Donovan Group Insights

Using Bridges and Flags to keep Conversations On-Track

It’s no secret that few (if any) district leaders look forward to speaking with the media. They feel like they have no control over those conversations, and they’re afraid their words will be taken out of context. These are valid concerns, as they do happen from time to time. However, district leaders have more control than they might think.

To keep conversations on-track, district leaders need two things: bridges and flags. These are simple verbal cues you can start using right away to get your message across, shape your district’s story, help reporters ask the right questions and make media interviews a more enjoyable experience for yourself.

Here’s a quick overview of what these tools are and how to use them effectively in your conversations with the media.

What is a bridge?

In the realm of communication, a bridge is a phrase that acknowledges someone’s statement or question, then gently guides the conversation back to your key message. Bridges help other speakers feel heard, even as you point them in a different direction. They allow you to be a good listener and take control at the same time, all while maintaining a courteous, professional appearance.

Bridges can be phrased in a variety of ways, although there are a few variations that have proven particularly effective. Feel free to use these bridges in your next conversation:

“I don’t know much about _____, but I can tell you more about _____.”

“I’m not able to speak on that, but what I can say is _____.”

“My knowledge regarding _____ is limited, but I’d be happy to share more about _____.”

What is a flag?

A flag is a word or phrase that tells the audience what you’re about to say is really important. Much like a physical flag, a verbal one draws people’s attention to it. The audience can easily get lost in a sea of words, especially if the conversation gets off-track. Flags refocus the conversation and let people know what they should remember the most. If they’re going to take anything away from the conversation, it should be whatever comes after the flag.

There are many different flags you can use during a conversation. Choose words and phrases that will get your audience to listen, such as “important,” “bottom line” and “key takeaway.” Here’s how those would look in a sentence:

“What’s really important to remember is . . .”

“Here’s the bottom line . . .”

“The key takeaway here is . . .”

Why are they so important?

Bridges and flags help you reclaim control over the conversation. A lot of the time, district leaders feel like they’re at the mercy of a reporter, a community member or whoever is asking the questions. What district leaders often don’t realize is they have just as much freedom to pick the questions and subject matter as everyone else. Communication is a two-way street, so if the other participants get to have some control, so should you.

These tools can also help you become a better communicator. By using bridges and flags, you’re making it very clear what the audience should take away from the conversation. You keep the conversation focused on what matters most, and you get your key points across more effectively. There’s a message the public needs to hear, and verbal tools like bridges and flags can help you communicate it well.

Bridges and flags do more than convey an important message. They give you the power to shape your district’s story. When you have more control over the conversation, you have more say in what’s discussed and what information reaches the public. With a little bit of practice, you could even use bridges and flags to turn a negative angle into a positive one. You know your story better than anyone else. You should be the one to tell it!

When to use bridges in conversations

Bridges are very useful tools when someone brings up a topic you know little about or are unable to comment on. You don’t want to outright ignore what they said, as this can cause tension and make the conversation feel disjointed. But at the same time, you need to bring the conversation back to something you can talk about. Bridges help you remain courteous to the other speakers while putting everyone’s attention back on your message.

Bridges can also keep the conversation focused on what your community needs to hear. When you speak to reporters, remember that they have to cover stories about subjects they don’t understand very well. Because of this, they tend to ask the wrong questions. They’re not the experts on education—you are. Use bridges to steer reporters away from what they think they need and toward what they actually need.

Sometimes, conversations simply get off-track. One of the speakers might try to address something that’s irrelevant to the main topic at hand. Someone might ask for a piece of information you’re not allowed to give. You might even get a reporter who’s approaching the conversation from a negative angle and will search for anything to make your district look bad. A bridge can steer the conversation in a more productive, positive direction.

Next time you participate in a conversation, remember this: you don’t have to answer someone’s question. You don’t have to talk about what other people want to talk about. You choose the questions, and you choose the topics.

When to use flags in conversations

Flags are incredibly useful for when you go on the record. This means anything you say during the conversation can be quoted. You can’t always choose which quotes make the final cut. However, you can tee up an amazing quote by placing a flag right before it. Plan out your key points ahead of time, then mark them with flags throughout the interview. These flags will increase the chances of getting your best quotes into the news story.

Flags still provide great value when you’re speaking on background. After conducting an interview, a reporter will review their notes and recordings to determine which key takeaways should be included in the news release. When you use a flag, you’re telling the reporter which pieces of information are pertinent to the story. This will give you more control over what the public hears.

Flags also come in handy when you start rambling. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us! When people are nervous, they tend to use more words than necessary to explain their thoughts. Nerves also make it hard to focus, which can lead your words astray. Whenever you find yourself rambling, use a flag to reiterate your main point and get the conversation back on-track.

Remember: if you want the audience to remember something, use a flag!

Take control and tell your story

A conversation should never be one-sided. District leaders can (and should) take charge, especially when those conversations become news stories about their schools. Bridges and flags allow you to direct the conversation with tact and professionalism, which is essential for maintaining both media and stakeholder relationships. Practice using these tools, and soon you’ll be navigating even the most nerve-wracking conversations with ease.

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