I’m sure you’ve been there. You bump into a parent while strolling the aisles of the local grocery store, and you exchange some pleasantries that include a simple and innocent question: “So, how’re things going at school?”

Typical responses can range from an effusive “great!” to a more lukewarm “just fine” (hopefully nowhere below that on the spectrum). A few more pleasantries, a casual adieu, and back to shopping. In this encounter, a principal rightly sees just an impromptu and perfectly pleasant conversation with a parent.

But as a communications professional, I see a missed opportunity. Every encounter with a stakeholder—no matter how informal—provides you an opportunity to spread a positive word about and build support for your school. Strategic communications is not a well-covered topic in principal training, but most school leaders will attest that it is an increasingly important skill to acquire. The good news is that just a little bit of preparation goes a long way. In communications circles, we call that preparation creating your key messages.

A key message is a brief statement of what you want a stakeholder to know or believe. It can be evergreen (e.g., “Our school thrives in an environment that is highly personalized”), or your messages can change according to current priorities (e.g., “A local meals tax will provide much-needed resources for our financially strained school”). In all cases, that key message is supported by stories, statistics, and sound bites-elements that make the message stick long after the conversation has ended. And where appropriate, the message is often accompanied by a call to action.

Budget Approval Season

Since most districts are in budget-approval season, here’s a timely example. Let’s say you want to build support to launch your 1:1 program, the cost of which is included in the proposed budget currently before the school board. So, a key idea you’d want to share with parents might be: “Consistent and reliable access to technology can greatly expand learning opportunities for kids, and the school board can provide those opportunities by approving the current proposed budget.” Your message includes an implicit call to action: Encourage the school board to approve the budget. As written, however, the key message is not particularly memorable. That’s where the message supports come in.

Stories, Statistics, and Sound Bites

Stories. Humans are wired to tell and retell stories. Put a face on a message—make it personal-and you increase the chances that it will be retained. A conversation might go something like this:

Parent: “So, how’re things going at the school?”

Principal: “Great! You know, I’m always amazed by the incredible things our kids can accomplish. Just last week, I visited an engineering class, and one student, Tanya, was showing me the design for a new engine that runs on used cooking oil. It’s gotten the attention of a local manufacturer, and they might be interested in licensing the design. She never really thought of herself as the engineer type, but that has changed. With a small grant, we were able to provide a laptop to each student in that class this year, and the technology has made a new kind of learning possible. I’m hoping to expand that opportunity to every student in the school next year. It’s in the proposed budget the school board is now considering. It would be great if you could reach out to your local school board member and encourage her to support it.”

Statistics. Numbers are not memorable on their own, but they can be almost as powerful as stories when you put them in the right context. Recent Gallup data, for instance, indicates that 35 percent of high school students describe themselves as engaged in their education. While “35 percent” is a reasonably accessible abstraction, it’s more powerful to put it in concrete terms: “In schools across the country, nearly 2 out of every 3 high-schoolers can’t see a connection between their schoolwork and their real lives. We work hard to not be one of those schools, and we see technology as a crucial way to help students learn in ways that connect to their lives and their futures.”

Sound Bites. These clever one-liners cap off your persuasive arguments—or they can take the place of them if you’re only able to get a few words in. There’s no perfect formula for sound bites, but alliteration, parallel structures, and contrast tend to be consistent elements. In this example, you might try:

“You can’t prepare students for the world of tomorrow with the tools of yesterday.”

If you hear it quoted and repeated, you know you’re on the right track.

Once you experiment with key messages, you will quickly discover how well they work for just about every scenario—a chance encounter, a formal meeting, or a press call. 

Most importantly, with a small amount of preparation, you’ll be empowered to see opportunities to engage stakeholders that you might have never noticed before. 

Bob Farrace is director of public affairs for NASSP.