The Write Stuff
Talking Point Talk
By Alan Crawford
NBC’s Chuck Todd once asked presidential candidate Donald Trump whom he relied on “for military advice.” Trump’s response was one few of us forgot. “I watch the shows,” he said, confirming the widespread suspicion that he was never a great reader. When President Trump and his aides were discussing and deciding policy, Paul Bedard writes in his “Washington Secrets” column in the Washington Examiner, “verbal debate and images helped tell and shape the agenda. Aides often huddled around the table of [Trump’s] private dining room to hash out key concerns as TVs screamed nearby and phones rang. And the president bragged about reading few memos.”
Things were different in the previous administration. In Barack Obama’s White House, Bedard says, “the memo was king. Simply written and topped with bullet points, it often drove the debate.” Martha Coven, who worked for Obama and now teaches at Princeton, told Bedard that “really good memo writing in the Obama White House I think contributed to good and efficient decision-making.”
Really good memo writing is a dying art, which might not be such a surprise since the term itself seems increasingly obsolete. We’re more likely, these days, to refer to “talking points” or maybe an “email memo.” Whatever you call it, the craft of writing clear and concise summaries is more relevant than ever.
Obama would read such material the night before a meeting. “I read your memo,” he’d say when the meeting began. “I want to talk about these two points,” and they’d proceed from there. The summation before him “did what it was supposed to do [briefing the President] fully so we could walk in and have the part that actually needed to be discussed. That’s “what it should accomplish.”
Coven has now published a book, Writing on the Job: Best Practices for Communicating in the Digital Age, with tips on preparing talking points, which is a more important discipline than many public affairs professionals might assume. Coven’s advice, while not earthshaking, is useful. Bedard’s summation: “Write lively, edit often, cut repetitive words, limit jargon, and youth it up with an emoji or two.” (I’m not so sure about trying to “youth it up.” That’s generally a sure way to come off as an old person trying too hard, which can defeat the whole purpose.)
Coven quotes Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under President George W. Bush now heading Hamilton Place Strategies, who had a formula for writing a report that would end up in tweets. The formula, as an acronym, was BLUF, for “Bottom Line Up Front,” which means put the main point in the first line. Leave building suspense to John Grisham or James Patterson.
Coven also says you should volunteer to write the talking points: “That’s such an important professional opportunity if you say, ‘OK, I’ll take the first draft.’ You have so much power to kind of frame the issue the way that you want. … I think good writing helps people have good democracy,” she told Bedard. “I think good writing can facilitate democracy.”
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Super. Elon Musk has a “super bad feeling” about the economy, which means he is worried. He’s hardly the only person to be apprehensive — and by no means alone in using super as a go-to adjective when he wishes to express intense feelings. Serena Williams reportedly found it “super difficult” to compete at Wimbledon, and Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times had serious misgivings about the Lakers even thinking about acquiring Kyrie Irving. Any such move, Plaschke wrote in mid-June, would be “super weird, super chaotic and super dumb.”
As for super dumb, why do so many of us grownups routinely talk like we’re in pre-K?
Maybe this reversion to a kind of baby talk is to be expected as we attempt to be informal, relaxed and relatable. Then it begins to feel cozy and comfortable, like wearing baggy cargo shorts and oversized T-shirts, like 5-year-old boys. We end up with the vocabulary of children.
Oops. My bad. Not children, but “kids.” Duh.