Posts

body language

Body language always tells a story

Body language is in the news this week.

The rich and famous spend their life in the public eye and with cameras always on them and plenty of paid pundits to give an expert opinion it is difficult not to offend someone somewhere.

The brain is wired to take in and interpret visual information above all else. Neuroscience has in recent years confirmed what many had already deduced.

Body language – why we notice

It’s said that 50-60% of the brain is involved in processing visual images and that the brain will not only see but interpret an image in about a tenth of a second.

So it is not surprising that relatively subtle visual clues can set Twitter alight.

Trump’s misstep sets Twitter alight

And that is what happened when President Trump apparently walked in front of the Queen while inspecting her honour guard at Windsor Castle.

And this is how the New York Times reported the incident.

Body Language

It was really just a few seconds and if you watch the start of the video you can see The Queen gestures to Trump to go in front.

The actual incident doesn’t seem to me to warrant the storm of protest. And in fact, at least one commentator suggests that Trump was really trying to obey the normal rules of etiquette during this short visit with the Queen and mostly did rather well.

Royal sisters-in-law body language made the news

There was a similar rush to interpret the body language when Kate and Meghan – Royal sisters-in-law – got together at Wimbledon. This was written up in the Mirror, the Express and the Daily Mail.

This is probably not the sort of news that I normally care much about but it does illustrate an important point. People are wired to read body language and they cannot help themselves interpreting it.

People are wired to read body language

People often ask me for specifics on how they can change their delivery style to appear, for example, more authoritative, or more approachable. I have learnt that saying smile less, nod your head less or lean forward, has a limited impact. You need to change the mindset. Just as an actor needs to get into character, so does a presenter or an interviewee. If it’s you, try imagining you are delivering this presentation as an older sister or doing this television interview in front of your son’s classmates. Change the programme running in your head and the body language will sort itself out.

If all else fails you could try ‘power posing’. I am told it is a discredited theory (Wikipedia is clear on this point) but I know therapists that still advocate it. Stand in a powerful pose for a minute or so (perhaps in the cubicle of the loo to avoid embarrassment) and see if it changes the way you feel.

Body Language
I have written before about what sort of on-air presence gives the best television interview. To read this blog click here.

If you would like help with your presentation or on-camera interview style we have a stable of excellent coaches who would be delighted to help. Just call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Power Pose image used under creative commons – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

 

 

 

Beast from the East

Beast from the East – Wrestling with the Comms

The Beast from the East gave Britain a whole host of challenges and while armies of people were dealing with the practical problems others were wrestling with the communications challenge. The train companies spokespeople didn’t quite reach the nadir of the ‘wrong type of snow’ excuses we saw a few years ago. However, many travellers across the UK have expressed frustration with the lack of information and credible explanations on why things have ground to a halt so dramatically.

Beast from the East

The Beast from the East made driving trains difficult and sometimes impossible. It also posed communication challenges.

I preface everything below with the acknowledgement that hindsight is a wonderful thing and gives you 20/20 vision. Nor am I making light of weather which has resulted in several fatalities:

But here are a few observations:

Beast from the East reporting initially guilty of hyperbole

A key part of crisis preparation follows the maxim that ‘forewarned is forearmed’ and so it was reasonable for the media to start warning people that severe weather was on the way several days before it hit. However, another key part of crisis preparation is getting the tone right. So, I began to get slightly irritated at the very start of the week when I heard weather presenters and reporters talking in terms of Armageddon, with temperatures as “shockingly cold as -5C” and “snowfall likely to reach as much as 5 – 10cms”. This is what us northerners call ‘winter’. Neither rare or shocking.

Predicting the weather and its timing is not an exact science. But with the reporting reaching fever pitch right from the start, and the weather initially only hitting the south-east hard, I noticed in Cumbria considerable ‘weather warning fatigue’. That was just before the worst was about to come and all the red weather warnings were being issued for other parts of the country. The hyperbole early in the week might explain why later people took the decision to travel, despite being told not to. Sometimes with very serious results. A reminder that timing and perspective are vital for effective communication in a crisis.

