It may seem insensitive to take the death of a great monarch as the starting point for an article about authentic communications at difficult times. But perhaps if you’ve clicked on this link, you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt.
Cards on the table: I’ve been a fan of the Royal Family since standing in the rain at the Silver Jubilee of 1977. Reporting royal visits for the TV news ever since has been a privilege.
So what follows are, perhaps, three useful thoughts for anyone tasked with communicating messages in a time of sudden change, inspired by the news coverage this week.
1. The Power of ‘You’ & ‘Our’
The new King’s address to the nation — barely twenty-four hours after his mother’s death — was surely a masterclass in composed delivery. A couple of newsreaders suggested the King struggled to control his emotions: I didn’t spot that.
But what I did spot was the use of two words in particular. ‘You’ and ‘Our’. King Charles uses them 18 times, at points in his speech where he demonstrates the need, in any important address, to reach out and connect with an audience. How much easier it is when making a speech to overuse the word “I”, and overlook the risk that can run of making a speech all about you.
Do you sometimes forget the need to focus on your audience, and drift back to focussing on yourself? Of course, if you’re giving a talk or speech about your story, it would be bizarre to strip yourself out of it. But the more you feature yourself, the more you need to ensure you’re making your story relevant to your audience.
By using ‘you’ and ‘our’ so often, the king looked his nation in the eye.
2. The Power of Fine Detail
Tributes can be tricky. It’s a news cliche that within minutes of a significant death, ‘tributes are pouring in …’ So how do you make your communication stand out and be remembered?
Let’s look closely at the tribute from President Macron of France.
He begins straightforwardly enough — Queen Elizabeth was ‘wise’ and had ‘empathy.’ “We all feel an emptiness” he went on. So far so good. So far, so predictable.
And then he went on to say something that made me sit up.
“Elizabeth the Second mastered our language.”
Did you know that about our late Queen? She spoke good French? I certainly didn’t. Why would the Queen of England bother to learn decent French?
By switching from generalities to surprising detail, the President added another dimension to the memory — a detail that engaged my brain and enriched his message and his credibility.
When you’re communicating with your audiences, do you play it safe with the platitudes? Or do you track down a moment, paint a brief picture, hint at a story? If you do, your communication stands a better chance of being remembered.
3. The Power of Honest Debate
How honest should you be within an organisation about acknowledging dissent?
BBC, ITV and Sky News have all reported the smattering of protests that have taken place on the streets in recent days, as King Charles was proclaimed — and even as the late Queen’s coffin was driven by hearse through the streets of Edinburgh.
There will have been nervous debates in editorial meetings about what to do about this. I’ve sat in them myself, after the death of Princess Diana, the Queen Mother and while preparing for the death of Prince Philip.
The clear judgement this week has been that while any protest should not dominate the news agenda, it should nonetheless be reported in its context. The job of a public broadcaster is to acknowledge all views, no matter how distasteful that may seem to many.
Your duty isn’t quite the same if you work in Comms or PR. But acknowledging a minority view demonstrates a form of confidence that may well enhance the fairness of your own message.
It’ll take some getting used to — brace yourself for another surreal moment at 3pm on Christmas Day. But I suspect King Charles III will please us with the first King’s Speech of his reign, by reaching out to us, telling us a story, and including us all.