A failure to communicate

Martin Luther King

No one’s listening anymore. Not for long anyway, as in, not for more than a few seconds. In this twitter era of short concentration spans, communication is boiled down to 3 word phrases and little else. You get passing attention. There’s just so much ‘stuff’ going on, flying by on newsfeeds and instachatter.

Recent elections around the world show this trend is only becoming stronger. UK politicians, with right on their side (130 vice chancellors from ALL 130 UK universities backed ‘Remain’), failed to convince more than half the voting public to stay in the EU. Trump’s rise is similar, in that his support, and those of Brexit, is mainly made up of older people and/or lower educated, working class whites. The new economy has done them no favours, it would appear, and there’s an underlying fear and confusion about foreigners, immigration, disruption and terrorism. Why couldn’t the EU do a better job of explaining the benefits of its club to its 2nd largest member? Why couldn’t the two main UK political parties?

In the Australian election, the longest campaign for decades failed to grasp people’s interest for long, so each side resorted to 3 word phrases (Jobs and Growth vs Putting People First) and towards the end even those were (if you forgive the pun) shortened: Save Medicare. In the absence of attention, nothing succeeds like fear mongering, so the Libs went with ‘security’ (due to the uncertainties of brexit, busts and boats) and Labor went with Medicare. Which do you fear most people – losing your job or paying more for your GP?

The result? a brexit buyer’s remorse in the UK (‘bregret’ they are calling it), a hung parliament in Australia and the possibility of President Trump. Australian voters could now get both of the fears realised – an uncertain economy, with more redundancies due to less investment and activity AND paying more for health services due to an ageing population and ballooning costs.

Meanwhile the US election will drag on for another 4 months. Either way, Trump wins – the Presidency or major personal brand inflation. I have a feeling he’d plump for the latter, such is his ego.

So what’s going on? No doubt, fear mongering is behind most of these results (it’s a raw emotion and everyone from the sleazy salesperson right up to the pollie draws on this), but it’s also a massive failure of communication.

Perhaps the greatest skill of the leader is to communicate their vision and bring people along with them. Obama could do it, perhaps the greatest practitioner of the set piece speech since Reagan, Martin Luther King  and JFK. Roosevelt could do it. So too Churchill and Lincoln.  Of course, you need more than the ability to deliver a great speech, but without it, everything can be nought. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition of leadership. Neither John Howard nor Menzies were great orators, but they were OK at it, and led for over a decade. Kim Beazley was particularly good at it, but never became PM.

Obama showed, in this instant snapchat world, how you can reach hearts and minds. He may have disappointed many with his results since, but he showed you can be articulate and sensible while being rousing and passionate. He struck the right tone, and was (in himself) a fantastic story. And yes, the best orators are also the best story tellers. Clinton (Bill) could do it, Hillary, less so. But she may yet prove to be a sensible choice for President. Not a great campaigner perhaps, but given the choice between a great campaigner and a great President, I know who I’d choose. Often to get the one, you need the other. She’ll have a tough time as President unless she can convince the country, congress and the Senate to come along with her. But she won’t be President unless she can expose Trump for who he is, and put forward her own positive agenda with clarity, while overcoming peoples’ natural aversion to her ‘untrustworthy’ image. It’s all very mucky really, on both sides. And yes, it has come to this. Don’t expect ‘debate’ (if that is what it is) to improve anytime soon.

Many people waking up in Australia today will again bemoan the lack of leadership, and within it the lack of ability to communicate a strong vision and bring more than 40% of the country along with them. On either side. The two main parties again failed to win more than 80% of the total votes cast. Weird and wacky minor ‘parties’ (people really) have been elected and will hold the balance of power, perhaps in both houses. We see the return of Hanson (Australia’s Trump) once more.

No one says communicating your ideas is easy, but it’s critical. Without it, what are you achieving anyway?

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