Business MK - Dec 2012

Mon 10 Dec 2012

Once upon a time, political party conferences were about making policy.  Now nothing could be further from the truth.  In all the main parties in Britain (and this is common to most western parliamentary democracies) policy now comes from the top down.  Conference is about image and reputation, in other words, public relations.

We may think it a shame that the big conferences just gone were policy-free zones, but it is not entirely the fault of politicians.  Close scrutiny by voters through the media lens means allowing ordinary party members to actually say what they think is far too risky.  Real politics does go on at the fringe (carefully isolated to avoid any risk of contamination) but platform appearances are all about key messages.

The bosses of companies large and small would do well to study the best techniques employed by the most successful speakers.  It may sound obvious, but before they stand up, they know who they are talking to, and what they need to say to them.  One of the political correspondents’ favourite games is to count the number of times particular words are spoken.  “One Nation,” was mentioned by Ed Miliband forty-six times in his peroration; the Prime Minister gave “Britain-on-the-rise” twenty-four outings in his.  This made it impossible for any sound bites to be selected which neglected to convey either leader’s point.  While few managing directors will ever have to give a speech lasting upwards of forty-five minutes to their staff, customers or suppliers (at least, not if they have any sense – even Steve Jobs rarely went beyond fifteen minutes) they will have opportunities to communicate with them, in person, on paper or electronically.  No manager or entrepreneur should ever be without something to say to any of these audiences.  They all need to know what the business is doing for them or asking of them.  They all want to be informed.  Two minutes before the conversation takes place, they should ask themselves the question, “What is it I really want this person to know?”

Politicians have it tough.  Pundits are always deciphering their words in terms of “Was it a speech to the hall or to the electorate?” when generally it has to be to both.  If you are a conservative leader with pro and anti-European factions, liberals and libertarians to please or a labour leader with unions, tax-and-spenders and firebrand radicals hanging on your words, everyone will find something to dislike!  By contrast, it is simplicity itself for business leaders to speak to all their audiences.  Customers, suppliers and staff all want to hear very similar things.  “Things are going well and while they continue so to do, you will reap the benefits.”  On the occasions when they are not “going well,” they want to know how long the situation will go on for and how it will be resolved.  Honesty, directness and simplicity, keeping people informed; that is what engenders trust and loyalty.  Take a moment to think of the companies you most believe in.  A pound to a penny they will be the ones which communicate most clearly and openly with you.  Now think of those of which you are most wary.  How often do they speak to you in a respectful way (ie rather than just selling to you)?

Professor James Humes wrote speeches for every Republican President from Eisenhower to the elder Bush.  Hs said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.  Every time you speak, you are auditioning for leadership.”  The politics of business are not so different from the business of politics.   

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