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Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura-Estonia-Environment-Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc. 

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The Art of the Quote: Sizzle with Care

The art of the quote and the power of a good one is something we at the Media Coach think about every day. But last week in Europe we had another example of someone being a bit more quotable than perhaps the man himself had predicted. Many people outside Brussels or Holland haven’t heard of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Finance Minister who is currently President of the Eurogroup of Eurozone countries. But he got himself into hot water this week after comments he made in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper offended politicians from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

The Art of the Quote: Dutch Finance Minister in hot water 

The Art of the Quote

Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was perhaps a bit more quotable than he had realised.

The offending quotes relate to this particular passage of the interview:

In an attempt to emphasise that being in a currency union carries responsibilities, Mr Dijsselbloem said that northern Europe had shown “solidarity” with the south during the crisis, but that solidarity comes with “duties”. “I cannot spend all my money on liqueur and women and beg for help afterwards.”

He then qualified his remarks by adding that this applies equally at a personal, national and European level.

Despite this, the response from politicians from southern European countries was swift and predictable with accusations of stereotyping, calls for Dijsselbloem’s resignation as head of the Eurogroup and the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa going so far as to call the remarks ‘racist, xenophobic and sexist’.

The Art of the Quote: Best to avoid cultural stereotypes

If we’re dealing in cultural stereotypes then Dijsselbloem’s quote is an absolute belter, folding characteristic Dutch bluntness into a purse-lipped, highly quotable metaphor loaded with puritanical disapproval of feckless behaviour.

But it was actually out of character.  Mr Dijsselbloem has built a reputation as a calm and authoritative euro-dealmaker, who has been instrumental in the Greek debt talks and is seen as a reassuring media spokesperson who doesn’t resort to flashy imagery.  He’s due to lose his position as Dutch Finance Minister anyway (his Socialist Party recently got thumped into fifth place in the Dutch elections) but, it would be a shame to see his term as Eurogroup President (which is due to end in 2018) prematurely cut short because of one misguided quote. 

The Art of the Quote: qualifying your words after the event rarely helps

If there are any media training lessons to be drawn from this it’s that spokespeople not only need to plan and test their sizzle (deliberate quotes) in advance but also be judicious in their choice of words. Qualifying provocative comments afterwards won’t help either. It doesn’t matter that Mr Dijsselbloem’s defence was that his remarks were equally directed at himself, the point still stands that sensitive people will always react badly to comments that they perceive as primarily directed at them and this will be more likely to happen if the words play to cultural stereotypes. 

Of course we would also say that being dull and overly cautious also has its drawbacks. Namely, nobody notices what you are saying. So sizzle but sizzle with care, forethought and judgement. If you or your organisation need help crafting quotes as part of prepared messages, we at the Media Coach would be delighted to help. 

 

Photograph of Jeroen Dijsselbloem used under Creative Comms licence. 

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

The Power of the Personal Martin Schulz

Power of the Personal: How a Great Story can shape a Political Campaign

The power of the personal story can shape a campaign and a political career. Skim any article about Martin Schulz, the Socialist challenger giving Angela Merkel a run for her money ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September, and you will almost certainly learn four things about his life before he became a politician.

Power of the personal story

  • Schulz played football so well during his childhood in West Germany that he was tipped for a professional career.
  • A knee injury put an end to these ambitions.
  • As a result he fell into depression and alcoholism.
  • He overcame both, stayed sober and worked in the same bookshop until he became an MEP in 1994.
CC025-Martin_Schulz

Martin Schulz successfully uses his personal story in his political campaign

Sticky details form a political narrative

Taken in sequence these kinds of ‘sticky’ details form a political narrative that is used to imply character and grit, often in the face of adversity or under-privileged origins. Journalists frequently adopt it as a shorthand for explaining motivation but skilled campaigners are also masters of their own personal story.

As Gavin Esler notes in his book Lessons from the Top; the three universal stories that all successful leaders tell’, everyone who runs successfully for public or commercial office tells a version of a ‘Where I’m from’ story as a way of creating a quick connection and instilling trust among their target audience or voters.

This is the reason why most of us know that Angela Merkel and Theresa May are both vicars’ daughters or, that Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim Mayor is the son of a bus driver.  In Barack Obama’s case, we had two full autobiographies and a barnstorming speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention to ram home the point that the first term Senator from Illinois was simultaneously the embodiment of the American success story and the change the country needed.

