Last week the British Prime Minister stood in the United Nations building, in front of an audience of other world leaders, and talked about climate change. As part of the message he chose to reference Kermit the Frog singing a song on a children’s televison programme in the 1970s. The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, said this in a discussion immediately following a clip of that segment:
Well, you have to also remember at the United Nations meetings, lots of the very august world leaders who are sitting there have got simultaneous translation, and the next sentence then went on to talk about Sophocles. And I just kind of wonder, you know that phrase “Read the room”, uh, while making a speech, and the central message of the speech was “World, grow up, climate change is here, it’s real, it’s dangerous, you have to do more”, um… “Grow up, here’s a gag about Kermit,…” I merely put those things on the table.
In general, one of the small things I’ve admired about senior leaders—in and out of the public eye—is that when they speak they are very, very focused in their messaging. I notice this because I know I often use analogies, references to other events, and caveats within sentences, and what I hear from them is different to what I hear coming out of my own mouth. They do none of that. Their focused language is the language of practised leadership. That they all do this is not a coincidence. I think there are (at least) two reasons.
First, anything else is a distraction. You want to communicate a message, so only communicate that message. If people drift and suddenly re-engage, don’t let them re-engage when you’re being nostalgic about your childhood and have them confused about why you’re now talking about this. And when people walk away and remember only part of what you said, leave no doubt about what that will be.
Second, people have had different experiences, and the more extra material you reference the greater the number of audience members who will get unanchored from what they’re hearing. If 10% of the audience don’t appreciate rugby, then adding a rugby reference will lose that 10%. If another 10% don’t know Shakespeare then a Shakespeare reference will lose those people, too. And so on. Kermit the Frog has appeared on TV screens in many counrties, but still it’s easy to assume that the leaders of El Salvador, Somalia, Turkey, and elsewhere would not have grown up watching Sesame Street. As Laura Kuenssberg said: read the room. Or even: read the list of delegates that you received several weeks before going anywhere near the room.
That’s not to say very focused content is the only way to communicate. Sometimes conveying a feeling is more important than precise content. That works particularly well in large elections and advertising. But if you want people to make rational, rather than emotional, decisions then delivering the core message, unadorned, is what experienced leaders do.