Sound bites

Oct. 1, 2002
Wanted: experienced hygienist for sales position. You almost skipped my column this month because of that opening line, didn't you? Most clinical hygienists shudder at the thought of going into sales.

Wanted: experienced hygienist for sales position. You almost skipped my column this month because of that opening line, didn't you? Most clinical hygienists shudder at the thought of going into sales. "I just couldn't work in sales!" "Selling is way too hard for me." "I much prefer working with patients than selling."

Any of those thoughts ever cross your mind? What about the last time you walked through the exhibit hall at a big meeting, seeing hygienists in sales positions? Just the thought gives you the shivers, doesn't it? Glad you're in practice and not out selling!

I hate to tell you this, but you are one of the best sales people we have in dentistry! You don't think of yourself as a sales person, but you are. You're selling oral health. You're selling yourself as the oral health expert. And you're good at it! Just look at what you've accomplished with your patients. You sold them oral health, good oral hygiene, and optimum dentistry.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting you all go out and apply for corporate sales positions, but a little media training on the value of sound bites might be fun. I bet you will recognize the following sound bite: "Got _______?" We need more dental hygiene sound bites and slogans. Here's one I'm sure you know: "Only ______ the teeth you want to keep."

Why do advertisers use sound bites? The average person can only process three messages at one time and remembers less than 10 percent of the information they receive, according to communications expert, Joan Horbiak. Television audiences are bombarded with repeated messages. Advertisers know that it takes seven to 15 times for a message to hit home with a listener. We only see our patients a few times each year, and our messages are often buried deep in the tangle of information we feel obligated to share. If asked, what would your patients say they remembered from their latest visit with you? What was your sound bite?

At a recent dental meeting, I chatted with a dental office manager who had just listened to Linda Talley's presentation on "The Exceptional Practice." I missed it, so I asked for a brief synopsis. She was delighted to answer, telling me first that she enjoyed it and that they got out early. Then she shared with me three rules to follow when dealing with patients (or people in general):
• First, make the other person right
• Second, always tell them the truth
• Third, ask permission before giving them information

The three points sounded very helpful, but I was really impressed that she had remembered these three things. She then pulled out a bookmark with these three things listed. Looks like a lesson we could use on sales and marketing, doesn't it? Instead of asking what our patients remember after our visit, let's decide at the start of each appointment the three messages we want to send home with them. Let's pick our sound bites.

Learning from successful advertisers, we can sculpt messages and repeat them during the visit, thus competing with today's overload of mass media messages. According to communications experts, our messages need to be positive, clear, simple, brief, and ask for specific actions.

One of my favorite messages is, "Start cleaning in-between." Let's check to see if it fits the rules for effective advertising messages. The message is positive and clear. It's simple and brief — only 4 words! The message also asks for the specific action of starting the cleaning process between the teeth, not on the brushing surfaces next to the cheeks and tongue. My focus is generally on passing out information, so making sure the message asks for a specific action is a challenge.

"Treat gum disease to prevent bad breath" is more difficult. It's easy to say, "gum disease and bad breath are connected." But that doesn't ask for any specific action. "Prevent bad breath to prevent gum disease" won't inspire anyone, especially those not interested in gum disease and yet very concerned about bad breath. I turned it around to focus on an action that will give people what they want — fresh breath. "Treat gum disease to eliminate bad breath." How would you reword the previous sound bite for maximum impact?

Here are a few of my favorite sound bites for various actions that we desire patients to initiate.

Interproximal plaque control
• Start cleaning in-between.
• Floss till it squeaks.
• Only floss the teeth you want to keep.
• Don't floss? No problem, just use something else — picks, sticks, brushes, or water irrigation.
• Thorough cleaning once a day is more important than brushing after every meal.
• Spend equal time brushing and flossing surfaces.

• Dry brush inside bottom teeth first.
• Aim bristles into the gums and scrub.
• (With power brushes) Aim bristles into the gums and let the brush do the work.

Dental Decay
• Tooth decay is preventable — a clean tooth doesn't decay.
• White spots could mean early tooth decay; reverse with fluoride treatments.

• Here's a self-test for gum disease; rub a triangular toothpick in and out four times and check for bleeding.
• Treat gum disease to eliminate bad breath.

Depending on each case, select no more than three appropriate messages you want the patient to remember. Decide at the start of the visit and repeat the sound bites throughout your conversation with the patient. It's the same advice speakers get:

• Introduction — tell them what you're going to tell them.
• Body of the speech — tell them.
• Summary — tell them what you told them.

Have some fun with it and try out my favorite sound bite "start cleaning in-between." (Now I've actually told you one sound bite three times during this column! Did it work? Will you remember it?) Visit www.PerioReports. com to log in your favorite dental hygiene sound bite.

Trisha E. O'Hehir, RDH, BS, is a senior consulting editor of RDH. She also is editor of Perio Reports, a newsletter containing news about periodontics for dental professionals. The Web site for Perio Reports is She can be reached by phone at (800) 374-4290 and by e-mail at [email protected].