The debt ceiling test: communicate or fail?

Like many Americans who worry about the future and wonder about the best policy to pursue, I watched the President’s speech Sunday night, and Rep. Boehner’s immediate response afterward. They offer a sobering lesson on how ineffective the use of video be when we care about our message the most.

Don’t let the high stakes show on your face

Virginia Heffernan raises the issue in her column for the New York Times: “When Shilling on the Web, Think Small”. She points out that knowing one’s audience is crucial to effectiveness in any web video. She correctly observes that emotion and surprise are an important part of effective web communication; and she observes that Obama stripped all emotion out of his delivery, leaving his audience cold and his objective unattained.

Boehner, for his part, certainly acted more confident, but also seemed stilted and removed to this observer. He made some rather virile assertions that might have felt strong, might have felt like heady rhetoric — depending on the audience. As with Obama’s presentation, the results are still not in.

From the point of view of connecting with and motivating his intended audience, Boehner probably achieved more of his goals than Obama; but from the standpoing of communicating clear content that imparted new knowledge and motivated concrete action, both of them fell far short.

One of the most important lessons from this is that it shows the limits of the medium itself. Whenever we want to communicate a serious message, we are limited by the attention span of our audience and the context of our squawk-box. Folks who watch online have other conversations going on, other people in the room, may be watching on a mobile device in a crowded coffee shop or ¬†with friends. It’s a great environment for watching kittens … a little less ideal for watching important world events.

Then, too, the issues themselves are very complex. As Paul Krugman pointed out, there’s a presumption in the media that both sides are wrong and self-serving, so the presumption of “balance” gives extra power to whichever side is more intransigent, more bold, and more consistent. A complex thinker and cool pragmatist like Obama comes off looking silly and weak in those kinds of comparisons.

Then again, here’s a watchable speech

Of all the video clips I’ve seen on this issue, the one I felt did the best job of articulating a serious message was the speech to the Senate by Al Franken.

Despite taking longer on his topic to get his points across, I think Franken ended up with a more satisfying, more watchable video message for 4 reasons:

1. He spoke warmly and emotionally. Neither of the other guys acted like they really believed their material… They were reading a teleprompter, and especially Obama seemed worried that he would appear too passionate on the topic. Franken, on the other hand, managed to strike a balance in which his humor and sarcasm were restrained … which for him adds a level of passionate seriousness … while his eyes showed a connection with both friends and foes in his discussion. There was warmth there, and there was also a genuine sense of indignation at the falsehoods he exposed, and sadness about the impact on people of these issues. Emotion is essential.

2. He knew his audience. He knew they respect President Reagan, and have a common language of law and precedent. He used those familiar reference points to make his opponents hold still while he earnestly confronted — not pleadingly or weakly, but not stridently or meanly, either — with the facts he chose to present.

3. He used facts with enough detail to do damage. Obama used veiled references to facts, always trying to oversimplify and explain. Can’t say as I really noticed any facts in Boehner’s message. But Franken used historical context and simple, incontrovertable facts to construct a strong case for his arguments. The delivery of factual material … especially through animation and graphics … is one of the most powerful, and underused, strengths of the video medium.

4. Franken told stories. He brought personalities and impacts into his message, and used them to create interest, add drama, provide a basis for the emotion he showed, and helped hold the audience in place.

Now I’m guessing that most of the senators chose not to listen to Al, and probably never heard his message. I’m also guessing that only a few “undecided” people watched it and allowed themselves to be swayed. Still, I think Al’s speech does have a lot of surprising elements; and a logical person of the opposite viewpoint was addressed with enough charm, wit and passion to give them half a chance of being won over. And that was not the case with either Obama’s or Boehner’s speech, in my opinion.

Jon Stewart also addressed the topic, through selective comparison of Obama and Boehner’s words. He gives an expectedly sarcastic, but surprisingly relevant, commentary through his humor. The editing of Obama’s “gold chairs” is choice.

Does it matter?

I think that the most important tool we have as humans is the ability to communicate seriously about complex topics. Our media, which are supposed to help us, generally do not. They distract us, amuse us, confuse us and deceive us, but rarely inform us. And indeed, the media themselves cannot. McLuhan was wrong, the medium is not the message. The message is the message, and we aren’t really communicators if we don’t craft a message and use the medium expertly to do so.

If we wish to communicate effectively a serious viewpoint … what Ms. Heffernan calls “shilling” … then we must look for authentic and effective ways to address our audience, address them with love and empathy, and bring our A game in terms of facts, wit, surprises, and emotion in order to build a bridge of understanding.

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