Beast from the East

Train operators: no credible key messages

During severe weather in 1991, a hapless British Rail spokesman infamously tried to explain in an interview that mass train cancellations were caused by the type of snow. The media instantly pounced on his comments and he was held up to ridicule.  ‘The wrong type of snow’ even has its own Wikipedia page, helpfully explaining that “in the United Kingdom, the phrase became a byword for euphemistic and pointless excuses”.

So, I can understand why those caught up in a crisis are often reluctant to stick their head above the parapet and face the media. But, on the other hand, most types of crises can be foreseen, even if the exact timing of them cannot. So, while we don’t get bad winters as often as we used to, they are still fairly regular events, and I have found it surprising that, in the coverage I have heard this week, train operators in particular didn’t have more credible and understandable messages prepared to explain the delays and cancellations travellers were facing.

You can tell from the tone of this interview with Adam Fairclough of TransPennine Express on Radio 5Live’s Wake Up to Money on Friday 2nd March – that the BBC journalist is also sceptical of the messages. The interview starts at 37 minutes 35 seconds and is only available for another 24 days.

Clear messages are only part of what is needed to face journalists in a crisis. They will only be credible if you have sufficient examples to make them real and understandable. It’s always an indication that your messages are not fully developed if a journalist starts asking for examples to explain what you mean, as happens towards the end of the interview. Another clue: the journalist starts arguing with the examples given, as happens here with the journalist saying “if traffic lights continue to work on roads why can’t signals on railways?”

Social media: a picture is worth a thousand words

While word pictures are vital to back up your arguments, use of social media in a crisis can really help you get your point across. One good example is the pictures and video Direct Rail Services posted on their Twitter feed which show far more effectively than words ever could what they were having to deal with during “The Beast From the East”.

Beast from the East

 

Images from Twitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

rail passenger communication

Rail passenger communication in the dark ages

Rail passenger communication needs to be dragged into the 21st Century.

Stuck on a train, in the snow, trying to get to a training session on time or catch a flight must be among the most frustrating, the most stressful and the most unpleasant experiences of my life.  And I had a number of those experiences last week.

rail passenger communication

Snow led to widespread chaos on the trains but the communications with staff and passengers was also chaotic and unreliable.

Rail passenger communication was sparse and mostly wrong

What made them a whole lot worse was the complete lack of reliable information from the train companies. It was absolutely clear that the station staff and the conductors and drivers on the trains were also simply not being told what was going on. Information that did come through was late, out of date or just wrong.

It is astonishing that a few inches of snow and temperatures just a few degrees below the norm can cause such total widespread chaos.

In this super-connected world people expect to be told what is happening

But even more astonishing that with all the technology we have today to stay connected, the train companies, in particular, are so bad at keeping front line staff and passengers up to date.

On several occasions, I heard station staff in high vis jackets standing on freezing platforms telling passengers “We’ve got no idea mate!” Before the widespread adoption of the telephone this would be understandable but in the super-connected 21st century it is not.

It wasn’t just the station staff in the dark and out in the cold. Drivers and conductors did not fare any better. Nicky Marcelin-Horne was a passenger stuck overnight after getting on the 17:35 from Waterloo to Poole. It came to a halt somewhere in the New Forest and most of the passengers did not get off until morning. Speaking to the Evening Standard she said:

“The guys on the train were trying to help and keep us informed but they didn’t really know what was happening.”

On my stuck train, the conductor was trawling websites from his personal phone to try and work out what was happening.

Again I am aghast. How can this be so? People on the stranded trains were tweeting and posting on Facebook. Mobile phones were working even if the comms technology on the train wasn’t.  Surely someone from a control room should be telling staff what is happening.

rail passenger communication

For me, all this is a really visceral reminder of how crucial up-to-date, accurate information is to help people cope with unexpected and changing conditions. I made the wrong decisions about which train to get on (repeatedly), and whether to cancel a journey. With better information I would have made better decisions.