Strong personal stories also hit audiences in the gut*, which is one of the reasons they often survive contact with facts that present the protagonist in a contradictory or unfavourable light. This partially explains why George W Bush, despite being a Yale graduate from a political dynasty, was able to use his folksy charm and cowboy hat to convince enough Americans that he was less blue-blooded and more down to earth than both Al Gore and John Kerry. 

[*If you have read Don’t be Such a Scientist you will be familiar with Randy Olson’s core theme that cerebral communication is less effective than communication that hits people in the heart or the gut. If you haven’t read this and you are in comms, please catch up.]

Outsider bonus

In the absence of an authentic personal story, a fabricated ‘outsider’ one can often do just as well. In the US and France, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen’s supporters have been able to overlook their privileged backgrounds, often outlandish behaviour and criminal investigations (in the case of Le Pen) because they have consistently and successfully portrayed themselves as anti-establishment types willing to take on a political elite that is actively conspiring against them.

The Power of the Personal Marine_Le_Pen

Le Pen portrays herself as anti-establishment

And it’s interesting to note that Marine Le Pen’s main (for the moment), presidential competitor Emmanuel Macron, himself a former investment banker and Economy Minister, has also styled himself as an ‘outsider-change’ candidate in the mould of a young Tony Blair or Barack Obama, even though his CV would suggest he’s anything but.

Which brings us back to Schulz.  While no one doubts his authenticity or political credentials, his absence from the German political scene for the last 23 years means he is able to combine experience with a genuine outsider status into a convincing change story.

Judging from his reception at the polls, it’s working.

will_self_jpg

The Wealth of Language

Will Self is one of Britain’s most idiosyncratic journalists.  Most popular writers would think twice before using words like rodomontade, juvenescent, irenic or febrillity in a 10-minute radio blog (Jan 15th). Think twice, and then delete them, substituting more common alternatives – bluster, rejuvenated, peaceful and feverishness.

The Wealth of Language

Journalist Will Self

And most popular writers would be right. Communication, especially in our hectic modern age, is all about reaching the largest possible audience in a form which is easy and pleasant to absorb. Spoken or written, it’s all the same.

The Wealth of Language: Keep it Simple

The advice most commonly given is to Keep it Simple – use common, everyday language, avoid complex terminology and grammatical structures, keep your sentences short.

Simple, however, does not mean dull, and we can learn a lot from Will Self in that respect. One of the pleasures of listening to him is enjoying the skill with which he deploys the enormous resources of the English language. He uses the breadth and depth of the language beautifully, with a wide range of better-known vocabulary and a wealth of cultural and political references.

English is an enormously rich language and if we want to keep our audience engaged and, when appropriate, stir their emotions, we need to use it imaginatively. So:

  • avoid repetitions of the same word. Use synonyms. If you have referred to “hens” a couple of times, try “chickens”, “poultry” or simply “birds”.  If you have already used “reform”, try “improve”, “upgrade”, “enhance”, “redesign”, re-make” – any number of alternatives.
  • steer clear of that bland, bureaucratic style of language whose over-use so irritates the general public. Address envelopes, not issues. Appeal to people, don’t reach out to them.  
  • throw in references to events or people that all of your audience will find familiar.  Add richness to your message with a mention of Mozart or Julius Caesar, Beyoncé or David Bowie, Nine-Eleven or the Brexit vote, Lionel Messi or Tiger Woods, the 2008 Crash or the Greek debt crisis.  
  • vary the tone. We always encourage you to illustrate any point you make with an example, usually involving individual people and often from your own experience. This is a good opportunity for a change of tone, make it personal, wield that most powerful of words – “I”.

If you or your team would like help with some of these elements or other ways to tighten up your grammar, enrich your writing style or lift your corporate writing from the mundane, the Media Coach can offer short, bespoke workshops.

There is always something that can be improved, even if we cannot hope to have you writing with the mastery of a Will Self, a writer who blends serious messages with a familiar, personal style that entertains while it informs.

Incidentally, it is important also to note that when he slips in words like recondite or factic, you can usually tell from the context roughly what is meant. He does not put them out in a vacuum. You may not get all the subtlety of a certain word, but you get the general drift.

To less talented writers – and that is virtually all of us – who are tempted to reach for the dictionary for some rarely used language, we simply say: “Don’t try this at home”.

Photo used under creative comms licence

Post-truth era

Post-Truth era: weaponising numbers!

