Anatomy of a Message

The President of the United States called me the other day. I wasn’t in, so he left a message.

He’s a skilled communicator; let’s see what we can learn from his message. We’ll analyze the pluses and minuses.

1) Intro: He opened with, “Hi, this is the President. I rarely make these calls and I apologize for intruding on your day.”

Plus: You need to establish your credentials right away. If you’re the President, you probably should mention that.

President Barack Obama
Photo by: Pete Souza
President Barack Obama

Minus: Apologizing. A lot of people open presentations with a disclaimer. “I rarely do this,” they say. “I’m a little unprepared.” “I’m completely nauseous.”

My advice: don’t.

2) Purpose statement: “I had to talk to you about the election in Massachusetts because the stakes are so high.”

Plus: “You” is a wonderful word to use when presenting. It keeps the presenter focused on the audience.

Minus: Unfortunately, he emphasized the word “election.” If he had emphasized “you” (“I had to talk with YOU”), it would have sounded more personal.

I began to wonder, does he even know who I am? Or is he just calling everyone in the entire state?

3) Main message: The main message was to vote for a specific candidate for Senate.

Plus: It’s important to have a main message, and it should be 10 words or less. (Misc. advice to the President: get a 10-word, benefit-driven message for health care reform).

There were three key points supporting the main message, which is just right. Three is a good number: 3 strikes and you’re out; 3 meals a day; the 3 Stooges.

I could go on, but that’s three examples.

4) Call to action: “A lot of people don’t realize there is an election on Tuesday. They don’t realize why it’s so important . . . So please, come out to vote . . .”

Plus: Clear, specific action.

Minus: The phrase, “a lot of people don’t realize” could be a nice way of saying that a lot of people are complete idiots. On the other hand, I did know there was an election, so I felt ok about that.

One last thing: the President forgot to leave his number. He’s probably wondering why I haven’t called back.

Tip: Got an important message? Whether it’s long or short, think it through.

More Executive Strategies on including:


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (, Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to