Policy advisers live or die by our communications skills. We often have no other weapon at our disposal. Much policy making depends upon our successfully changing colleagues' or public opinion. (See also presentation skills and campaigning web page.)
We are not, of course, communicating with machines. We are trying to achieve things by influencing the behaviour of other human beings with all their faults, including their preference for simple explanations. If we are to be effective, therefore, we must deploy all three of the classic Greek elements of rhetoric - which have always been used, often unknowingly, by all powerful communicators:
In addition, of course, we need to be clear about the purpose of the communication, its content, and its audience (including their beliefs).
Let's look at each in turn.
Your approach to many communications will depend on whether you are still at the stage of designing your policy, or whether you are implementing or defending it. But, whichever applies, it is essential that the contents are clear, logical and accurate, whether we are communicating within Whitehall or with the public. Many of our communications deal with subjects which are important either to our bosses, our colleagues or sections of the public, or maybe all of them. They appreciate - and are entitled to expect - clear, accurate and unambiguous communication.
Fight the Fog offers excellent, accessible guidance in writing clear English.
The structure of written text can make all the difference, especially if the subject is a complex one. Do not hesitate to make full use of side headings. ‘Background’ and ‘Next Steps’ or ‘Action’ are particularly useful. Also make full use of annexes to reduce the length, and improve the flow, of the main document. If you are asking more than one question, or dealing with more than one issue, consider giving each a separate section and a separate heading. And remember that one table of figures, or one graph, can often do the job of several pages of words.
It is also essential that we properly explain the considerations which underlie your organisation's policies. It is a real cop out to use phrases such as ‘It is [our] policy that . . . ’. The obvious retort is ‘Why?’.
Authority - and Energy
If you are to be persuasive, you must transmit an air of authority, upon which you can as necessary build a sense of motivation, energy, commitment and direction. For instance, it is not enough to demonstrate, when submitting advice to your boss and colleagues, that you are familiar with the facts, and are concerned about them. You also have to show that you intend to do something about the issue. Only then with they be happy to leave you to get on with your job.
Similarly, your Chief Executive or Minister, when writing to colleagues or the public, needs to demonstrate that he or she is powerful, appreciates what is troubling the correspondent, and clearly and unambiguously deals with the point at issue. One Secretary of State commented that
"Many civil servants seem too concerned to flesh out all the detail that they know to pay attention to impact, logic and narrative. Correspondence, for example, needs to explain policies in plain English with good illustrative stories that connect with the experience of the intended recipients. It needs to avoid the kind of recital of clichés or jargon that is sometimes served up."
We should never neglect the need for emotion and humanity when we speak and when we write, either for our own or for another'’s signature. Emotions make a very clear impression on those with whom we are communicating, and contribute greatly to the effectiveness of our communications. They should therefore form a small but vital part of almost all communications, including inter-Ministerial correspondence, Ministerial submissions, letters to the public and speeches – indeed any communication in which you are trying to persuade or leave a lasting impression. Dry, official sounding texts are simply less effective in these circumstances.
We must also always be polite and, if there is anything to apologise for – including a late reply – then apologise generously, using the word ‘sorry’ (as ever, a short Anglo-Saxon word is the most effective). Always try to avoid jargon, officialese, legalese, foreign or Latin phrases, acronyms and abbreviations. And please avoid insincerity. I distrust rounding off sentences at the end of letters e.g. ‘I hope you find these comments helpful’. These words are certainly entirely inappropriate if the letter conveys unwelcome news.
Purpose and Content
Before you turn to your keyboard, pick up a pen, or turn up for a meeting, take a little time to decide:
- What you expect to the recipient to do once they have read your missive, or what action you expect to be taken following your meeting,
- When you expect it to be done, and (if appropriate) ...
- How much work you expect to create.
The answers to these questions are not always obvious and, if they are not obvious to you, they will certainly not be obvious to the recipient. Are you looking for a decision, information or advice? Are you seeking to persuade, and if so are you expecting confirmation that you have been successful?
