Sunday, April 17, 2011

What a Government Communicator Can Learn From Watching "The Soup"


Last night's (4/16/11) satirical TV show "The Soup" (Saturday nights, 11 p.m., E!) had a great segment on gibberish in political reporting. I like complicated things dumbed down, but this clip showed Good Morning America doing so just a little too much.

Believe me I am not snotty about communication. I actually prefer what I call the "USA Today" version of most things. Speaking as a Ph.D. myself, I feel like I can confidently say that many of us experts overcomplicate things either because we don't know how to communicate well or because we think it makes us seem smarter. (And like that degree in sociology was worth the investment, when it is almost impossible to get a job as a professor unless you know someone.)

Almost as bad as the experts are the PR people (I fall into that group as well) who say much but explain very little because they don't understand how to fully and truthfully explain a client's actions in an engaging and understandable way without lying/distorting/omitting facts etc. They actually don't realize that there is a negative correlation, not a positive one, between "spin" and credibility. (Sigh.)

Then of course there are the TV shows that try to explain things in as simple a way as possible. Often too simple. But we watch!

Suze Orman is a good example of an expert who knows how to communicate about complicated things without dumbing them down excessively. She understands that people are smart but also busy, and that they don't need or care to listen to a whole megilla about the microscopic elements of financial planning in order to make good decisions.

Anyway. If you aren't familiar with "The Soup," and you are sort of a pop culture junkie, I highly recommend it. Even if you're not, you will probably laugh, even when you don't get the specific references. Because what comes through is the hilarious inability of paid communicators to communicate.

In a way, the show is more than just an extended comedy sketch. It's a free training course in communicating well. Because it wakes you up to the fact that if people can ignore you, make fun of you, and even trash you - guess what? They will!

(I once took a corporate communications class taught by Steve Crescenzo and Shel Holtz. It was excellent, and I remember Crescenzo's concept of the "C.R.A.P." awards. They're still out there, actually. Sort of like the Razzies for film - display some really bad corporate newsletters and we get to make fun of how bad they are.)

Nobody and nothing is sacred these days, especially not the government.

What is interesting to me is that we still can't come to terms with this fact. Rather, we persist in holding an array of somewhat shocking fantasies about communication, considering that we live in the age of social media (actually I think this is why we tend to shy away from it):

  1. "The entire world is waiting, with bated breath, to hear what we have to say." (Oh, absolutely! They don't have jobs/relationships/kids/aging parents/school/volunteering/church/car problems....)
  2. "They will just have to read the entire text of our press release/report/article because the material is complex/sensitive and if we don't spell it all out exactly/technically/correctly they might misunderstand and then say something bad about us." (More likely we will get sued for boring them to death.)
  3. "It is accessible. After all we are complying/tagging/metadata-ing/translating it." (Noooo...they would never throw our flier in the trash and of course they're going to find our website eventually. And our sub-page within that website. And they even know our agency's name. Uh-huh.)
  4. "We can reach them if only we do enough brochures." (And hand them out...where?)
  5. Last but not least..."They will never make fun of us if we deny them the channels to do so."

In the end, good communication is not an academic thing. You can study it in school, but you can't master it by writing to a "rubric" and getting an "A." Nor is it only about on-the-job training and getting along with people.

Really, what it's about is the ability to picture yourself on the receiving end of whatever it is you are spewing. If you don't know how you come across to others, there is no way you can decide what it is that you should say.

Watch people's faces as you talk. Monitor their behavior when you give them something to read. Observe your target audience in their natural habitat, how they act, who they interact with and in what way. Those things will give you the clues you need to communicate well.

Most of all, get over yourself and develop the ability to to laugh - not just at others but also at yourself. Where there is no ego but an abundant willingness to learn, you will find the best communication. Which is sometimes (as Peter Sperry commented on GovLoop.com) about just being there, and listening - saying nothing at all.

Good luck!

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