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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.

 

 

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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. 

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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’.

 

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Communication style: Tory leadership race

Communication style will be a crucial factor in the Tory leadership race. The five candidates all threw their hats in the ring this week as the political meltdown following the Brexit vote continued to dominate UK headlines.

MPs will be voting today (5th July) with the results announced at 7pm.  The next round of voting will take place on Thursday 7th.  In this post, I am going to give a quick analysis of the communication style of each of the candidates.

 

tory leadership 2016

There are five contenders in the Tory leadership race

 Communication style: Theresa May

Theresa May, as I write the front runner, launched her bid with an excellent speech. Why do I think it was good:

  • It was statesman-like and extremely reassuring.
  • It went to extraordinary lengths to be inclusive.
  • It gave clear answers to the hot topic question. No invoking of Article 50 until the negotiating position is clear. No general election until 2020, and no change in the status of EU nationals in the UK.
  • The best line for me ‘I am the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major, public service is what we do’.
  • The speech was clear, structured and well paced.

What I would change:

  • After the hyperbole of the referendum campaigns, Theresa May’s lack of ‘showiness’ may be seen as a real virtue but if she wins it will not be long before people claim she is ‘boring’. She will not go down as one of the world’s great orators because she chooses not to let her passion show.
  • One of the perception-dangers of being a very senior woman is that you can come across as being schoolmarmish. The launch speech mostly avoided this but in general, May is a bit austere and preachy.
  • May doesn’t tell stories. Inserting anecdotes about ‘Joe who I met last week in Sunderland’ has become a standard part of political speeches but is often done really badly. May chooses to avoid this.


Theresa May’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Andrea Leadsom

Andrea Leadsom gave a detailed interview to Andrew Marr before launching her campaign on Monday. She is a confident and authoritative speaker although with less gravitas than Theresa May.

Why her communication style is good:

  • She comes across as honest and straight forward.
  • She has a more positive vision and seems less tired than Theresa May.
  • She has warmth as well as some authority.
  • She is likeable and mostly in control.

What I would change:

  • In the Andrew Marr interview, her naiveté showed. In particular, she was bounced into promising to publish her tax returns even though she had clearly never considered this before the interview. (She later said she would only do this if she gets into the last two in the race.) This may seem like a small thing but you can’t have a Prime Minister that makes up policy in response to a tough question.
  • Although compared to the general population she has authority, she has less than Theresa May and Liam Fox.
  • She is, as a communicator, ‘lighter-weight’ than Theresa May and other female leaders such as Angela Merkel. Her voice is higher and more feminine. This shouldn’t matter but it might.

Andrea Leadsom’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Michael Gove

Michael Gove as a former journalist is a good communicator and he does, as do the others, articulate an argument well, particularly when on prepared ground. He also knows that he lacks some of the standard oratory skills. He said himself  ‘whatever charisma is, I don’t have it.”

  • Gove does show passion although his oration skills don’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.
  • His launch speech was full of vision for a strong and proud Britain.
  • There is a strong sense of ‘grit’, a feeling that he is prepared to fight for what he believes is right.

What I would change:

  • Gove to me has an irritating voice and is also unfortunate looking. Both could be improved with a bit of effort.
  • When reading from his script in the launch speech, the sentences are too long, making it harder for him to make sense of it as he reads it.
  • He comes across as someone who has absolute conviction in his own view rather than someone who will lead a team of people with different views.


Michael Gove’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Stephen Crabb

Stephen Crabb is an outsider in this contest and many think he is mostly marking his card for the future.

What I like:

  • His communication style is less formal than the other candidates, he has a sense of Blair about him although this is somewhat reduced when giving a formal speech.
  • He has natural warmth and a slight regional (Welsh) accent, always a plus if you want to come across as a man of the people.
  • He uses lots of personal anecdotes.

What I would change:

  • He needs to let his natural warmth show when making or reading a speech. Not so easily done but just takes practice.

Stephen Crabb’s leadership launch transcript

Communication style: Liam Fox

Liam Fox is an experienced senior politician. He has gravitas. Like Stephen Crabbe he is much better (more appealing to normal people) in an interview than in his formal launch speech.

What I like:

  • Fox is blessed with a deep and statesman-like voice, more obvious in conversation or interview than in his launch speech.
  • He has gravitas.
  • His launch speech demonstrated his grasp of the international picture in a way the others did not.

What I would change:

  • I would want to see him inject his natural warmth into his formal speeches.
  • He would find it easier to read his speeches if he made his sentences shorter.
  • Sadly he comes across as another ‘grey man’ of politics. He is neither young, a woman or nerdy and this may count against him.

Liam Fox’s leadership launch transcript