It is particularly important to think about the amount of work that you are creating. You may think you are asking a simple question, but the recipient might be able to answer it at a number of levels after varying degrees of research. So do you want them to spend 15 minutes, or 15 hours, on the reply? This question is particularly relevant if you are addressing a request to several people. For instance, if you send out a request for briefing or information to the Heads of 10 Divisions, and they each pass it out to four Branches, and if each Branch then has to do three hours work, you have created 120 hours of work. (Even more work can be created in government when Ministers write to other Ministers, or to representative associations and/or the heads of large organisations. Do you really intend this? Could you not target the request more carefully, or write to a sample of recipients?
Once you have answered the above three questions to your own satisfaction, you should include the result in the first few sentences of your letter or minute, or at the end of the meeting. There is no need for this to appear as an order. You can add plenty of words and phrases like ‘please’, ‘I should be grateful if’ and ‘it would be helpful if’. But do not disguise your expectations. The recipient needs these to be crystal clear.
If you are simply seeking agreement to a proposal, phrase your minute in such a way that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be given by the recipient, e.g. finish the minute: ‘Do you agree please?’.
It is obvious that an audience of subject experts will need to be approached in quite a different way to an audience with only a general interest in your subject - and that applies whether you are planning a speech or a magazine article or a letter. It is also obvious that a letter to a concerned member of the public will most likely need to be drafted in quite a different way from a letter or email to a colleague. At the very least, they will have different shared assumptions, and different interest in features such as the legal background to the issue.
It is also important to recognise that otherwise similar people can have quite different attitudes, responses and beliefs. Jonathan Haidt, in 'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion', explains very clearly how different people can perceive ‘fairness’ in different ways, and can have different perceptions of, and attitudes to, the risk of moral hazard associated with, for instance, welfare payments. See also Paul Johnson's essay on fairness.
And do be aware of the voluminous research which shows that most of our deeply held beliefs and prejudices will not be altered by logical argument and hard evidence. We all to some extent become stressed if we try to held contradictory beliefs. (Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance.) As a result, we reject information that challenges our prior beliefs and we change our deeply held views only very slowly, and in response to gentle encouragement, not aggressive debate. It is vital to bear all these truths in mind both when planning communications strategies and when preparing individual communications.
I was also struck by this research reported by Daniel Finkelstein in The Times in October 2018.
... we are all solution averse.
In one of the experiments, participants were asked to look at evidence that a big rise in global temperatures was on the way. Then they were asked to evaluate a policy that could prevent it. And a funny thing happened. When participants were given solutions to climate change that Republicans opposed ideologically — tax rises, regulation and so forth — the proportion who believed the original scientific statements about the rise in temperatures was low. When told the solution was extra government regulation, just 22 per cent of Republicans believed temperatures would go up by as much as the experts said. Yet when they were told that there were free market solutions to global warming, 55 per cent of Republicans said that they agreed with the original scientific statements. This is not just a Republican thing. The authors showed that much the same happens when you present liberals with evidence of the rising number of burglaries and suggest that relaxing gun control is a solution. Democrats are more inclined to believe the figures when more guns aren’t advanced as an answer.
So take the announcement this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Members are keen to persuade us that there is a climate change emergency. To show its seriousness, they linked scientific evidence with a list of the changes they think we need to make. Doing this was understandable. But it’s almost certainly counter-productive because it relies on the idea that we think forward, when in fact we think backwards. Logically we should begin with the facts and consider how to deal with them. In reality, we often look at the solution, see whether we like it, and then work backwards to decide if there is really a problem in the first place.
The research was reported in an article on the website of the journal Behavioural Public Policy, - American academic Troy Campbell outlined the results of experiments conducted with fellow professor Aaron Kay.
Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People includes similar advice:-
- No-one ever won an argument or changed someone else's mind purely through rational debate.
- Everyone thinks they are right. So condemning or criticising others is always counter-productive.
- We all crave recognition and approval from others. Praise is therefore a much more powerful motivator than threats.
And then there is this, from 1956:
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defences with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.…Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief and he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervour for convincing and converting other people to his view.”
