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Plan Element #3: Preparing Messages and Talking Points

Shaping and Framing Issues 
By shaping its own messages, a local health department can control much of the conversation about itself and its activities. Clear, well-constructed messages help people break through information overload and choose among many different sources of information. 

In general, a message consisting of approximately two sentences should convey a complete idea and satisfy the following criteria:
  • Define an issue in a specific way
  • Identify the cause of a problem
  • Be short and easy to understand
  • Indicate a course of action

The message helps frame the issue for the audience. Framing an issue suggests a cause and effect—either the harmful force that endangers health (such as asbestos or risky agricultural practices), or the beneficial force that can improve health (such as nutrition education or substance abuse treatment).  Framing also can depict the magnitude of a problem. Often metaphors are useful in framing. 

Here’s a partial example of how an issue—health literacy—might be framed:
As many as 9 in 10 Americans lack the health-literacy skills for effectively managing their health and preventing disease.  The road to optimal health is a marathon, and too many of us run it wearing a blindfold.  

The Media Outreach Guide section of this website contains numerous suggestions on message development. As noted there in fuller detail, some important points to remember are:

  • Communicate clearly to the audience
  • Specify your request
  • Provide a reward that your audience cares about
  • Make the reward believable by providing evidence to back it up
  • Use vivid and appropriate images
  • Choose the right moment, and
  • Choose the right messenger.

Those tips also apply to developing talking points for a high-level presenter or spokesperson. It’s especially important to avoid jargon; use plain language that will be understandable and interesting to a health reporter, elected official, consumer, or colleague from another field. Research shows that audiences give greater credence and respect to experts who express ideas in simple terms than to those who indulge in a lot of technical terminology.

Tip: Choose your Messenger Carefully

The public listens to individual people who bring persuasive messages, not organizations.


Consider these examples of relatively powerful and weak messages:



“Protect North Clover youth from HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, and child sex abuse. Join with schools, families, physicians, nurses, and clergy in the Adolescent Sexual Health Partnership.” “The North Clover Health Department has determined that every resident should become aware of the importance of adolescent sexual health. We should not allow specific religious concerns to derail the Department’s adolescent sexual health program, which has been devised by public health experts.” (inflammatory, LHD-centric, patronizing, and doesn’t make a request)
“A new epidemic of fungal lung disease has hit our community.  Promptly report any serious chest or breathing problems in adults, adolescents, or household pets to your physician or vet.”
“Mycoses, or fungal lung diseases, are experiencing an increased incidence, affecting the health status of immuno-compromised individuals and other select populations that are highly prevalent in the municipalities served by the regional health authority.  Reducing this incidence is an important public health objective.”  (jargony)
“Immunizations for children are the best, safest, and easiest way to prevent unnecessary diseases.  Let’s protect our youngest, most precious, and most vulnerable resource—starting now!”
“Parents should start thinking about the health of the entire community rather than just their own children and should make sure everyone in their families is fully immunized against diseases that are very costly to the health care system once they spread throughout the community.”  (preachy)
“Eat safely at restaurants rated Public Health A.”
“We give Public Health A ratings to restaurants where no deficiencies in upper-tier standards are found. We give Public Health B ratings to restaurants that are developing or implementing corrective action plans. We give Public Health C ratings to restaurants that may pose a significant risk of disease transmission under current conditions of sanitation.” (bureaucratic and lengthy)