Many of us were left wanting and some sat in disgust and disappointment as we watched the recent Presidential debate. On the one hand, we continued to see half-truths, vile accusations and boorish behavior. On the other hand we also saw missed opportunities and messages lost on political rhetoric and stump speeches. There are lessons to be learned for our own practice in our business and organizational communications, and though we may not have a 60 million plus audience we have employees, shareholders, investors and customers who are affected by what we say and how we say it.
We often confront disagreement in the organizations we work for and support. Maybe they are neither as brazen as what we are witnessing in this campaign nor do they have global consequences, but the takeaways from this debate provide insights into how we evaluate messaging, respond to crisis, handle inquiries from our publics or just plain interact and talk to people. The following coaching lessons are fundamental and vital for us to inform our leaders as they work to support their stakeholders and publics.
- Lead with positive …. not with negative. Almost nowhere in this most recent debate did we have a feel good moment. Were we inspired or even felt there was much hope? These candidates capitalize on the negative, using accusation and pointing to the despair that would be created by the other candidate. We don’t get a real sense of vision for the future or what is possible. If anything should be learned from Brexit, it is that the positive future vision campaign wins over the negative result campaign. Our leaders can avoid those mistakes by leading with the positive and what we often say as “our reasons to believe” in our future.
- Answer the question that is being asked. How often during the debate was a question asked followed by a bland vague attempt in the first sentence or two to answer the question and then move to a messaging platform of rhetoric and banality that had nothing to do with the question? We could all see it. When questions are asked of organizations and their leaders, there is an inherent responsibility to answer the question being asked. Otherwise leaders run the risk as being seen as not having the capability to do so, the confidence and conviction to face the consequences of their answer, or of dodging the question, which only raises more questions.
- Know when you have a way in. There were numerous moments during the debate when clear, concise and effective responses could have been given to support a position. Clearly scenario planning must have been done to identify potential questions and responses that could and should have been used. When an opportunity presents itself to make your point and support your platform, recognize that moment. That is the time to go with specific facts and data simply and clearly. Be prepared to role-play with tough questions in advance, and leave your thin skin at home!
- Develop answers to the contentious questions credibly. We are seeing over and over again the same questions being asked of both candidates and their answers continue to leave us disappointed and unsatisfied. We can take a lesson from this. When you are dealing with an issue, come clean with it. Develop a response that answers the question and addresses the concerns that people have. Get it over with. While the question cannot be changed, the answer can provide context and be one that is satisfying and gets to the heart of the matter.
- Tone and tenor of remarks. Need I say more? In both cases the tone of voice, body language, facial expression and the tenor of how things were said often left us with a stomach in knots. In organizations, the type of behavior demonstrated in the debate would certainly lead to disengagement and distrust by your employees, a point of reckoning with your investors and erosion of your overall brand with your customers.
- Use storytelling effectively. Both candidates attempt storytelling but how often does it just become a pile of mush? Are they even memorable as stories should be? Do they connect us effectively with the candidate, emotionally to their message platform and give them depth or does it all just seem rehearsed and fake? Do the people they tell stories about even exist or are they a composite? These candidates should look to their own experience and creative minds to help them with their stories and so should our organizations. Stories need to be real to make you real.
- Listen to the question and to the intent of the questioner. Then, focus your answer on that, not on what you want to make sure you say. You will come off as more authentic and truthful than if you simply pivot to your message points.
- Take the high road and always stay there. As we know from personal brand, each and every moment is an opportunity. We are not always in the moment and as self-aware as we could be. However, taking the high road and behaving as you would expect someone who aspires to the role that is being sought is the best course. And, respect your adversary. Don’t focus on who they are but on what they say. So, coach your leaders to stay on that high road and as many have said, “there’s much less traffic on it.”
These takeaways provide wise counsel to our leaders and organizations and support important lessons to our students in the classroom. What we are witnessing in these debates is unprecedented, and not in a good way. We can support our leaders and organizations in perhaps our most important role – recognizing the significance, value and responsibility of their communications.
Jacqueline Strayer has served in the top communications role for three global U.S. publicly traded companies. She is a faculty member at NYU’s Graduate programs in Integrated Marketing and in PR and Corporate Communications. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @jfstrayer.