Festinger, Riecken and Schacter, When Prophecy Fails
It follows that you will not persuade anyone of anything if you focus on facts, or ridicule them, or seek to prove them wrong. You should instead make them feel heard, respected and understood.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was a respected communicator but even he forgot the above lessons when seeking to defend his staff following the forcible ejection of a passenger, Dr David Dao, in order to make way for delayed crew who were needed in another city in order to avoid a cascade of further cancellations. The resultant PR disaster caused him to reflect that the episode was "a failure of epic proportions. ... I should have responded with my humanity and values. I got caught up in the facts when I should have responded to the raw emotions of the event."
One topical example communication problem might be the debate about climate change. Those concerned with its consequences have in the past been seen as too relaxed about forgoing economic growth, and so not being concerned about worldwide poverty, but instead being more concerned about 'a few polar bears and low-lying islands'. They have learned, I think, to focus on issues which resonate much more with doubters - such as energy security, wastefulness and affordability – and to talk about the threat to Norfolk, or even London, rather than the Marshall Islands. And it is, with the benefit of hindsight, a shame that we started talking about global warming rather than global over-heating.
A more extreme example might be the gun control debate in the USA. The thought processes of those opposed to further gun control are a closed loop best described by a brilliant headline in The Onion: 'NO WAY TO PREVENT THIS' SAYS ONLY NATION ON EARTH WHERE THIS EVER HAPPENS. It unfortunately seems almost impossible for the two sides in this debate to engage in an effective dialogue.
Much of the above was summarised in an article by Nicky Hawkins in the Guardian in August 2017 entitled "Telling people 'you're wrong' doesn't work". However, as John Heawood pointed out a day or so later, it ironically follows that Nicky Hawkins' article won't have worked either (- nor maybe the advice on this web page?).
The anti-vax movement is interesting, for example. There is often a mismatch between the perspectives of healthcare professionals and policymakers, and the patients they treat. For healthcare professionals, the idea that vaccinations, which typically have been tested through many large scale trials, may be harmful or unnecessary is often difficult to understand. Often it is assumed that a simple brief statement telling people that the vaccine is largely safe and will protect against illness will be enough to persuade someone to get vaccinated. Healthcare professionals may feel baffled and frustrated by vaccine refusal and it can be tempting to think of vaccine hesitancy as arising from ignorance or simple messages seen online. But, this perspective underestimates the wealth of sources of information that people tap into when making judgements about medicines, and ignores the role that the characteristics of vaccinations and the healthcare system itself play in promoting vaccine hesitancy. Looked at in one way, the use of vaccinations, often involving being injected with a weakened or killed virus, is a strange and undesirable activity. Usually, humans studiously avoid putting substances in their bodies which are not food, and which do not look, smell or taste appetising. The notable examples of recreational drugs and tobacco may not appear appetising but affect neural reward systems. Eating or injecting ourselves with most highly processed chemical substances would be harmful and risky. It is no wonder that many parents think carefully about whether to have their children vaccinated.
A couple of other points:-
You will sometimes have to deal with people who are highly stressed or obsessive. Don't be judgmental. Remember that we can all act uncharacteristically and irrationally when under pressure. Try to provide clear unambiguous information and advice, or else you will get absolutely nowhere.
And it is always a mistake to be rude or to show anger or frustration. Such reactions (a) raise the emotional temperature, and so get in the way of clear communication; (b) immediately make people dislike you, and (c) lay you open to criticism. All these severely reduce your effectiveness.
A further discussion of cognitive dissonance and related issues, such as Groupthink, may be found in the Speaking Truth to Power section of this website.
Communicating with Decision Makers
There is an obvious need to be extremely careful when seeking to suggest that your boss's views may be mistaken, or his/her performance less than optimal. Luckily, the English language provides numerous ways of softening a critical message:- 'I am afraid that ...'; I am not sure that ...'; 'I wonder'; I gather'; 'I imagine'; 'presumably'; possibly/probably'; and so on. The risk, of course, is that important advice and messages do not get understood by the recipient. There is a detailed discussion of the difficult of 'speaking truth to power' elsewhere on this website.
Crises, Dangers, Risks
Emotions run very high, and communication gets very difficult indeed, when there are perceived to be risks to health and safety. Important and excellent advice is on this sister Understanding Regulation website.
[This is a shorter version of similar advice on my Understanding the Civil Service website.]