For a long time, politics has been fertile ground for those studying communication. From the braying masses of Parliament to the art of the ground-breaking public address, the pickings are both rich and varied. History is littered with politicians, leaders, and public figures who have found themselves judged on their ability to communicate, both publically and within the confines of their own circles.
But where do we find ourselves in 2020?
With the invention of each new means of communication, the ability to deliver the perfect message on the perfect medium became more and more prevalent. More traditional media such as the printed press, television, and radio suddenly found themselves jostling amongst the likes of Facebook, podcasts, vlogs, and even TikTok for dominance. A politician in the 21st Century needs to be able to conduct themselves impeccably on a dizzying array of platforms. The skill is to communicate your message as successfully in a 90-minute televised debate as you can in a few short words on a tiny screen in someone’s palm.
Leadership – 280 characters at a time
The US election campaign has reliably delivered some perfect examples of this recently. Let’s turn, first of all, to Twitter; the incumbent President’s favoured means of communicating with his public. For all of his erratic, occasionally incoherent ramblings, Donald Trump is exceptionally good at this type of communication. To the extent that CNN’s political analyst Kirsten Powers has suggested that ‘without Twitter, there would be no Donald Trump presidency’. In Twitter, Trump has found a medium to harness his love of the soundbite – short, direct, often informal nuggets of information that he can put out into the world as quickly as they enter his head.
So great is his impact, that were politics simply a race whereby the candidate with the biggest online following is declared the winner, the President would be sure of a resounding victory next month. However, much to his detractors’ glee, the reality is of course far more complex.
The danger of always playing to your strengths
Let’s consider his performance at the recent ‘town hall’ televised events. Traditionally far less combative than the head-to-head debates, the town halls are the chance for the candidates to face their public head-on, with questions coming from both the voters and the event moderator. It’s in scenarios such as these that Trump is far less at ease, far more exposed, and this shows in the way he handles his communication. His performance, both verbally and through his body language, is often defensive and confrontational. He’s prone to interruptions and projecting his apparent faults onto others, whoever they may be.
So what’s the takeaway from all this?
More often than not, the key to communication is consistency. It’s about being sure of your message and conveying it to your audience with a confident and coherent delivery. Equally, it’s about choosing the medium that will have the greatest impact in any given scenario. Be prepared to be flexible – as we’ve seen, Trump’s reliance on Twitter as his dominant method of communication is sometimes to his own detriment. The optimum method may be neither the easiest nor the most convenient.
In the end, there’s no substitution for clear, assured communication, whether you’re chairing a team meeting or chatting with clients.
Or attempting re-election to the highest office in Western politics.