Weapons Of Mass Instruction

I think my 8 year-old daughter Emily is spending way too much time watching the US Presidential debates. The other day I sent her to her room for teasing her younger brother, and she accused me of “playing partisan politics” and of having a “personal vendetta” against her. Later on that evening she issued a press release that denied all wrongdoing on her part, and that included a detailed account of my shortcomings as a father.

Despite all that, I have to admit that I’ve found the debates these past few weeks to be absolutely fascinating. Not for the information itself (we knew where each candidate stood going in), but for the lessons offered in how to communicate effectively with a busy, easily distracted, short attention span audience — something each of us faces every day as business communicators.

Because despite how you may feel about the two men involved or even the political process itself, there’s no denying that with the stakes so high and the race so close, lots and lots of experience and brain power on both sides went into scripting the events and preparing the candidates.

Here are some of the things I learned over those four nights:

• Keep it simple. As complicated as the issues may be, a 90 minute debate, chopped up into 90 second chunks, leaves little time for detail. Both candidates relied heavily on a handful of pre-scripted phrases, and each did his best to drop these into the conversation at every turn. All were oversimplifications (or worse), but in many ways it didn’t matter. Both sides have discovered that the best approach in this format is to give voters a few clear, memorable thoughts to take away that sound about right.

Similarly, your E-Newsletter is a short format vehicle. Your readers don’t know nearly as much about your topic as you do, and just because they are smart people —capable of understanding complicated explanations — it doesn’t mean they’ll put in the work to decipher your message. Short sentences, simple words and clear thoughts get the job done best.

• Tell lots of stories. At least once each night, each candidate took time to tell a heartfelt story about some “real person” he had recently encountered, and how it related to a bigger issue or concept. Although I always find these stories kind of funny because I can’t help but wonder where these guys meet “average citizens” (do you think they’re putting on disguises and sneaking off the campaign bus in the middle of the night to go stand in line at the local Burger King?), it’s a very effective way to help the listener make a personal connection with a big topic.

Here as well, I strongly recommend the use of stories to capture the interest of your audience — the more personal the better. When I listen to my friend Rosalind tell how her own chronic illness led her to become a coach for others with chronic illness; or my friend Allan describe how his impatience with the financial services industry led him to build a practice that takes better care of its clients; or my friend Will describe how his fascination with “broadband” led him to found a consulting practice that guides others in taking advantage of this technology, I can’t help but be drawn in. You were similarly inspired to throw down your corporate ID badge and walk out the door all those years ago — tell the world your story and you’ll have its attention.

• Get rhythm. When Mr. Bush says, “Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time,” or Mr. Kerry says, “You rushed to war without a plan to win the peace,”they’re doing more than just conveying information — they’re singing songs. There’s no music of course (and thank God for that), but there’s an undeniable lyrical rhythm to the words. And just as a skilled songwriter combines meaning plus melody to create something that has you tapping your toes hours later, these guys also wrap the substance inside a catchy cadence (hey, that’s kind of catchy in and of itself).

We “business professionals” on the other hand, seem to be the last on the planet to have figured out that how you say it is at least as important as what you say. Sure we need to be clear and consistent and intelligent and professional to make the kind of impression we want to make, but delivery matters just as much. Take time to massage your message: In your newsletter, on your web site, in your “elevator statement,” etc., so that it also flows and sings. It may be “superficial,” but if like me, most of your prospective clients are Earthlings, you’ll need more than just facts and figures in your arsenal.

Bottom Line: There are many tactics used during a presidential campaign that you’d never want to borrow. That said, there’s a lot to be learned from people who are in the business of changing minds and making impressions.

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