One of my hobby horses in politics and in commercial communications is licence – the way that the communication of your track record either enhances your message or detracts from it. I experienced a great example of it last week. I had a cardiac perfusion test, which allows medics to look at your heart in different states of activity through an MRI (results all good). The bit that is not very nice, other than being in an MRI tube for an hour, is when the medics inject the chemical that simulates exercise. You become red in the face, flushed and, well, it hurts quite a bit. It only lasts for 3 minutes of the overall test but a consultant appears in the room for this part of the test and talks to you. What this consultant did, though, was a little gem of communicating. There is a brief moment when you can feel the drugs going into your hand but haven’t experienced the big gasp that accompanies them accelerating your cardiovascular system. In this brief window of time, the medic explained what was about to happen (your face will go red, you’ll start to sweat) but, just as I was about to mouth ‘why don’t you try it then’, he said that he’d had the test himself and he understood what was happening. Suddenly, my attitude to him changed and I was happy (as happy as you can be stuck in a metal tube, gasping) to listen to what he had to say. He had told me about his licence to talk to me.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that a Doctor can’t talk to you about your treatment if they haven’t experienced it themselves but, and this is where the lesson for communicators comes in, if you do have a real experience or a proxy then tell your audience about it.
Why does it matter? Well, it shows empathy and understanding – both important preconditions to give your message a good landing pad in someone else’s brain. Empathy matters because it creates a shared space in which your conversation can begin – in other words, common ground. Secondly, it can put you on the other side of the argument, instead of being one of ‘them’, you can become one of ‘us’, and again this helps a message to land so that a conversation can begin in earnest. In this case, my understanding of the consultant changed from being needle proprietor and chief among the medics to fellow traveller and expert.
Good communicators understand the importance that licence plays. Tony Blair, for example, put Alan Johnson in charge of tuition fees precisely because he had not been to University. His licence to introduce these reforms was enhanced because he had not benefitted from the system that he was changing.
All of which brings me to today’s reshuffle. The coalition’s communicators have, for the most part, little in the way of licence to speak about everyday things that bother voters like food bills, energy prices, petrol, school discipline, waiting at A&E, no Doctors appointment after work.
So, what team Cameron is up to today is fashioning a more credible licence to speak to voters ahead of the election. Like my consultant in the MRI room, the government needs to have some people who have experienced the pain themselves, or at least look like they might have done, to be in front of the cameras for the next 18 months.
Licence is not just about politics, though, it is an important part of the analytical toolkit for corporate communications. We have developed a tool at Storey Communications called MELT (Message, Evidence, Licence, Timing) that provides a way of measuring the potential effectiveness of your messages.
An exercise that is well worthwhile doing for your organisation and for your spokespeople is to sketch the anatomy of their licences – sounds painful doesn’t it. Here are four questions you should ask before you deploy a spokesperson to communicate a new message:
• Has the author and owner written in this area before and does the previous message conflict with this one?
• Is there a quality of the author and owner that makes it difficult for them to show empathy about the issue you are communicating.
• What is the author’s or owner’s background? Does this make it more easy or more difficult to communicate in this space?
• Is the author respected in this field? Do they have a strong track record?
These four questions are just a starter, there are lots more questions you should ask about your licence to communicate and of course, we would be happy to help to coach your team.