Communicators lose credibility when the audience thinks of the messenger and not the message… All people want is natural honesty, alongside some realism
Ours is the art of communication so I am always intrigued why people say so much, so often, how they choose to say it and why to so little effect. Perhaps it’s the proliferation of social media giving us all a platform that few of us truly use wisely.
Conversely, great communication is a gift to the senses – think Churchill (“we will fight on the beaches”), Kennedy (“ich bin ein Berliner”), Nye Bevan (“I stuffed their mouths with gold”) among many others. Despite Bevan’s stammer he was, by all accounts, a natural orator. Tony Blair had a talent for communicating too only regrettably, in this day and age, political speeches often appear formulaic, over-prepared and unnatural.
Watching Ed Miliband and David Cameron grasping for votes on the election trail and you could spot the coached language a mile off – Ed dropping his ‘t’s when talking to ‘ordinary people’ (Iike Russell Brand?), ‘Call Me Dave’ adding the odd obscenity, supposedly to inject passion into his campaign.
They both like to recount anecdotes from times spent with the likes of Harry in Huddersfield and Mary from Manchester to illustrate their understanding of the ordinary British voter. Yet none of it really rings true. Instead it’s at the rare moment when you hear Miliband wishing he’d spent more time with his father or Cameron speaking of his personal experience with the NHS that they actually sound like they’re speaking from the heart, whether or not speechwriters have busily crafted their lines. And that’s the trick – delivering in your tone of voice.
This week I read an article by singer Charlotte Church. She was defending her right to be heard campaigning on the streets bearing a placard denouncing the new Tory government (presumably for being elected). She, along with any other individual, is entitled to have her views published though, given her celebrity status, she is likely to receive a bigger platform than most. I applaud anyone who acts on their beliefs, not just speaks. Yet instead of subjecting her analysis to scrutiny, I found myself doubting she’d written the lines attributed to her when explaining her efforts to “further political discourse in my community” rather than sitting in a “cosy leftie bubble with my baja-sporting friends, spending our free time attending vegan popup barbecues” and encouraging others to carry on campaigning “just because the piratical Conservative party now have a majority doesn’t mean that we’ve lost”. I’d love to believe Charlotte naturally speaks of furthering discourse, her “leftie bubble” while dubbing opponents “piratical”. It’s just that I sense the hand of someone else working hard to pen an admittedly amusingly-worded diatribe to silence her critics and defend her reputation. I’m not saying Ms Church doesn’t believe wholeheartedly in what’s written under her byline – but I would have taken it more seriously had I believed it was by her, not for her. Tone of voice matters.
I’m all for getting the professionals in – but there is a point at which their work loses credibility when the audience thinks of the messenger and not the message. Perception matters.
Chuka Umunna’s deliberately amateurish leader candidacy video, shakily shot in Swindon, was similarly unconvincing – if you make these efforts to avoid being seen as a slick London-centric metro type, why wear an expensive suit and silk tie for the recording? Visuals matter too.
Sometimes an experienced guiding hand is needed. I watched Brian May, an amazing musician, hold sway on BBC’s Question Time. When he spoke gently about needing a new form of political discourse and voting system, he sounded genuine and plausible. But soon afterwards, when implicating that a referendum on fox hunting was just as important as one on EU membership, you began to question the point of his place on the panel. I got distracted by the messenger and his message (I forgave the hair – it’s been around a while).
The problem for politicians, business leaders and those with positions of responsibility in the public eye is that really all people want is natural honesty alongside some realism. Say when you don’t know, opine on subjects you really do understand, apologise when you get it wrong, but above all speak genuinely if you want to convince.
Here’s a thought, paraphrasing Mr Keating, perhaps some do say it best when they say nothing at all…