Saturday, April 18, 2009

Communication Lessons from President Obama and His Messaging Team

There's no doubt who today's Great Communicator is: Barack Obama.

We can learn much that can improve our worklife and personal life from him and his unprecedentedly sophisticated messaging dream team of experts, both those in-house and his under-the-radar consulting groups such as the George Soros-funded Rockridge Institute and now the
Behavioral Economics Roundtable, which Time magazine incorrectly called the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists but accurately described as Obama's "secret advisory group of 29 of the nation's leading behaviorists." Obama's messaging experts have been crucial to his getting pretty much everything he's wanted from the media, Congress, and the public.

Here are some of Obama's key tactics. I'll start with the easy stuff:

1. Posture is key. Stand erect but relaxed. Tilt your head upward--it portrays confidence.

2. Smile a lot. It may seem like a transparent tactic but it works. Practice various smiles in a mirror until you find your most winsome one.

3. Your delivery style must be in moderate: relaxed in tone, pace, and enthusiasm. Yes, move your hands but no wild gestures. Yes, I understand that it's much easier for Obama to do that because he usually is reading from a teleprompter but do the best you can. Even if imitiating Obama's delivery improves yours only slightly, it will be worth it.

4. Wordsmithing is crucial. You probably can't afford to, as Obama does, focus-group-test nearly every word you utter, but you can take great care in your word choice, for example, as much as possible, use the words
Obama most often uses: believe, better, change, children, community, dreams, generation, hope, future, jobs, people, promise, responsibility, work, and most important, you.

5. Structuring is as crucial. This is best presented with an example. Here's an excerpt from President Obama's speech this week on the economy. Afterwards, I'll explain the structural tactics that he and his communications machine used in crafting the speech.

"Most of all, I want every American to know that each action we take and each policy we pursue is driven by a larger vision of America's future, a future where sustained economic growth creates good jobs and rising incomes; a future where prosperity is fueled not by excessive debt, reckless speculation, and fleeing profit, but is instead built by skilled, productive workers; by sound investments that will spread opportunity at home and allow this nation to lead the world in the technologies, innovations, and discoveries that will shape the 21st century. That is the America I see. That is the future I know we can have...

"I know there is a criticism out there that my administration has somehow been spending with reckless abandon, pushing a liberal social agenda while mortgaging our children's future. the worst thing that we could do in a recession this severe is to try to cut government spending at the same time as families and businesses around the world are cutting back on their spending.

"For too long, too many in Washington put off hard decisions for some other time on some other day. There's been a tendency to score political points instead of rolling up sleeves to solve real problems. This can't be one of those times. The challenges are too great. The stakes are too high."

The first paragraph is a series of unarguable apple-pie statements, the puerility of which is disguised with wordsmithing. The audience will necessarily think "I agree" in response to each statement. Each "I agree" lowers the audience member's intellectual vigilance, almost inoculating them against dissent. So when Obama then makes a highly controversial recommendation (that he be allowed the make the largest increase in government spending in history) the audience tends to go along without much questioning.

To further anesthetize his audience, Obama starts making that argument by, in one sentence, preempting the most likely objection and then, using wordsmithing, anecdote, and statistic, taking much more than a sentence to lay out the controversial position. And finally, to avoid the audience thinking critically about and to make them forget about that controversial proposal, he immediately moves on to an extended presentation of another apple-pie assertion: "For too long, too many in Washington put off hard decisions for some other time on some other day. There's been a tendency to score political points instead of rolling up sleeves to solve real problems. This can't be one of those times. The challenges are too great. The stakes are too high."

Other Obama Tactics

Rhythmic series--This anesthetizing, hypnotizing (choose your metaphor) tactic comes straight out of the revival preacher's playbook. Usually, they're series of three or more, but a series can even be just two statements, for example, "The challenges are too great. The stakes are too high."

Invoke unimpeachable sources. In that speech, Obama said, ""Economists from both the left and the right agree that the last thing a government sold do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending." (Of course, he didn't say what percentage of economists from the left agree on that--and in fact, most right-of-center economists and many moderates strongly disapprove). But who could argue with an economic proposal backed by "economists from both the left and the right?"

Obama also invoked the source considered most unimpeachable by the average American: the Bible: "The end of the Sermon on the Mount tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. The second is known as the wise man, for when, 'The rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.' We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build or house upon a rock." Of course, his opponent's (who he cleverly never mentions by name) approaches are sand; his are rock without providing dispositive evidence that's true.

Offer certitude, never doubt. Here's a link to Obama's entire speech. Is there one example where he expresses doubt about even one of his proposals despite the fact that rebuilding America's economy is one of the most complex, risky enterprises ever tackled by anyone?

The aforementioned feature in Time magazine outlines yet more of the hypersophisticated tactics that Obama and his administration are using to get what he wants.

I'll leave to you to decide whether Obama's tactics are to be lauded as the genius of a great leader and his communication experts or derided as Obamanipulation, deceiving the American people into accepting radical policies. But whatever your position on that, it's unarguable that President Obama offers us many lessons that can help us get what we want in the workplace and in our personal lives.

I ask only that before deciding to use any of these tactics, you fully consider the ethical implications of doing so. Sometimes, indeed, the end justifies the means but usually it doesn't.


RobS said...

As an introvert (and a technie), it has taken me a long time to realize how important and pervasive good communication skills are in our world.

I bookmarked your post. It very clearly lays out many of the components Obama and his team have used to great effect in both his campaign and his presidency.

While some people may bridle at his use of certain tactics for moral reasons, from a standpoint of efficacy they appear to be eminently valuable.

Tim said...

I respectfully disagree with the idea that Obama is a "great communicator." Speech and words reveal the heart, and speaking style reveals the substance and depth beneath the surface words and phrases.

When we use these criteria as judgment points, Obama fails miserably as a communicator. He becomes, instead, a mechanical speech reader, totally dependent on his tele-prompter screen. If you pay close attention to any of his speeches you will see little real contact or engagement with his audience--only a robot reading his screen from afar.

I admit that he is a skillful speech-reader, but that is all. What's missing is the most important element for real communication: the _pathos_, the humanity.

I also respectfully disagree with the idea that Obama represents any kind of example that others should follow or emulate.