Too often, we develop scripts for communicating with external publics. Call a help desk and the person on the other end is likely reading from a script. The same is true when you answer a call from a telemarketer.
The problem with scripts is that they lack authenticity.
I say: toss away the script. Scripts are for computers. People want conversation.
I’m not saying we should do away with key messages. Key messages are vital to ensuring that we’re communicating the right things to the right publics. The problem is when key messages become scripts and when those scripts become robotic.
Key messages, not scripts
Part of my job is to respond to inquires from the public—both by email and on the phone. Before responding to anyone, I make sure that I know what information they need. I research the answer if I don’t already know it and, whenever possible, I make sure that what I’m going to tell them aligns with our key messages on the topic and ties into the overall communications plan. If necessary, I prepare speaking notes.
What I never do is write a script.
When I speak to a citizen or business owner on the phone, I talk to them as if they were in front of me. I have a conversation. I try to be as casual as the situation allows, while maintaining an appropriate degree of professionalism. People tend to appreciate this.
This is especially important when dealing with someone who is angry. It’s easy to fall back on a script when dealing with an angry person—it allows you to remain detached and professional while someone yells at you—but they can usually tell what you’re doing and it tends to make them angrier.
Often, when people are angry, they just want to know that they’ve been heard. By having a real conversation—even if you’re telling them things they don’t want to hear—you allow the other person to be heard and to feel they’ve had a genuine interaction. They may still be angry, but they’ll usually appreciate that you explained the situation and treated them as a person rather than an issue to be dealt with.
Be conversational on email, too
The same is true with email. It’s harder to convey a sense of authenticity over email, but writing in a conversational style helps. Avoid copying and pasting from previous inquiries. It takes a bit of extra time to write a new email to each person who asks the same question, but it’s more meaningful and authentic than a canned response.
It’s hard to gauge the success of this approach to email, as many people never write back once they’ve received an answer, but those who do reply generally seem appreciative of the response they received.
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All of this is to say that key messages are important—they’re vital to effective communications. But scripts and canned responses are inauthentic and can actually make things worse if you’re dealing with someone who’s angry with your organization.
Be authentic and you’ll be a better communicator.