Effective communication….politics shows us what not to do.

The Labour Party’s leadership announcement event provided some good examples of how NOT to get your message across successfully, says Tougher Minds Head of Education, Andrew Foster.

It is indicative that the Right Honourable Tom Watson’s ‘very brief comments’ on his election as Labour deputy leader failed to hold the attention of BBC Radio Four for their duration. One can imagine the producers’ exasperation as they gave the order to cut back to the studio.

Tasked with giving a three minute speech, Watson spoke instead for eight. Further, he began by stating that “being prepared is not something I am renowned for”, an interesting choice of opening gambit from someone seeking high office in government.

Watson’s speech had its stronger points and I seek to make no comment on his or anyone else’s politics here. Nonetheless, it remains bewildering to me that people across the political spectrum, for whom a core component of their business is communication, fail to observe some very basic principles. Watson fell down on delivering his thoughts concisely but there is a more common and more significant failing, which is seemingly shared by all our elected representatives.

Watson perhaps has the excuse of having a short time to prepare between his forewarning of the result and the delivery of the speech – though I wonder how legitimate that is, given his victory was the most likely of all relevant possibilities. The question remains as to why, eight years after An Inconvenient Truth won two Oscars, politicians of all parties continue to deliver highly-prepared, long-scheduled speeches to audiences, often in front of a backdrop of vast computerised screens, yet without any sort of visual presentation to support their audience’s ability to follow their thinking.

To be the first to break ranks and begin to make use of audio-visual aids would be to invite mockery. “Death by PowerPoint” is a common snigger in many workplaces, though usually prompted by woeful misuse of its capabilities. Regardless, if the aim is to share ideas and to convince others of their merit, then it as it stands that aim is being pursued in a needlessly substandard fashion.

I very much agree with Peter Hyman, former Blair speechwriter and Headteacher of School 21, that verbal communication should be considered as essential a quality to be developed as literacy. I have pupils that would have made a better job of delivering to time than Watson, and were they presenting to a large audience like a party conference, they would see it as bizarre not to use the power of images to support their messages. You can watch Jade, Sam and Nina do just that here:

Colfe's School pupils talk about their experience of Tougher Minds in 2015. from Pre-Shot on Vimeo.

At this point some may be thinking that my position is placing all responsibility upon the speaker with none left for the audience. This is not the case. One thing people will always have in abundance is opportunities to practice exercising self-control.

The problem is that, aside from those participating in the Tougher Minds programme, very few are ever explicitly taught how to do this. The practice they undertake when given university lecture-style lessons is how to switch off and not pay attention to the subject, without making this apparent to the person delivering the session. As well as improving our delivery, we need to use our understanding of how to hold the attention of young people to help them develop their ability to maintain that attention when the challenge to do so is greater.

We as teachers must avoid the mistake many of our politicians make time and time again. If we want our messages to be received we must give serious thought to how they are delivered.

That should be succinctly, with great thought given to how we begin and end, and making use of every medium available to us.

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