Post-Truth era communications hold a particular challenge for companies whose marketing is based on some form of science or data. How should companies communicate in the Post-Truth era, particularly when it comes to the use of numbers?

For a re-cap of how Lindsay and I view ‘Post-Truth’ please see our previous posts here and here.

Post-Truth Era communications: case study

Post-truth era

As a case study, let’s look at the most famous Post-Truth number; the £350 million a week that the Vote Leave campaign continued to claim the UK sends to Brussels even after it was debunked as ‘misleading’ by the UK Statistics Authority. 

Here are some lessons for communicators.

Post-Truth numbers are not about factual accuracy

It didn’t matter and it didn’t hurt the Leave Campaign that the £350mn figure wasn’t true. By keeping it out there, the campaign intended to create confusion and crowd out Remain messages and arguments. Like its larger cousin (fully fledged fake news articles), the £350mn figure is part of a broad family of misinformation that is designed to muddy the waters. The Russians even have a military term for it- maskirovka.

Post-Truth numbers are about forcing opponents onto the defensive

In his 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that conservatives are much better at winning arguments than liberals because they use powerful language to frame their ideas (e.g. ‘tax is theft’) and then force their opponents to argue on that territory (as opposed to the ‘tax is investment’ argument ). The £350mn is the numerical equivalent of a linguistic frame. It forced the Remain campaign to come out and argue that the number wasn’t true, which kept the conversation going and also kept the idea that it might be alive in people’s heads.

Post-Truth numbers link to a powerful organising story

The £350mn figure evoked powerful images associated with the deeply embedded Eurosceptic tropes of waste and a lack of financial control. Throw in the NHS (the ultimate British identity meme*) and the figure goes from being an example of hard data to an expression of the powerful and simple story.

Post-Truth Era communications

Paul Stephenson was Communications Director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. 

All three of these ideas are on the record in a recent article by Paul Stephenson, the Communications Director for Vote Leave:

“Of course, our campaign claim of the now infamous £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU was not completely accurate … The Remain campaign couldn’t stand it. They constantly tried to rubbish these official statistics and accused us of ‘lying.’ These attacks were entirely counterproductive for them; it kept the debate focused on an area where we were strong: just how many hundreds of millions of pounds the U.K. gives the EU every week.”

So, the question still remains as to whether companies should engage in these kinds of tactics.

And quite simply the answer is no.

Donald Trump isn’t even in office and Brexit hasn’t yet happened, so no one knows what, if any, price will be paid by the members of the public who did believe what they were saying.  But organisations that have shareholders and/or regulatory constraints will almost certainly get clobbered for putting bad information into the public domain.

Post-Truth era communications: a commercial case study

Equally damaging is withholding information that could contradict the powerful story which a company uses to justify its ‘social licence’. Like many others, I have been gripped by the downfall of Theranos, the ‘revolutionary’ US blood testing company founded by Elizabeth Holmes, a 19 year old Stanford dropout who managed to convince the stalwarts of Corporate America (including Rupert Murdoch and Henry Kissinger) to either invest or be on her board. Worth an estimated $9bn by the age of 32, Holmes’ built the notoriously secretive company’s brand on an emotion-drenched-story which lacked the transparent data to support it. The image was shattered when the Wall Street Journal started digging around for numbers and discovered that the supposedly ground breaking blood testing technology was in fact deeply flawed.

Companies are right to see storytelling and emotion/issue based campaigning as a way of engaging the public around the issues they care about. And planting memes and tropes* over a period of years can be incredibly helpful for shaping public opinion around core images and ideas (particularly if supported by a willing media).

But when it comes to hard numbers they should never weaponise them. Handled badly they can go off on in the wrong hands and cause injury, not just to the public but also to the user.

For the record here are a couple of definitions:

*A meme is an element of culture (it can be a video, an institution, or a type of behaviour) that is shared, copied or mimicked by lots of people.

A trope is a figure of speech, a metaphor and sometimes a cliché. It’s a shorthand for something the audience will instantly recognise. It has a slightly different meaning in politics, literature and TV drama.

As those of you that read this blog regularly will know, the Media Coach team don’t just teach people where to look and what to wear on TV. We offer a broad range of bespoke media and presentation training workshops and message building sessions – all run by  experienced communications professionals. If you need help building or refining messages just give us a call. 

Media Training Basics: on air presence

Media Training Basics: on-air presence

Media training basics include how to behave on-air so that your audience trusts you.

