Each class I teach in political and governmental communication lasts about three hours. But preparing to teach the classes took me more than 30 years, mainly because the operative principles behind the skills I teach aren’t in textbooks. They weren’t in any of the journalism or communication classes I took as an undergraduate. The theories and concepts behind them were only addressed tangentially in graduate school. And even then they were cloaked in scholarly discussions in an alien tongue punctuated by parenthesized cites of other scholarly discussions in alien tongues. So, it took me a while to put the pieces together about the practice of effective public (government and political) communication because I had to learn most of it by doing it.
Here are some of the pieces:
- Effective public communication has one purpose: to persuade people to agree with the communicator, to win an election or win on a public policy issue.
- Winning in politics and government means you must not only persuade a majority of the public, voters or decision-makers to agree with you, but motivate them to take an action as well.
- This persuasion can only occur when the message makes enough connection with the audience to be received, considered and, if the communication is effective, accepted.
- Part of making that connection is communicating in words, phrases, signs and symbols that your audience understands.
A lot of veteran political and government communicators insist that all you need to do to is give people facts; the data; even the fiscal impact in trillions of dollars over ten years. “The public isn’t stupid. They’ll figure it out. They know what’s important.”
The public is absolutely not stupid. But most people are pretty focused on their own lives, their family, their career, their next rent or house payment, how the car’s running, retirement, friends, their church, their next vacation, etc. A government policy, even something very important, is probably about 43rd on their list of things to worry about. But, connect what you’re talking about to people’s lives and they’re a lot more likely to pay attention.
When you’re trying to communicate with people, talk like people talk. Policy communication is frequently filled with authoritative data, legal, budgetary details and history or other supportive and content information. Professionals need to thoroughly analyze potential policy solutions, kick ideas and concepts back and forth looking for weaknesses, incorrect assumptions or additional approaches, and weigh possibilities against needs. These conversations are quite naturally conducted in the language of their issue, using jargon, shorthand phrases and acronyms that all the participants understand.
Communication problems occur when those participants assume the general public also speaks their language, and that their own familiarity with abstract concepts and technical information is universally shared. That’s how we wind up with public discussions of education policies that agendize, aggregate or disintermediate differentiated lessons and engagement structures to ensure constructivist, assessment-driven and mastery-focused curricula that are maximally impactful.
Most people don’t talk like that, and if you do, most people will have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. The policy message needs to be translated into language for broader audiences.
Making a message effective may include adding a bit of emotion. You don’t have to evoke white-hot anger, abject fear or make children cry. Just a bit of real human connection can make a policy message much more interesting to the public and therefore more effective.
After you’ve developed a devastatingly brilliant issue or political message, you need to be sure it’s going to reach the right people. The most lethal ammunition in the world isn’t worth squat if it doesn’t hit what you’re shooting at. What are the best ways to target your communication to the right audience? Do you have multiple audiences? Do they all get the same message, or are there different messages for different groups?
These and a lot of other real-world lessons may be in a textbook somewhere. I’m still looking.
By Dave Helfert