An easy way to identify if you have more than one topic to talk about

3 Mar 2021

Conversations at work often involve more than one topic. I wrote about this in my previous article how to clearly start conversations with multiple topics. Since publishing that article I’ve been asked if there is an easy way to identify if you have more than one topic to talk about.

Some of you may be thinking ‘Um, Chris, I know what I want to talk about, therefore I know how many topics I have’. That is fair, and much of the time we do know when we have different topics. However, there are some situations where we unconsciously combine topics. Usually, it is because they are part of the same message.

Why is this important?

Starting conversations clearly is an important part of good communication at work. Firstly, ensuring your audience understands the context of the conversation helps them focus on the topic. Secondly, making sure they are aware of what you need them to do with the information helps them understand and process the information.

If you discuss two or more topics in one conversation, the risk of confusion increases.

The good news is there are a few simple ways to quickly identify if you have more than one topic to talk about.

How to use framing to identify the number of topics you want to talk about

The three parts of framing help clarify the start of your message. They can also help identify if you have more than one topic for your conversation.

Framing is context plus intent plus key message

Step 1: Start with context

If you can define a separate context for each topic, then you have two separate topics to frame. If you want to talk about two different projects, clients, or situations, then you have two topics.

More than one context = more than one topic of conversation = more than one framing

Step 2: Look for different intentions

If you have reviewed the context and have only one topic, the next step is to look at your intent.

If you need two different actions from your audience, you have two topics. You cannot have a topic that is an FYI and also requires an action or decision. These are two different intents, and you should prepare two different messages.

More than one intent = more than one purpose for the conversation = more than one framing

If you have a single context and a single intent, you usually only need a single framing. An example of this is if you give two updates on the same project or topic.

Hi, boss. We’ve completed the filing audit. There are only a couple of things you might want to know. First, nothing needs your attention; Joanna signed off on the report. Also, we’re borrowing some interns from legal to help us finish tidying the files. Larry, the VP of legal, said it was fine.

In this example, the context was a filing audit, and the intent was giving a couple of updates. There are two key messages in the update:

  1. Getting the audit report signed off and
  2. Borrowing the interns.

The key messages were separate, but they both related to the same context and intent.

Don’t ambush your audience

It isn’t uncommon to have two key messages that need two different framings. This is because they have different intents. If you fail to separate different intentions in your conversation, it can lead to what I call an ‘ambush’.

An ambush occurs when a discussion is framed with one intent, but the key message relates to a different intent. The speaker prepares the audience to do one thing and then asks them to do something different. The filing audit example above could have become an ambush with a slight change to one key message.

Hi, boss. We’ve completed the filing audit. There are only a couple of things you might want to know. First, nothing needs your attention; Joanna signed off on the report. Also, we’re borrowing some interns from legal to help us finish tidying. Can you check with Larry, the VP of legal, to see if that’s OK?

The intent of this message was set as ‘things you might want to know’, but the message finished with a request to ask Larry a question.

After hearing the original intent, the recipient wouldn’t be expecting the request to talk to the VP of Legal. While this may be a small thing, no one likes surprise requests or actions. The conversation should have been framed as two topics, an update and a request for help.

You may recognize these ambushes if you have ever thought ‘Wait, what?’ after someone finished talking. This can occur when the information you receive doesn’t match what you expected to hear. Sometimes this happens because the information is surprising. More often it’s because the conversation wasn’t well framed.

Step 3: Check your key messages

To be certain you don’t have more than one topic to frame, check your key message. Are two or more messages combined into the key message? Do the different key messages have the same context and intent? If yes, create a separate framing for each topic to ensure the messages are clear for your audience.

More than one key message usually means more than one framing


Starting conversations clearly is a key part of good communication. It becomes even more important when you want to talk about more than one thing.

It is easy to assume we only have one thing to talk about when all the points we want to make relate to the same topic. But the audience needs to know what to do with each piece of information so they can process it effectively. Otherwise, they will assume every point requires the same response or action.

Make your messages clear. Identify if you have more than one topic to talk about, then frame each major point separately. And don’t ambush your audience with unexpected requests at the end of an FYI update.

This content comes from my award-winning book The First Minute. For more information about how to clearly start a conversation with more than one topic get a copy of the book, you can buy it on Amazon or buy it directly from me and get a great offer with over £120 of free bonus material.

Learn more with my book

The First Minute

The First Minute book by Chris Fenning

My multiple award-winning book is a step-by-step guide for clear, concise communication in everyday work conversations.

Being concise is not about trying to condense all the information into 60 seconds. It’s about having clear intent, talking about one topic at a time, and focusing on solutions instead of dwelling on problems.

Throughout this book you’ll discover how to:

  • Have shorter, better work conversations and meetings
  • Get to the point faster without rambling or going off on tangents
  • Lead your audience toward the solution you need
  • Apply one technique to almost every discussion, email, presentation and interview with great results