Whether you are a US presidential candidate, a new prime minister or a business leader launching a product or vision, we think this requires three key things:

  1. Warmth – because it is a good idea if the audience likes you.
  2. Authority – because it is an even better idea that it sounds as if you know what you are talking about.
  3. Animation – because the studio and the microphone will ‘shrink’ you.  Most people have to be themselves plus 10% to come across well on-air.

But if you don’t have these great attributes how do you acquire onair presence?

Media Training Basics: on air presence

Our tips for improving your on-air presence

Media Training Basics: animation

Animation is perhaps the easiest attribute to acquire. The people who are naturally good on television are those that are larger than life and often rather hard work at dinner. This is not always true but people who seem quite normal on TV are often really big characters. An occasional interviewee doesn’t need to cultivate a whole new persona but just use a little more energy when speaking. Hand movement and head movement can be good so long as they not so noticeable that they are distracting.

Media Training Basics: authority

Authority is more intangible. We know it when we see it but trying to cultivate it can be challenging. There are, though, some basics.

  • Don’t speak too fast. This is probably the most common way that people undermine their own authority.
  • On television make sure you are looking in the right place. This can be straight at the camera or at the interviewer depending on the set-up. But hold a steady gaze and don’t let your eyes flick up, down or sideways if you can help it.
  • Don’t use highfalutin language. We mention this every other week so do not need to labour the point here, but jargon and professional language does not make you sound clever; it makes you sound arrogant and out of touch. Be colloquial.
  • Consider a personal anecdote. People trust the opinions of those that have relevant personal experience. These need to be planned, rehearsed and above all short but they can really work.

Here are some other tips about being more authoritative in general. And here are some tips written especially for women in an article in Forbes, although most apply to men as well.

Media Training Basics: on air presence

Having a coach to help you improve can make a big difference

Media Training Basics: warmth

Warmth is perhaps the most elusive. Some people have it by the bucket-load even if they are not the most polished interviewee. It is worth a lot. If you don’t have it naturally on-air you can try the following things.

  • Try smiling more, particularly at the beginning or end of an interview. Even on radio, you can hear a smile.
  • Try to be less formal. Often people lack warmth because they think they are required to be very, very serious and correct.
  • A trick I have often used is to ask the interviewee to pretend they really like the interviewer. Of course, in reality, they probably hate the presenter and the process but if they can pretend or act ‘attraction’ or ‘affection’ it will come across. Clearly, this could be taken too far and it will be acting. When coaching people we find that once they hit the right tone – and then watch it back on video playback – they can usually find it again. With coaching, it will become their default on-air tone at which point it is ‘job done’.
Media Training Basics: on air presence

Think about the tone as well as the words when preparing for an interview

Getting the tone right is half the battle and will compensate for other missteps in an interview. In the end ‘people buy people’ as the saying goes: so developing a good on-air presence is something worth working on.

 

 

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

The Post Truth era: we all recognise the symptoms around us. But the challenge facing professional communicators is how to build real trust in the Post Truth era?

Lindsay has already written about the EU Referendum and the apparent disregard for facts and expert opinion that was paraded around with something bordering on glee by the Vote Leave campaign. It’s an approach we are seeing replicated by Donald Trump in the US Presidential elections and also by populists both in Europe and further afield (the new President of the Philippines being an example of this).

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Donald Trump has consistently ignored or distorted facts in his Presidential campaign bid

The premise, according to despairing commentators, is that we are at a point where the ‘public’ now trust those who speak in authentic plain language (usually this means hyperbolic soundbites), appeal to emotion and ‘feel’ rather than think their way to a decision.  Chuck in a bit of neuroscience, the self-reinforcing effect of social media on polarised communities and the result is that the inevitable losers are facts, experts and ‘truth’ (whatever that is).

While this is clearly a complex issue, as a media trainer, whose stock trade is soundbites, facts and stories, I think there is a false dichotomy between the facts-versus-emotion argument.  Emotion is nothing new when it comes to trust and decision making (whether it’s in politics or picking one shampoo brand over another).

Post Truth era

The Political Brain by Drew Westen

In his 2007 book, The Political Brain, the academic Drew Westen hammered this point almost to excess but it’s still a key point that people often make decisions based on their ‘gut’ and that you can’t fight gut with reason alone.

