Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Politicians and Communication

Does my heart sing or sigh when I think about the current political campaign and upcoming election?

On the one hand, I’m seriously interested in the ‘issues’; on the other, my brain turns off when I listen to the rhetoric.

There is much moaning and gnashing of teeth that young people aren’t voting in the numbers they could.  I love the quote doing the internet rounds:  “So, tell me all about how you’d rather sign a petition to save Jeremy Clarkson’s job….than a petition to save the NHS.”

Now to be fair there are quite a few petitions also doing the rounds about saving the NHS, but I think the point is one worth paying attention to: people respond emotionally when they are fully engaged.

Jeremy Clarkson creates feelings in people – passionately for/passionately against, but definitely passionate.  There aren’t that many people who feel neutral about the bloke.

Our politicians don’t seem to create much of anything in a lot of people other than apathy, cynicism and mistrust and if politicians are unable to engage the electorate then that electorate simply won’t go to the polls.

There they all are, lining up to try to convince us that each of them has the answer:  the current leaders:  David Cameron and Nick Clegg; the aspiring leader in opposition, Ed Miliband and others, perhaps king-makers in waiting as well; Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon,  Elfyn Llywd.  Closely followed by various ministers, cabinet and show cabinet members trying to grab our attention.

The gap between people we feel something about and those we don’t often has to do with the way they present themselves.  If we take a look at someone who is believable and who touches us it’s because they come across as authentically themselves.  We feel connected to them because they personalise their point of view; they create intimacy and seem to talk directly to us.

Politicians, on the other hand, are usually so determined to win that they neutralise their passions; they get polished and learn politician-speak that distances them from their audiences rather than creating a bond with them.

I’m not saying here that our politicians don’t believe in what they are saying; I certainly hope they do.  What I am saying is that they rely on rhetoric, overblown and emotive language and of course mud-slinging to try to convince us that they are genuine.

I don’t feel communicated to….I feel talked at or even talked down to.  Politicians’ sincerity feels learned rather than heart-felt. It’s evident in their body language as well as their spoken language.  Very rarely do you see any politician using ‘big’ body language – it’s all carefully orchestrated and constrained.  They play it safe and when someone plays it safe, they limit their expression of excitement, anger, joy, sorrow, etc. 

Will this ever change?  This bland, controlled, limited means of communication seems to be the norm now.  I can’t imagine the UK ever producing an Alexis Tsipras who knows how to communicate with his audiences brilliantly and is willing to overturn the status quo.

It’s seven weeks till the election.  Here’s a little game you can play:  the next time just about any politician comes on the telly turn the sound down and watch the body language.  Keep doing that and you’ll see the limitations these people put on themselves.  You can also do the opposite and close your eyes and only listen to the words.  Pay attention to the overuse of hyperbole and over-complicated sentences.

Then watch and listen at the same time.  If you think you’ve spotted insincerity, disingenuousness or even just a curbing of passion, see if you can identify what it is in their verbal or their body language that’s ‘telling’ you they’re playing it safe.

Over the next seven weeks I’ll be keeping my own eye out for those tell-tale signs of ‘safety’ that keep voters disengaged and disinterested.  I say it’s a little game you can play – however, the stakes are high for all of us and it’s certainly sad that so many of us are viewing a campaign that has neither fire nor flair.

  
Check out Impact Factory’s range of Presentation and Communication Skills Training.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory

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