Crisis communications need planning and investment

It’s not the same as crisis communications via the media but there are a lot of parallels. Crises or disruption are always going to happen although the exact nature and the timing can never be known in advance. But, as we always say, an awful lot of things can be planned ahead of time. The problem is, it takes investment of time and money and it is human nature to put such investment to the bottom of the to-do list.

But, in both cases, when things do go badly wrong there are expensive enquiries, angry customers, huge loss of brand value and lots internal people saying ‘but we told you this could happen’.

 

Images from Twitter

 

senior leaders

Senior leaders – get media trained before you need it

Senior leaders are often booked into media training by PR professionals who are tearing their hair out. So often, successful, super-professional ‘talent’ has somehow missed out on a few of the basics of good external communication and are suddenly required to front a product launch or a PR campaign.

Senior leaders need communications skills

It is so common, so stressful for all concerned and so preventable, I think it is worth a blog post.

Senior leaders

Take the case of Theresa May – for many years an ambitious career politician now struggling with a hugely difficult job. Most of us in the PR business believe a few basic lessons in presentation, delivery and handling media interviews might have totally changed her fortunes. The problem, as I see it, is that she didn’t get the training on the way up and now, with the top job and a different crisis every day, there is no time to do it.

And we see exactly this in the corporate world. Senior leaders are incredibly busy. Diary management is a headache and a full-time job – outsourced to PAs, and EAs  for many of those we train. Trying to persuade these hard-pressed staff that a media trainer needs four hours in someone’s diary is likely to get the response – ‘sorry but can you do it in 45 minutes and by the way, he (or she) will probably be running late.’

A few hours is a good investment

But actually, four or even eight hours training over the career of a senior leader is a very small commitment. It is difficult to predict how many media interviews someone is likely to do in the future but we know for sure they will be doing countless presentations. And while some presentation training is provided, a lot of people slip through the net and still do it very badly.

My belief is that communications training – covering external versus internal comms, understanding the media, social media, messaging and interview control should be core subjects in management training programmes. And these should also include some coaching on delivery style. Being able to ‘perform’ whether in front of an audience or a journalist is also an essential skill. (I have written previously about how poor presentations are endemic in business.)

Incredibly useful professionally

I have lost count of the number of times people finish a media training session saying ‘even if I never speak to the media this is has been incredibly useful professionally’.

senior leaders

The ideal is to do it early, do it well and then top up the training as and when it is needed for specific events. That will avoid the sort of query I receive at least once a week: “can you cover press, radio and TV and give us some help with the messaging for three people in three hours?” It can be done but just not as well as I would like to do it.

So, if you are a learning development officer or an HR professional and some of this rings true – I would suggest asking your PR team about the problems they run into when looking for capable spokespeople. Then if you find I am right, start planning media and presentation training for your emerging leaders. If you think you are yourself an ‘emerging leader’ take my advice and wangle your way onto a media training course before you find you need it. You won’t regret it.

get the tone right

Media training: Getting the tone right

Getting the tone right can be far from easy in a media interview. You need to sound in control, but also demonstrate the right emotion for the occasion. I wrote last week about how Prince Harry and Meghan delivered a happy but not schmaltzy interview on their engagement whilst apparently effortlessly avoiding a lot of potential pitfalls.

Husband of Iran prisoner gets the tone right

Another man who gets it right in much less happy circumstances is Richard Ratcliffe. An accountant from Hampstead thrust into the media spotlight when his Iranian born wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, was imprisoned in Iran, and his young daughter who, despite her British passport, has not been returned to him but is instead with her grandparents in Iran.

Getting the tone right

Richard Ratcliffe makes himself available to be interviewed however distressing the news, and always gets the tone right.

Not much is written to my knowledge about Richard Ratcliffe but nothing that is written suggests he is someone with any understanding of the media (besides living in Hampstead which might mean there are some invisible guiding hands amongst his neighbours).

He is never angry, never over-claims but just calmly and sadly states and restates the facts and the argument.

The latest development as reported here in the Independent is that following Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s visit to Tehran, a court case expected to be held in Iran on Sunday and likely to extend Nazanin’s sentence, has been postponed. It’s a small bit of positive news in very sad story. And  Ratcliffe was interviewed on Sky news, from his sitting room to put the human face on the latest development.

