By Monica Murphy, Senior Coaching Partner and Ethan Becker, Senior Coaching Partner
As Speech Coaches, we look at how the art of communication persuades a voter. Have you thought about how communication style impacts a voter’s perception? By style we mean: how someone comes across to their listeners. Forget about the healthcare, balance of power in the white house, and messaging for a moment….Let’s look at the communication reasons why some Massachusetts voters eagerly checked the box next to Scott Brown on the ballot. Simply said, wrong style, not enough smile.
In Massachusetts in 2010, Martha Coakley did anything but come across as conversational and approachable on the campaign trail. Instead she came across as arrogant and elitist. Now wait a minute, we’re not saying Martha Coakley is arrogant and elitist, as a speech coaches, we’re more selective with our language than that, she “came across” that way. And in some circles, that will be ok, it will translate into confidence. In the job of an Attorney General, this serves a purpose. But when it’s a political female candidate, and your competition is already shouting from the rooftops, “Liberal arrogant elitist”… and then you “sound that way”, it solidifies the perception.
What do we mean by sound that way?
Often when Coakely spoke in public, her tone and inflection did not match the message. This does not indicate if she was sincere or not, it simply projects the impression that she is not, Remember, it’s all about perception.
Add to that, it’s been our experience at the firm that women have a more difficult time projecting a consistent confident, authoritative and approachable style. The attempts are often seen as arrogant or condescending. There must be a strong use of Pathos, emotional appeal, as well. One woman who is perceived as succeeding in creating an approachable, even charismatic style is Michelle Obama, what strikes you about her? Yes… it is her Style and Smile…
What could Coakley have done more of?
-Incorporate more nonverbal communication such as more smiling and larger gestures. –
-Use language that evokes more emotion
-Vary the tone and inflection in her voice to project a more approachable and sincere style
These are very specific mannerisms that many speakers need to learn, even in business.
Brown’s Style and Smiles…
Brown came across as comfortable, confident and down to earth. Why? Well, keep in mind, he did not need to influence voters in North Carolina, only in New England. The single most identifiable verbal trait of a New Englander is to drop the “r”. “Pahk ya cah in hahvad yahd.” Brown has a keen skill to turn this on and off in a way that has him described as articulate!
Brown’s use of nonverbal communication was very effective. Often seen with a smile or an engaged look, he appeared conversational and approachable. Now add some strategic placement of issues and messaging and you have a formula for success.
Any candidate who is running for office should look carefully at the way he or she speaks. This is not about pretending to be someone your not. It’s about knowing your listeners.
The short version from these professional speech coaches who live in Massachusetts: Coakley’s communication style simply came across as flat and even offensive to many. Brown’s communication style came across as charismatic, articulate and approachable. Brown’s style and smile made it easy for people to create a Massachusetts Miracle.
by Dr. Dennis Becker.
“Isn’t human communication fascinating?! This whole Gates-Cambridge Police-Crowley-Obama flap is just the latest in the ongoing saga of humans attempting to communicate with each other. By this time, we all pretty much know what happened:
Gates lost his keys to his home and couldn’t get in, Gates asks help of his limo driver to push the door in, Neighbor observes two “black men with back packs” doing this, Neighbor, being good neighbor, calls the police and reports attempted break-in, police arrive, Officer Crowley knocks on door, Gates comes to door, Crowley asks for identification, Gates retrieves Harvard ID card to verify his ownership and occupancy, Crowley accepts response and turns to leave porch, Gates complains about being harassed because of being a black man, Gates emerges from house onto front porch and continues commentary, Crowley replies with comment on Gates being public disturbance or disturbing the peace and arrests Gates.
Gates is placed in handcuffs behind his back, Gates complains he uses a cane and can’t walk with hands behind him, different officer intervenes and handcuffs are changed to front of Gates as he is taken to jail.
Now, obviously I’m summarizing broadly here. You can watch the video of both Gates and Crowley describing what happened.
I realize that there were nuances of inflection, facial expression, body language, volume, vocabulary, and more which were in play during the actual incident. I realize that it is important for us to engage in rhetorical analysis of the micro elements of this communication, if for no other reason than to learn from it. All of this can be justified from the perspective of wanting to help others who may be confronted with similar situations. I get that.
