Well, here I am in Washington, DC, wandering through the corridors of power. OK, it's just the corridors of the Hilton, but stick with me here because I'm about to share some communication insights from advisors to the great and powerful.
Washington's most famous political strategists, the husband-and-wife team of Mary Matalin and James Carville were the keynote speakers at today's opening session of the annual conference of the International Association of Business Communicators. Out on the right, Matalin was an assistant to George W. Bush. Over on the left, Carville has run election campaign strategies for Bill Clinton as well as assorted Latin American and European leaders.
Matalin, who was on the White House staff at the time of 9/11, is concerned about the context in which communication takes place. While there were rough spots, she said, President Bush correctly recognized that communication would be as important a tool as any in the fight against terrorism. She believes that the immediacy and pervasiveness of today's communications "decontextualizes information."
"Transparency goes to the heart of communication," she said, "but the problem with transparency is not so much about making information available, but dealing with the abuse of information when it's used in an inaccurate and incomplete way. Competition amongst the news media, she contends, makes being first with a story more important than getting it right, or complete and in context. "Context is a casualty of sound bite politics."
In reducing the news to one-liners, competitive news organizations serve their own agendas, not the public good, claims Matalin. I know, because I was one, that journalists look for conflict because it makes a better story. And if they can find a simple phrase that makes a story memorable, such as, "It's the economy, stupid," or "I am not a crook," they'll play it up so their story will lead the show or play on the front page above the fold. The slogan becomes the story and lives on after the context is forgotten.
Carville, a hilarious genius, used the idea of context to relate the (fictional, I hope) story of George W. Bush telling French leaders, "The trouble with your economy is that there's no French word for 'entrepreneur.' " Challenging his wife's idea that ubiquitous, real time communication technology is a problem, he reminded us that the 'how' of communication changes constantly, yet the 'what' never changes. He came out in favour of the sound bite, assuming it's relevant, for its simplicty.
There are four basic elements to communication, he told us.
1. Simplicity - people have to understand
2. Relevance - it has to be in context
3. Repetitive - "if you haven't said it a gazillion times, you haven't said it yet"
4. Exclusivity - put the relevant issue above every other topic
He also recommended that we learn the difference between litany and narrative. In the last presidential campaign, Kerry used litany, listing all the things he and his party stood for. Bush told stories.
Hmmmm. Does that just seem too simple?
I'm not sure how, exactly, this fit into his point, but Carville also slammed PowerPoint presentations. I love it when people do that. If you do, to, you may enjoy my article, "Does PowerPoint Make Us Stupid?" at http://www.itsunderstood.com/docs/PowerPointMinifesto.pdf