Political Communication:  The Power to Change the World

“The problem with political jokes is they get elected.” – Henry Cate VII

If somebody ever told you that you “talk like a politician,” chances are you didn’t exactly take it as a compliment. In the public mind, politicians are often on par with the proverbial used-car salesmen: oily, disingenuous and untrustworthy. To a lot of people, talking like a politician equals saying whatever you think the audience wants to hear and whatever will get you re-elected, without really standing up for anything.

Sadly, this is true in many cases. But politics are also the source of some of the most inspirational speeches ever written and have served as a springboard for some of the best communicators in history. A politician with superior communication skills can do more than get re-elected – he or she has the power to change the world.

“Politics are the Super Bowl of communication,” says Richard Greene, a leading communication coach and political speech analyst in Malibu, California. “It’s the best place to learn about communication because it’s so public. Everybody is under the microscope and all politicians know that one little slip could be the end of their career.”

So what can we learn from the way politicians communicate...and from their common pitfalls? 

Be Genuine and Sincere
Regardless of political affiliation, people tend to prize politicians who are honest and authentic. While a compelling message is essential, it will fall flat to the ground if the audience questions the character of the person delivering it. “A politician should be sincere, believe what he says and back it up with action. If you do that, you’ll be successful,” says Dr. Henry Scheele, an associate professor of communication at Purdue University.

Although money and connections sometimes play a bigger role in politics than communication skills, there’s no doubt that being a smooth talker increases your odds of getting elected to office. It’s not enough to keep you there, however. “If your actions don’t support your words, it will catch up to you,” says Scheele, who specializes in congressional and presidential rhetoric.

Toastmasters’ Second Vice President Gary Schmidt, DTM, agrees: “I think sometimes politicians are tempted to tell the audience what they want to hear, but politicians who do that will get caught. If you’re upfront, honest and stand up for your beliefs, you can’t go wrong.”

Schmidt says a successful politician, like any skilled speaker, embodies all of Aristotle’s three pillars of effective communication: logos, ethos and pathos. Unfortunately, many politicians run into trouble with the ethos, or character, element.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is a good example of a politician whose compassion, charisma and persuasive personality quickly earned him a reputation for being an excellent communicator. But when the Monica Lewinsky scandal unraveled, Clinton’s character was called into question, despite his charming and neighborly persona.

“People challenged Clinton’s ethos when his actions didn’t match what he was saying. If he would have had the character part down, he would have been a more effective communicator,” says Schmidt, who works as a field representative for Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Smith in Portland, Oregon. 

Be Personal and Passionate
One of the main “sins” committed by politicians today is that they don’t have authentic passion, according to Greene. As a communication coach, he has helped many high-profile politicians become more passionate, energetic and visionary when speaking in public. “Many politicians try to play it safe and just disseminate the information without putting a personal feel into it,” he says. “But there has to be a personal connection. Unless people care about you, they’re not going to care about your message.”

Many politicians are afraid of passion for good reason. In the world of politics, adversaries and media pundits will scrutinize every word that comes out of your mouth, eagerly searching for errors, misstatements, contradictions or an ever-so-little slip of the tongue that can and will be used against you. So, more often than not, in politics even passion is carefully scripted and spontaneity is an act. 

                    “A successful politician, like any skilled speaker, embodies all of Aristotle’s
                    three pillars of effective communication: logos, ethos and pathos.”
                                    – TI’s Second Vice President Gary Schmidt, DTM

Democratic U.S. Senator Barack Obama learned this the hard way when he first arrived on Capitol Hill. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he describes how one of his addresses was ridiculed by a former Ronald Reagan speechwriter upon publication in Time magazine: “In an environment in which a single ill-considered remark can generate more bad publicity than years of ill-considered policies, it should have come as no surprise to me that on Capitol Hill, jokes got screened, irony became suspect, spontaneity was frowned upon, and passion was considered downright dangerous.”

As risky as it may be perceived, genuine passion is what has spawned some of the greatest and most memorable political speeches in history. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example, is widely remembered for his eloquent and passionate wartime speeches. His fervent and intense oratory not only added to his innate gravitas, it also was instrumental in convincing the United States to join in the defense against Nazi Germany. 

Be a Visionary
While politicians often deal with many complex and menial issues, it’s generally easier to captivate an audience and mobilize voters with big, sweeping visions of where you want to go and what you want to get accomplished than to present a laundry list of detailed changes to the tax code. “When you get too involved in the nitty-gritty, you lose the audience,” says Schmidt.

Few politicians have embodied a vision more powerfully than South African anti-apartheid activist and former President Nelson Mandela when he, facing a life sentence, defended himself against charges of Communist activity in 1964: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela stayed true to his word and emerged from prison nearly three decades later with the same vision and unbroken spirit. 

Study the Masters
World leaders normally take credit for their high-profile speeches, but because of time constraints, these extremely scripted events are to a varying degree the work of many talented advisors, speechwriters and communication coaches. Most of us can’t afford to keep our own stable of staff writers, but we can learn from the best and brightest of them by studying some of history’s most notable speeches.

Scheele has made a list of the – in his opinion – 100 best speeches ever, and frequently tells his students to select and study the pieces that interest them. On top of the list is former United States president John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which he reaches out to his adversaries with a call for ending the arms race and famously tells his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country.”

Politicians themselves could benefit from studying prominent peers, says Greene, who highlights 20 of the most significant speeches during the 20th century in his book Words that Shook the World. (Item B106 available through the Toastmasters store at toastmasters.org/shop.) Not taking the time to study or failing to join a public speaking association like Toastmasters International, he says, is one of the reasons “most politicians border on being pathetic” communicators. 

Master the Medium
Whereas political speeches in the 18th and 19th centuries were a form of entertainment that lasted for several hours and drew massive crowds, politicians today have to compete for attention with any number of distractions. They’ve also had to learn to communicate through a new array of mass media.

During the Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ingeniously used informal and relaxed radio addresses, referred to as “fireside chats,” to instill confidence in the nation. The secret for his success was a conversational tone that public speakers should strive for to this day, says Greene. “I generally have the politician write down three words on the top of the page (of any speech): Conversation, punctuation and pause.”

The conversational tone lets the speaker talk with the audience rather than over their heads. Punctuation can help generate passion, and pausing underlines the speaker’s gravitas and authority.

But the medium that truly revolutionized politics was the TV. When millions of people suddenly were able to watch their leaders close up on a screen in their homes, non-verbal communication took on a whole new meaning. Sweating, rolling eyes, sighing, shuffling papers, shifting bodyweight, unsteady gaze and other forms of non- verbal communication that wouldn’t be noticeable in a radio address or during a live performance are amplified on the TV screen and can effectively ruin somebody’s chances of winning an election.

The power of the television is the reason many movie stars have had successful careers in politics. Many Americans were skeptical when Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan was elected president, but his ease in front of the TV cameras boosted his popularity and earned him a place among the greatest political communicators in the world.

The advent of the Internet opened up a whole new avenue of mass communication and made it possible for just about anybody to say anything at any time. Or, as Professor Scheele puts it: “There’s a lot of irresponsible rhetoric on the Internet.” Nevertheless, the Internet has the potential to match, or even beat, the dominance of the television medium as the main channel for political communication. Politicians and ordinary citizens alike are now racing to learn how to use this information highway to their advantage and spread their messages to a potentially massive audience.

And who knows? That grainy YouTube video you watched yesterday could spawn a great communicator of tomorrow.

Linda McGurk is a communications specialist and freelance writer based in Indiana. Reach her at mcgurkmedia@sbcglobal.net.