In an interview from Channel 4 news a month ago that took place just after the Boris Johnson ‘gaffe’ when he mistakenly said that Nazanin had been training journalists – and his subsequent quasi-retraction. It was a mistake that undermined the whole family defence which was that Ratcliffe’s wife was simple on holiday when she was arrested. Many people would have been raging but Ratcliffe just looked and sounded sad but did his best to be positive.

Media Training tips for managing tone

Often the important point in managing the tone is to think first what the tone should be. A strategic approach to interviews will always give you a better outcome.

Media Training tips for managing high emotion

I have actually media trained several people who have become media spokespeople for all the wrong reasons. The father of a girl who died in controversial circumstances, a man with terminal cancer who was campaigning for change in some laws etc. The challenge in these cases is to manage the narrative to avoid the emotional bits that will trigger a breakdown. Bluntly, looking sad is one thing but sobbing on air is uncomfortable and distressing for everyone. The trick is to isolate the bits that people can’t talk about and have an alternative track that will distract from that bit of the story. Of course the journalists and probably the audience want to hear the personal story so it is a fine balancing act. At least broadcast journalists are not insensitive to the problem of too much emotion and in these circumstances, they are not looking to make life difficult for the interviewee. And thank goodness the BBC at least has banned the question ‘How do you feel…’.

Of course, those spokespeople, like Richard Ratcliffe, put themselves through the media ordeal because they think something important is at stake, and at the end of the day there is nothing like media exposure to get things done. Let’s hope in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe all the media attention will pay off.

professional communicators

8 tips for professional communicators

Professional communicators, whether writing or speaking, need to remember these basic rules to ensure what they say is remembered by the audience.

A client asked me at lunch the other day to just give her the top 5 things we say when trying to help people communicate better. I couldn’t stop at 5 and ended up with 8 but this is what I said.

1. Speak in simple language

This is the key universal challenge. It is the one thing high-powered professionals struggle with most. But it is essential to work out how to tell your story in layman’s language.

professional communicators

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

2. Be tangible

This is the advanced version of keeping it simple. It is much easier for people to understand and remember what you are talking about if you explain it in words that create a picture in people’s minds. Here are a few examples:

Rather than ‘access to financial services’ – say ‘open a bank account, take out a loan etc’.

Rather than ‘leveraging our resources’ – say ‘using the people, the money and the knowledge we have to do more …’.

Rather than ‘influencing health outcomes in a population of lactating women’ – say ‘improving the health of breastfeeding mums in a way that can be measured from month to month’.

3. Use metaphors, similes and analogies

All professional communicators will use metaphors, similes and analogies. Here are a few that have stuck in my mind over the years:

professional communicators

Economist Andy Haldane once delivered a speech about banking regulation entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’.

In 2012 the economist and regulator, Andy Haldane, delivered a speech entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’. He was drawing a comparison between catching a frisbee and preventing a financial crisis: his takeaway message was that writing down heaps of detailed regulation will not help anyone prevent a crisis. Here is a snippet:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity. Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans. …
Catching a crisis, like catching a frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.

And here are a couple of shorter ones:

Love is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can feel it.
– Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
– Maya Angelou

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

4. Throw in well-rehearsed hard evidence

I have a simplistic approach to this. For the media, three numbers make an argument. When I was on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children* we used something like this:

On a normal distribution curve of intelligence, the top 3% of children can be considered gifted. That is three in every hundred, which means there are more than 10 gifted children in your local primary school. If you, as a teacher or a mum, do not know who they are – it’s because they’re hiding.

Notice that in this case it is not three different numbers but the same number stated in three different ways.

[*NAGC has now changed its name to Potential Plus]

professional communicators

Jeremy Hunt will often line-up detailed numbers when explaining the challenges faced by the NHS.

You can often list your key numbers. Here is a passage from a speech by Jeremy Hunt UK Health Minister :

We have not stood still: compared to six years ago, our remarkable professionals are treating 1,400 more mental health patients every day, 2,500 more A & E patients within 4 hours every day, doing 4,400 more operations every day, 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day and 26,000 more outpatient appointments every single day.

