Friday, February 11, 2011
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak addressed his people for the last time on 10 February 2011 the disconnect between his words and the expectations of the audience was highlighted by the AlJazeera (http://english.aljazeera.net/video/) split screen presentation, which showed us Mubarak on one side saying "I cling to power" while on the other side his people were waving their shoes and shouting "Leave, leave!". At the same time the crawl at the bottom of the screen was telling us that Mubarak was expected to step aside.
Watching these images reminded me that not being in tune with your audience is actually a common problem in public speaking, though rarely on such a dramatic scale. Yet you can avoid or manage most of these situations simply through controlled leaks. You are probably familiar with the technique from newspaper and TV of politics. Before a leading politician makes a possibly controversial announcement you will often see reports in the media something like "the government is expected to announce an increase in the potato tax".
Why do they do this? There are actually several reasons. The first is to float the idea to see what the reaction is. If the reaction is very negative then the news can be denied and the plan abandoned, after all it was just a rumor and a deniable one. Another reason is to get people used to the idea. Very often people don't like an idea the first time they hear it, but after some initial opposition they accept it when they have had time to get used to it and heard it a few more times.
Sometimes the plan is to go ahead with the announcement anyway, regardless of the reaction, and in this case the leak serves to probe the opposition. Watching the reaction gives you valuable information about who is going to oppose the plan and what arguments they plan to use. In this way you can fine tune the real announcement to address their objections effectively. For this reason savvy politicians will hold back their arguments until the real announcement, giving a measured reaction to rumors.
All this is routine practice in political politics, but you can also apply similar techniques in your own company or organization, testing the reaction to proposals in low risk situations before you make a formal announcement. One way is the classic leak -- either you ask a trusted colleague to spread the word or you just mention the idea to someone known for not keeping their mouth shut. You can also do it openly, one to one, by using formulas like "there's talk of doing X" and listening to the reaction.
If the opposition is very strong you can abandon your plan without negative consequences. But if you are determined to go ahead then this probing and evangelizing -- a key part of any influencing strategy -- will help you to understand who the opposition is, what exactly they oppose and what arguments they plan to use against it. With this knowledge you can craft your messages to address their issues, modify the plan to accommodate them or maybe cut a deal with the opposers.
And Mubarak? Yesterday his communication team could have addressed at least the expectation issue by leaking to AlJazeera some key points from his speech, or they could have denied the rumors that he was going to stand down. Surprise rarely works in your favor, except when you are announcing good news.