After months of campaigning, both sides in the EU referendum campaign still seem to be making basic communication errors, if the BBC’s Great Debate at Wembley last night is anything to go by.
Time is running out, but here are some quick tips for them – and other communicators – based on their performances:
1. Take Back Control Of Your Message Delivery
“Take back control” is the Leave campaign’s key message – so much so, it popped up about five times in as many minutes at the start and was repeated numerous times in the rest of the programme.
Such repetition means that not only does a message become diluted, the people uttering it begin to sound like a speak-your-weight machine. Communication is about people, not mantras. If you insist on sticking to one message, at least change the wording or the examples, so perhaps, “Let’s stop others running our lives”….
2. Empty Vessels
At several points the volume level went sky high (often accompanied by finger jabbing). It can smack of desperation, rudeness and a lack of control – not qualities anyone likes in a public servant. Yelling is better suited to the sports stadium next door.
3. Real Lives Make Real Impact
Far too often we heard broad “mission statements” or slogans and not enough about the real impact of the EU.
The reasons the questions from the audience sounded so powerful was because they were, well, so personal.
When an audience hears someone say, “I run small business and…” or “I’m struggling to get on the housing ladder because…”, the speakers should take note and adopt the same tone. So why not say, “I spoke to the boss of a widget business in Bradford last week, who said he spent four hours the previous day completing forms, which EU regulation makes necessary, yet he doesn’t even export to the EU!……” rather than talking about how “red tape from Brussels is tying up small businesses”.
Using an example from a “grass roots” level is far more effective than “broad-brush” platitudes.
4. Keep Mum About Parental Status
The trotting out of phrases such as “I’m a mother…” or “As a grandmother,…” was widely ridiculed after earlier TV debates and should have been avoided. I suspect those that still used them last night had been advised to do so to create empathy, but instead they allowed Remain’s Ruth Davidson to score a powerful and easy “hit” with, “There are mums and dads on this side as well!” just in case the Leave side thought it had exclusive rights to parenting.
These “I’m-a-parent” phrases can also alienate all those who don’t have children or grandchildren, but do have a very valuable vote…
Yes, empathy can be powerful, but it would have been far better to say, “As all of us who are grandparents know…” or “What parent would not want XYZ for their children?”
But let’s be fair, there were some effective communication skills on show last night and anyone who goes into a “bear pit” in front of 6,000 members of the public, as well as millions of armchair viewers, deserves credit.
However, as we’ve been reminded so poignantly this week, politicians connect best with the public when they speak our language and relate to our lives.
Astronaut Tim Peake captured this perfectly yesterday in his press conference when he said:
“You’re looking at a boy who went to Westbourne primary school, who left school at the age of 19 with three below-average A-levels and I’ve just got back from a six-month mission to space. So my message…is, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do anything.’”
It really isn’t rocket science.