So, as a communication coach with more than 40 years of experience, allow me to suggest what would have served better for both Gates and Crowley. These two intelligent, accomplished professionals should be embarrassed for themselves for not being able to simply chalk this up to poor, but understandably human judgment at the time of the incident.
Each of these men entered that situation with personal and professional “baggage,” probably harkening as far back as early childhood, regarding issues of authority, privacy, race and respect. Each of these men, in retrospect, is still being controlled by those same long-standing attitudes which enable the “baggage” they carry. Gates should have thanked the officer for doing his duty. He should have overlooked the “attitude” that may have been conveyed in body language, vocabulary, etc. He should have immediately called his neighbor and offered thanks for the caring, watchful eye.
Crowley should have, after verifying the identity of Gates, apologized for any inconvenience and explained that he was simply responding to a report of a break-in and following usual protocol. He then should have simply turned and left the premises. He has probably done this many times before. So, as my Jewish friends would say, “Why should this night be any different than any other night?” Well, that’s human nature. We get very defensive as an initial means of interaction in what appears to be a threatening situation. No, not necessarily physically threatening, but threatening to authority, privacy, race and respect. Most of us lash out with the first two human communication tools we have – body language and speech. That is, we give a “look,” a “gesture,” a “mumble,” a “snicker.” You all know what I’m describing. We have all done it on occasion. It’s a human’s way of “defending” turf and self. On the receiving end, it gets regarded as disrespect or a challenge. If the reaction isn’t strong or obvious enough, there are always onlookers who can add “Ooh, are you gonna’ take that?” and we all know where it goes from there. Suddenly, all our “baggage” starts to unravel and the humans have two options: one is verbal/nonverbal and the other is physical.
Both of these men were at fault. Each should have acted more responsibly in recognizing the setting and circumstances that brought them together. Both of them should simply recognize their actions as the heat of the moment, while not being “wrong” were triggering and were triggered.
To top it off, now Obama is in it! His remarks did not serve him well. His vocabulary did not serve him or others well. He does not have an equal right to proclaim positions and expect little or no repercussion. He too has “baggage.” He’s human. All humans have “baggage,” but he is the President of the most powerful nation on the planet. He is a historical figure in so many ways. Whether we agree with him or not, he must be a bit more accepting – his casual, over the back fence, friendly, neighborly opinion just ain’t that. He’s The President of the most powerful nation on the planet! However, the rest of us must also accept his humanness and be able to step back from the fake heat that is generated by those who live off the “baggage” of others.
There are so many more critical issues in the world. Why are we not blogging about Darfur, or child molestation, or hunger, etc. Come on folks, keep it real! Try carrying your “baggage” in the other hand for a while.”
Dr. Dennis Becker is CEO , Principal & Senior Coaching Partner at The Speech Improvement Company.
If only everyone had obeyed our SOS Stop-Observe-Strategize Principle, one esteemed Harvard professor and one well regarded police sargeant in Cambridge Massachuseetts would be sleeping better tonight.
So to the both of you, think mind over mouth next time.
1. Sgt. Crowley: Couldn’t you have used your astute observation
skills to surmise that the well dressed, articulate and arrogant fella
was likely a Harvard man? Could you have made nice?
2. Professor Gates, yes you just returned from China and couldn’t get
into your own house but you’ve been controlling your demeanor for good
results your whole life.
Could you have told yourself “this is really not my day” and come up with a way to humor the stone faced officer? How about finding out more about what job he had turned up at your home to do, then proudly shown your ID?
Ok no one, black or white, likes to show identification at their own house, but the officer would have called it a day and you would have had the time for tea and jet lag recovery
3. Hey guys, you are both supposedly experts in racial profiling.
Shouldn’t this have led to a bond not a breakdown?
Imagine a rewind:
Gates: Here’s my ID. I’m head of African American Studies here at Harvard–just got back from China
Crowley: Sorry Professor, this isn’t your day is it? Sorry for the inconvenience but we got a call and there’s been quite a few burglaries lately. Well I’m off to the police academy to teach.
Gates: Really, what do you teach?
CrowleY: Ethics and avoiding racial profiling
Gates: Terrific… that’s my expertise too. well keep up the good work. And thanks for watching out for the neighborhood. And keep being cool before you use those handcuffs on some dude.
Crowley: No problem professor. Remember your keys next time.