The political professional

The political professional

Greg Stevens

Just think. In a televised debate, in front of millions of viewers, your political client’s performance exposes his weaknesses in a way not even his opponent could have hoped for.

A glance at a watch, a five o’clock shadow, and a cold, technocratic reply to a simple question helped cement many voter’s perception and personified the candidates of three different presidential candidates. These actions broke three fundamental rules for political candidates: first, know your audience and the context in which you appear; second, body language speaks as loudly as the spoken word; and, third, remember that what looks good on paper often does not translate well when spoken. George Bush, Richard Nixon, and Michael Dukakis’ “unspoken statements” demonstrate that communication encompasses much more than just what is said — it involves how it’s said. The effectiveness of a message is often measured by how it is perceived and whether it is believed by the audience.

While critics sometimes deride political consultants for “creating” candidates, all seekers of public office could learn a valuable lesson from many failed public officials: time spent deciding what to say should be balanced with an equal amount of time spent preparing how to say it. All political consultants, whether pollsters, direct-mail specialists, or other roles, need to help their candidates communicate effectively.

The successful politician takes his experiences and applies them to everyday life. The winning candidate makes certain the voter hears and understands these stories. Words alone do not determine an effective message. The voice, movements, facial expressions, and attitude of the speaker are just as important. The key to becoming an effective communicator lies in being able to relate to your audience. Being prepared, comfortable, engaged, interesting and likable are the necessary ingredients to making every communication opportunity a success. My friend Roger Ailes likes to refer to these as the essential elements of a successful speech.

As General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Planning is indispensable.” In politics, like war, there is no such thing as being over-prepared. The candidate needs to establish that he knows more about the subject than his audience. However, the problem lies in a candidate’s inability to refrain from saying everything he knows about a certain subject. Many candidates think the more they talk about a subject, the more impressed the audience will be and therefore the more effective they are as communicators. Actually, the most effective communicators make their point succinctly and in laymen’s terms. Inundating an audience with facts and information will only turn them off.

The challenge facing a candidate is to make the complex simple. Remember what we learned in high school English, “Keep it simple, Stupid.” To K.I.S.S. with the audience does not prevent nor discourage complex solutions to difficult problems. It does suggest the candidate’s answer be straightforward. A candidate shouldn’t discuss the GDP as an economist would. The effective candidate understands the intricacies of the “gold standard,” but talks with the voters about the “standard of living.”

GK Chesterton, an English author, once noted, “a yawn is a silent shout.” In order to be persuasive, a speaker must connect with his audience. The mark of success for every speech is for the audience to leave saying “That was an interesting and great person,” not “What the hell was he talking about?” Candidates often approach a speech differently than they do a personal conversation. Treat each speech as if it were a conversation with your best friend. You talk with your friends not at them. Yet many candidates patronize and fail to create a dialogue with their audience. Anyone can regurgitate statistics. President Clinton is known as a policy “wonk.” Yet, in his highly successful campaign, he was adept at using real life examples that people understood and could relate to. If a candidate talks about the high cost of education, he should tell the audience about personal experiences or the experiences of others paying for college. A simple, concise explanation is much more effective than a long-winded one. Facts provide information, but emotions provide interpretation.

Greg Stevens is a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Political Consultants. He is also president of The Media Team, a Republican consulting firm. He was assisted in this article by Winston B. Lord.

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