Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Supreme communicators

I believe clear communication can solve many of life's problems. I applaud those who employ effective communications, even if I do not always agree with them. Disagreements are inevitable in life, but misunderstandings rooted in sloppy or lazy word choice can and should be avoided. This year's campaign season is providing us with many examples of unclear message transmittal. Sometimes this verges on the comic. But too often it makes us uneasy, eroding our confidence in the speakers. As the races tighten, I hope candidates will become more precise in what they are saying and how they are saying it.

I was sharing this view at a gathering of fellow consultants this past weekend, emphasizing the importance of preparing and practicing your message before you attempt to deliver it. This would eliminate many of the problems we are seeing on the campaign trail and debate stages. If you are ever in a comparable high-stakes situation, I hope you will take my advice: write out your talking points, then say them out loud. See if they make sense, if they actually say what you want them to, and if they flow. How comfortable are you with these words? If you are not 120% at ease with them, change 'em. Speaking in these circumstances is risky enough without the fear of lack-of-rehearsal stumble. I do not mean every utterance can be rehearsed--certainly in a debate you will be asked questions you have not anticipated (or at least we, the people, hope you are!). But your main points, the planks of your platform, should roll off your tongue eloquently and easily.

And if you are communicating largely through the written word, you still need to practice your text as if you are going to say it. Tell the story. Read your words and check them as you would if you were preparing to speak (see above). This weekend saw the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. As the media covered various aspects of his life, his legacy, each story mentioned what a brilliant writer he was. Even those who disagreed with his opinions read them with relish. Quite simply, he caught our attention and kept us engaged, which distinguishes his writing from most legal documents. Scalia's former law clerk Brian Fitzpatrick explained his secret it in an interview on NPR: "he was such a powerful writer, and I watched him write his opinions, and I figured out one of the ways that he did it was he wrote his opinions like they were speeches. He would read them aloud as he wrote them because he wanted them to be punchy like his speech was."


Illustration: Jurors Listening to Counsel, Supreme Court, New City Hall, New York, after Winslow Homer, 1869
courtesy National Gallery of Art

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