We live in complicated times, but people expect simple words and solutions which they could grasp and follow. Amid increased media and social pressure in the past month, presidents, prime ministers, ministers, governors, and mayors, and their teams, felt motivated but also cornered, forced to deliver quickly straightforward measures with almost instant effectiveness. Some rose in popularity, some fell, and various models appeared.
In times like these, despite a rally around the flag effect, which characterized the first 1-2 months of the COVID-19 crisis, what you say (and how you say it) becomes crucial for political and societal success. Words have become weapons of boosting credibility or demolishing crisis measures.
Let us not forget that even in religious terms, first, there was the Word, and then there was… Light. I am hereby exploring words that can shed light on the way forward.
These might help liberal leaders in politics, business, and civil society speak and sound better (“it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”, as Frank Luntz would put it) and, consequently, win hearts and minds, instill patience in people, or drive individual or collective action, during the coming national and global recovery demanded by the COVID-19 crisis.
For starters, looking at the world’s most followed communicator, Donald Trump, he is one of the leaders constantly accused of using only a few words when addressing the public. His critics often accuse him of incoherence; from professionals to liberals and progressives we hear his “speaking style” is far too basic.
President Trump says his foes are “nasty” and gets away with it. Truth be told, numerous linguists have shown that Trump only uses a list of 400 to 500 words.
However, in times of crisis, effectiveness in public communication is essential, and a short number of words in use is not really a problem, as long as they are effective.
A leader, including a liberally minded one, should communicate in simple, easy-to-understand words, because their message has to get across to all nation’s citizens.
And what better way to do this than by using the most common, user-friendly words? Complexity of solutions may be a must in crisis, but so is simplicity in terms of the chosen words and crafted messages.
Crisis – bad, leader – good. People (also) good, future bright, leader trust, pain go, success come – in Neanderthal speak.
Now, for solutions. The basic pillar of political communication consists of the grandmother/grandson test. Ask yourself: would both a grandmother and her grandson understand what I am saying?
If the answer is yes, then the message is the right one. If the answer is maybe, then it’s back to the drawing board.
Therefore, simpler words (and expressions derived from them) which can win hearts and minds should prevail over complicated, excessively-rational communication.
Looking at the English language’s top 500 words in use, here is the top ten that can provide a solid foundation for soundbites. In my view, as former Prime Ministerial advisor and a political operator, these words help make a strong case for patience, resilience, or a call-to-action:
- Means – combined with “by all” or something similar, depicting solutions or ressources, is a keyword for decision-making. People want determined leaders who can look forward and offer an exit from crises. Citizens expect action and power players should also be providers.
- Way – combined with “forward” or “out” is a keyword for hope management. A good leader knows how to point towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Where there is political will, there has to be a way.
- Set – combined with “up” or “mind” (mindset) is a keyword for framing. A positive, well-thought (re)framing could lead to better short- and medium-term results in people’s behavior. Let’s set this up quickly.
- Go – combined with “on”, “forward”, or “beyond” is a keyword for positive action, for hopeful outcomes. People expect decisiveness from their leaders. Ready, steady, go, no time to spare in crisis.
- Put – combined with “forward” or “up” is a keyword for emphasizing a specific approach or action. If leaders don’t put forward solutions, why are they leading? Why should we put up with them?
- Shape – combined with “take” or “get into” is a keyword for setting the stage for action and intervention. A well-explained plan, with clear pillars (remember the rule of three: simple, short, sharp!), is the key for success. Shape up, now!
- Carry – combined with “on” or “out” is a placeholder for empathy, calm, but also responsibility. People need hope until the crisis ends; they also need to find signs of normalcy in the meantime. Keep calm and carry on, but do carry out periodic good news for inspiration.
- Above – combined with “board”, “fold”, or “line” is another keyword for positive framing. In a context of chaos or crisis, a good leader has to remain positive above all, like FDR’s firechats proved. There may be help from above, but you need to do your part, above anything else.
- Great – combined with “minded” or “hearted” works, helps hope management and future New Deals, i.e. new social contracts. Political and institutional leaders have to project a great -community or country- dream. But also avoid the “great expectations” game, in order not to disappoint.
- Build – combined with “up” or “upon” is a keyword for reconstruction (both mentally and physically). Good leaders are society’s architects; therefore, success is contingent on solid foundations. Build on that, leaders, and you will shine. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden, right?
Why do leaders communicate? To connect, to convince and to call to action. By using simple, versatile expressions, in times of crises and in order to pave a way for any new normal, communication can make a real difference between staying afloat and diving into murky waters.
If people are great and, yes, power is great, so are the current crises: the IMF said the coronavirus may be the greatest one in a century.
So, leaders, remember: words are great, you have the greatest words in the world, and the greatest reasons to act, just do that now in a great manner and you will be great.
Making political communications great again is a word away: you can inspire hearts, mobilize minds, and drive hands to lead the way out of these coronavirus crises.