Public affairs is no different than advertising, storytelling or a sales pitch. Making a positive first impression is paramount. However, because public affairs typically involves complex subjects with complicated or even convoluted story lines, making a positive first impression is not enough. The key to connecting is clarity.
Clarity involves careful choice of words, select use of pictures or charts and, most important, mastery of your subject matter. As an advocate, the greatest skill you can master is how to synthesize a topic so elected officials, important stakeholders or impacted neighbors can understand its critical dimensions – and the point you are advocating.
Less is usually better than more, if for no other reason than your audience has other stuff to worry about. You need to grab attention, pique interest and marshal a logical train of information. Fewer and simpler words, a pertinent anecdote and insightful arguments can pack the most punch by helping the listener or viewer unpack your clear meaning.
You may believe analytical approaches to issues are boring and turn off audiences. They can. Your job is to make your analysis relevant and memorable – and possibly even a little entertaining. The best path is the clear path. Talk, don’t lecture. Show, don’t preach. Illuminate, don’t obfuscate.
In the Bible, Jesus taught via parables – simple stories in a familiar setting that radiated deeper meaning than the superficial details of the story. The parable of the prodigal son helps us reflect on the forgiveness of a father – and the feelings of the son who didn’t stray from the flock.
Achieving clarity through simplicity is not an exercise in dumbing down a subject. On the contrary, making your point elegantly is very hard to achieve. It forces you to select the most salient facts and the most compelling arguments, then weave them into a narrative that attracts and holds an audience’s attention.
The challenge is especially intense for lobbyists who reckon they have less than 90 seconds to gain some mind-share of a busy politician who spends all day listening to people pitching points of view. To break through, you must provide clarity on your issue and your proposed solution.
Angry neighbors may come to a community meeting hell bent on shouting you down. You must disarm your would-be critics with your down-to-earth clarity and tell-it-like-it-is language. Make your case so they see it from your side of the table. They may still be angry and in opposition, but before leaving they may come up and shake your hand for talking to them directly and clearly.
Your assignment may be to reach a wider audience through an op-ed or a blog post. Jump into your story and walk your reader through your case. Avoid the weeds, digressions or side issues. Stay on course and clearly lay out your case.
Ernest Hemingway is revered for his straightforward, clear writing style. But Hemingway didn’t just type away final-draft copy. He painstakingly edited his work, much like a sculptor creating the soft curve of his subject’s face. Clarity is rarely a gift any of us get at birth. Clarity is earned, often with the help of gentle readers, test driving your arguments with friends and listening to critics.
If you want to be persuasive, don’t memorize the dictionary. Strive for the kind of clarity that’s only possible when you know your stuff – and the audience you are trying to convince.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.