This is the sort of paragraph, familiar to professional communicators, that is the filling in the sandwich between the first articulation of an argument and the second – as in the technique Point-Evidence-Point.

In a speech, you can include more numbers but too many and the audience gets bored. For an interview stick to three or four, neither you or the audience will remember more.

5. Tell stories

Stories, anecdotes, examples or case studies are by far the most memorable elements of any communication. Our brains are hard-wired to remember stories over facts. We have blogged about this extensively already, for example here and here.

6. Make sure what you are saying is interesting and credible

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but you would be surprised. In both presentations and interviews, even professional communicators will say things they know sound stupid but feel it is expected of them by their company or organisation. Never turn off your own judgment.

7. Have a clear argument

If you are a professional communicator you will know that you have to check and check again that your argument is crystal clear.

8. Craft then rehearse all the above

Your presentations and your messages for any interview should be rehearsed aloud. There is no substitute. Think you don’t have time? I can assure you it will be quicker to edit, improve, commit to memory and correct if you say it aloud.

If you would like help with your messages The Media Coach can facilitate bespoke message-building sessions for your organisation.

 

All images from Pixabay.

Why Macron won

Why Macron won: the Media Coach lens

If my circle of acquaintance is anything to go by (and maybe it isn’t) France’s new President Emmanuel Macron seems to be more liked by the international community than many of his own countrymen. Politics aside, part of the reason could be that at his best he communicates in a way that is easy for many English speaking (NB NOT anglophone) audiences to identify and connect with. Below are three Macron communication traits that I think give him the edge.

Why Macron won

Why Macron won: energy

In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson argues that all great communicators successfully connect with several different organs of the body – head, heart, gut and groin.  Macron doesn’t meet all these criteria (his set piece speeches can be tedious) but he’s physically forceful and animated during  interviews and 1:1 exchanges.

He’s not especially tall,  but he compensates for a lack of height with optimism, intense eye contact, forward focused body language and hand gestures that paint pictures as well as reinforce points. For example, during the 3rd May debate with Marine Le Pen, he used a piece of scrap notepaper as a proxy for a payslip to illustrate how one of his proposed employment tax reforms would work. He also counts items/issues off on his hands and underscores points very visually. A lot of politicians do this but few have the same businesslike, positive energy as Macron.

Why Macron won: he makes it tangible

One of the main criticisms levelled at Macron by his critics was his supposed lack of policy substance. This may prove to be true but he does use lots of tangible examples. I appreciate I am not glued to French TV but whenever I’ve seen him speak this is very obvious. In this excerpt from a TV exchange with French farmers he’s manages to explain why EU farming and trade policy matters to France in colloquial, visual terms by talking about exports of raw milk, Camembert and yoghurt and apples (in the South West) before moving on to wine and finally the impact that steel dumping by China had in the North and Eastern parts of France.

Why Macron won: great sizzle

During interviews and debates Macron eschews more traditional methods of French political rhetoric, (which tend to be discursive before building up to a final conclusion). He gets straight to the point and is quick with sharp rebuttals and one liners that are not only highly quotable (incidentally, the French word for sizzle is le gresillement) but also jump language barriers. For example, during the above exchange with the same farmers he described himself as a ‘Européen exigeant’ (demanding European) and characterised Marine Le Pen as a ‘mensonge sur pattes’ (a lie on legs). And one of his most memorable lines from the debate last week was when he called her ‘La Grande Pretresse de la peur’ (High Priestess of Fear). This picked up headlines not just in France but all over the world.

Of course, several of the techniques I’ve just discussed are ones we teach. This is not to imply that Macron is some kind of crypto Anglo-Saxon politician in disguise. But part of his appeal may well be that as a smart energetic, concrete communicator with a direct style he is someone who can resonate with audiences outside his own country, even when speaking in his mother tongue.

 

 

jeroen dijsselbloem

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. 

will self image

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: 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’.