one of your competitors: Think about the hardest questions you could possibly be asked, and prepare an answer for each one. One of my favorite recently was from a company that was asked what impact the ARRA will have on their organization. Even though they’re not in the EMR business, they said while waiting for the ARRA guidelines to be released, hospitals are getting their house in order—reducing costs--so as to be better prepared. And with labor costs representing the greatest cost in the hospital, that’s where they start. And this company’s software impacts labor costs directly. If answered off the cuff, the answer would have been “None.” But by preparing messages in advance, a solid, meaningful answer was ready.
  3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. In regular conversation, it’s awkward to repeat a point. With messages, it’s not. Every chance you have to repeat a key message to your audience is another chance that it will stick. That’s the objective—to get the message to stick.

Unless it was delivered off the cuff and you wish you could take it back.