Tongue of Slip: Communicating effectively as policymakers

Policymakers as public figures hold great responsibility and accountability in what they say. To give some context, recently, Prime Minister in Nepal, KP Sharma Oli received a lot of flak in social media by claiming that ginger, garlic and turmeric helps in resisting Covid-19. Recently, which doesn’t seem to be a surprise now, with the prime minister slipping his tongue (or rather thoughts), he claimed that Lord Ram was born in Nepal, igniting fury and shock across India.

Not only are policymakers used to giving such personal, highly opinionated and baseless remarks in the parliament or political rallies, we also witness similar carelessness during important policy discussion or dissemination events. I recall a policy discussion workshop where one policymaker was slotted thirty minutes for his presentation. He spent the first fifteen minutes addressing the dignitaries and welcoming them. For the next half of his presentation, he had about forty PowerPoint slides which he just read through facing towards the screen and with his back towards the audience. The entire slides (that too somebody else might have prepared) were about chronological history of evolution of a policy. He continued this narration till the last “Thank You” slide and then just ended his presentation. As an audience, I couldn’t understand what message he wanted to convey, if at all.       

So, how can policymakers better themselves? Here are my seven tips:

  1. Know the occasion: It is important as an invitee to understand the purpose of an event – why are you invited there and what are you supposed to speak. Sometimes, these things are mentioned in the invitation letters but also better to clarify with the organizer(s) about what is expected from you. It makes your life much easier, to prepare for the event accordingly.
  • Speeches and presentations not karaoke singing: Presentations and written speeches are not meant to be spoken like how you are waiting for the words in the video screen while doing karaoke singing. It makes your audiences totally disinterested and shows you are ill prepared. So, it becomes very important for you to spend some time reading through and understanding the content that you are going to deliver.  
  • Avoid unnecessary addressing: Especially in political gatherings, policymakers spend unnecessary extra time on addressing to ‘please’ some powerful political figures present at the event. It would be better to avoid these unnecessary addressing which will save precious time for important discussions – for which the event is organized.  
  • Focus on key messages: In most cases, you have around 15-30 minutes to speak. So, better to talk about the most important issues that you feel needs to be covered and the ones could be left out. For instance, you need not put up a slide with an entire paragraph about provisions of a certain policy but just include in bullet points about key highlights from that policy that also only if relevant to be discussed for the event.  
  • Presentation as storytelling: It is important to think yourself as an audience and present your ideas/opinions that would interest your audience. So, considering the multiple learning capabilities (visual, auditory or kinesthetic) of diverse audiences, you need to ‘style’ your content accordingly – emphasizing on important words while you speak, using relevant photos/videos and bodily movements.
  • Enrich your knowledge banks: As policymakers, you need to have good advisers who are knowledgeable or can extract information/evidence about issues that concern you. As a public figure, every word you say would be interpreted as voice from an ‘authority’ and therefore, it is important to understand the value of evidence to put forward your arguments strongly. A fact sheet to carry during any public event would come handy for you to present your arguments/opinions that are well informed.
  • Follow up on what you say: Often as politicians/policymakers, there is a tendency to go by a popular opinion. With omnipresent media and civil society, it is also important to follow up on your commitments through action and during your next presentation/speech on the same issue, your reflection about the actions would give an impression to the people about your seriousness regarding the issue.

Sometimes, unintentionally we tend to make mistakes, which could be acceptable or generally what we say as, ‘slip of the tongue’. In PM Oli’s case (also US President Donald Trump and Indian PM Narendra Modi for that matter), when he repeatedly gives baseless remarks, it could be termed as, ‘tongue of slip’.

In this light, it is important for public figures such as policymakers to learn and practice effective communications skills. Every word counts especially when it comes to sensitive fields such as diplomacy where not just words but even body language and posture are being observed meticulously.  

Contributor: Sudeep Uprety. Sudeep is a development communicator. Tweets @UpretySudeep

Cover Image courtesy: Nagarik daily

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