Post Truth era:  persuasive communicators use facts and emotion

To be a persuasive communicator you genuinely need to combine hard (rational, fact based) data and soft evidence (examples or stories) – into a schema or overarching story that makes sense and appeals to people at a concrete level.  The FT columnist and economist Tim Harford gave a wonderful illustration of this when he wrote about Florence Nightingale. It was the British nurse who first seemed to understand that ‘the dryer the better’ approach that was being applied to health statistics in the 19th Century wasn’t going to do the trick when it came to persuading hospital managers to change embedded habits and improve hygiene standards in hospitals. This led to Nightingale producing her famous Rose Diagram.

Post Truth era

Florence Nightingale’s Rose Diagram

As Harford writes:

‘What makes Nightingale’s story so striking is that she was able to see that statistics could be tools and weapons at the same time. She educated herself using the data, before giving it the makeover it required to convince others.’

So the overall story matters. And it is a convenient but simplistic fiction for those who lose campaigns or get their overall narrative wrong to argue that emotion and hyperbole have trumped reason.

Post Truth era: trust is not rational

Now of course, none of these ‘tools of persuasion’ will work if they fall on deaf or unwilling ears.  And this sums up the problem for me.  Trust is not something that is generated rationally or from a top down ‘trust me/trust the experts’ approach. In the digital age, those who feel that that they have been consistently overlooked or ignored will not be inclined to accept statistics from those who they feel are simply treating trust as a transactional tool to generate some kind of behaviour change (vote for me, buy my computer etc).

So what’s the answer? I don’t claim to have it. But I do think proper listening would be a good starting point. And that’s where I feel our soundbite, debating style, televised model of communication is in trouble.  Most of our traditional leaders are spectacularly bad at listening, partly because of reasons of time and partly because listening often means letting people vent at you, which doesn’t look great on YouTube.

How we reorganise public communication so that it is a proper exchange is something that will take time and work. But we are currently experiencing blowback from people who feel that they have been shut out or side-lined for too long.

And sadly, this has led to the axiom that ‘if I hate you, then your facts are wrong’.

 

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Know your audience: why Trump may be losing ground

Know your audience is one of the basic tenets of communication. But Donald Trump’s fortunes may be on the turn – and history may conclude that his big miscalculation was misjudging his audience. His unconventional style won him the Republican nomination but is not playing so well with the wider electorate.   I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece from the BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant.

As Bryant points out, campaigning for the presidency is not the same as campaigning for the presidential nomination.

Know your audience: why Trump may be losing ground

Know your audience: Trump is the hero of angry Americans

Many thousands of words have been written about how Trump’s free-wheeling, deliberately politically incorrect, communication style has made him a hero of angry Americans who feel disenfranchised by the Washington elite. The problem he faces is that having got those votes in the bag, to win, he now needs to appeal to Americans who are not quite so angry and who have a more nuanced approach to politics, and social and economic problems.

As we have talked about elsewhere, political speeches need to be an emotional journey that ends up with the audience feeling they have been understood and they can see a better future for them and their family. The problem in politics is that there is not one audience there are many. There is not one thing the electorate care about but many. That is why so many hours go into crafting messages and speeches. It is hugely complicated and a profession in itself.

Trump’s campaign has at least been entertaining because to a large extent he has ignored those conventions. Marie Claire is among many publications that has pulled together a list of the extreme, offensive and rather stupid things Trump has said. It is worth a read.

The whole political phenomenon of protest votes for very non-traditional politicians is fascinating. And something that we will return to again and again. But just last week the conservative journalist Janet Daley argued in the Telegraph that we are entering the ‘Age of Stupid’ because politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are saying stupid things and not just getting away with it but being applauded.

Know your audience: 5 common mistakes

But to return to the mundane: if in the end, Trump is misjudging the wider audience, he is making a mistake that many people make in presentations and in media interviews.

Professional communicators have always to ask: who is the audience, as well as what is the message.

In media training, we see five ways people misjudge their audience.

  1. The most obvious miscalculation is that people use jargon, treating the journalist and the audience as if they were professional colleagues and using technical or specific language or acronyms that simply don’t work in a more general group of people, This can be medics talking about ‘health outcomes’, bankers talking about ‘unauthorised borrowing’ or international aid people talking about ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘capacity building’.
  2. Another obvious miscalculation is that people forget they are speaking to an external audience and share information that is confidential. For example, they share business targets or margins, or they are much too honest about the underperformance of their own team or another part of their own business. It is really common for people to tell journalists all about some new initiative that has not yet been announced – giving the journalist a scoop and the poor PR person who has been working on the launch a real headache.
  3. Another mistake I often highlight is too much focus on making money. In the UK and Europe making money is not seen as virtuous (this is not true elsewhere in the world). It is typically not a good idea to talk externally about your money-making ambitions. Much better to talk about the improvement in the experience or lives of your customers. This is not true if you are talking to the investment media: investors want to understand the business model and where the profit is, but for a general audience it is better to speak about your business as if it were a well-run charity. If asked directly by a journalist about the commercial ambition, it is best to be coy. I suggest phrases such as ‘of course we are a commercial organisation but the important thing is… ‘ We then suggest shifting the focus to the public benefit.
  4. Often when talking to a general audience there is a need to state the obvious. As journalists, we are taught to always consider the ‘helicopter view’. Remind people of the big picture. If you have spent months designing a computer system you will be stuck in the weeds of functionality and bugs – but if you are speaking to an external audience, you will need to remember to articulate why it was needed in the first place.
  5. And finally it is not just the helicopter view: a general audience needs to be reminded of things a speaker can assume are obvious. I call this sign-posting. A really typical mistake is a scientist throwing up a complicated PowerPoint slide with several graphs and lots of data points and saying ‘so what is obvious here is…’. And of course it is not obvious at all. The professional communicator knows you need one chart, not four and you need to explain the basics: ‘this chart plots weight loss over a one-year period with time across the bottom and combined weight of the group on the Y axis’. With that sort of introduction to the slide, everyone has a chance to work out what is going on. But sign-posting can also be as simple as ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ or ‘why this matters is….’

So if you are planning a media interview take AIM: work out who your Audience is, what your Intention is and then work out your Message.

Our advice would also be to avoid outrageous sexist comments or any wildly racist generalisations.

 Photo used under Creative Comms Licence

Why do executives need media training? Kevin Roberts

Why do executives need media training?

Why do executives need media training? Because they need to be reminded of the dangers of media interviews on a fairly regular basis. If not they can do something stupid that damages the brand and themselves as Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi did last week.

Why do executives need media training?

Kevin Roberts

I had the privilege of making a documentary on Roberts for Bloomberg television many years ago and of all the programmes I did, this was the one I enjoyed most. Roberts was an extremely interesting man and I am personally saddened to see a thoughtless interview cause him so much trouble.

Roberts decided to be outspoken and provocative in an interview with Business Insider. You can read the article here. In it, Roberts claims the issue of equality for women in the advertising industry, unlike in financial services and elsewhere, is over.

Roughly half of the people working in the industry are women. However, while they are well represented they tend not to hold the top jobs. The CEOs of all six major advertising agencies are men. Also, there have recently been allegations of sexism at the top of another agency, J Walter Thompson.

When this was put to Roberts he gave some highly quotable comments about women choosing not to go for the top jobs because they were happy where they were.

Why do executives need media training? Criticising others is bound to get you quoted

He did not stop at explaining his view that women had ‘arrived’ but were choosing not to take the top jobs. He went on to personally criticise a well-known campaigner from the industry, Cindy Gallop, saying she had ‘problems’ and was ‘making up a lot of the stuff’ thereby ensuring that Gallop and her supporters would hit back. Here is a report from The Drum about the response to the Business Insider story.

Why do executives need media training?

Cindy Gallop

Roberts was immediately suspended from his job. He may be the executive chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi but the agency is owned by the French giant Publicis, and the board moved swiftly to distance itself from Roberts and his comments.

For the record, Saatchi and Saatchi employ 65% women and recently promoted a woman, Kate Stanners, to Global Chief Creative Officer. Stanners appeared on the Today programme on Monday, to contradict her boss and explain that women in advertising were just as ambitious as the men.

Why do executives need media training? Interviews can get hijacked

Who knows why Roberts decided to sound-off about this particularly delicate subject. From a media trainer’s point of view, reading the write up of the interview,  it is clear there was little preparation on this point and no caution or careful messaging. In my experience diversity, race and gender issues, are amongst the most difficult to talk about publicly because so much can be open to misinterpretation or quoting out of context. It is not clear from the story, but I doubt this issue was the stated focus of the interview. I suspect it was a planned hijack by the journalist Lara O’Reilly. She seemed to have gone in with her facts and numbers to hand. From a journalistic point of view, she did a great job and got a real scoop, as well as a scalp. Kevin Roberts seems unlikely to keep his job. [Update: he resigned on 3rd August.]

Photo credits: Kevin Roberts from YouTube. Cindy Gallop used under Creative Comms Licence.