Both Ministers and officials live or die by our communications skills. We often have no other weapon at our disposal. But we are not communicating with machines. We are trying to achieve things by influencing the behaviour of other human beings.
If we are to be effective, therefore, we must be aware of the the three classic Greek elements of rhetoric - all of which have since been deployed, often unknowingly, by all powerful communicators:
- Authority and
In addition, of course, we need to be clear about the purpose of the communication, its content, and its audience (including their beliefs).
Let's look at each in turn.
Your approach to many communications will depend on whether you are still at the stage of designing your policy, or whether you are implementing or defending it. But, whichever applies, it is essential that the contents are clear, logical and accurate, whether we are communicating within Whitehall or with the public. Many of our communications deal with subjects which are important either to our Ministers or to sections of the public, or to both. None of us will get very far unless we learn to write accurately and unambiguously. Indeed, all experienced civil servants have real skill in this area.
Fight the Fog offers excellent, accessible guidance in writing clear English.
The structure of written text can make all the difference, especially if the subject is a complex one. Do not hesitate to make full use of side headings. ‘Background’ and ‘Next Steps’ or ‘Action’ are particularly useful. Also make full use of annexes to reduce the length, and improve the flow, of the main document. If you are asking more than one question, or dealing with more than one issue, consider giving each a separate section and a separate heading. And remember that one table of figures, or one graph, can often do the job of several pages of words.
It is also essential that we properly explain the considerations which underlie Ministers' policies. It is a real cop out to use phrases such as ‘It is the department’s policy that . . . ’. The obvious retort is ‘Why?’.
Authority - and Energy
If you are to be persuasive, you must transmit an air of authority, upon which you can as necessary build a sense of motivation, energy, commitment and direction. For instance, it is not enough to demonstrate, in a Ministerial submission, that you are familiar with the facts, and are concerned about them. You also have to show that you intend to do something about the issue. Only then will a Minister be happy to leave you to get on with your job.
Similarly, a Minister, when writing to colleagues or the public, needs to demonstrate that he or she is powerful, appreciates what is troubling the correspondent, and clearly and unambiguously deals with the point at issue. One Secretary of State commented that "Many civil servants seem too concerned to flesh out all the detail that they know to pay attention to impact, logic and narrative. Correspondence, for example, needs to explain policies in plain English with good illustrative stories that connect with the experience of the intended recipients. It needs to avoid the kind of recital of clichés or jargon that is sometimes served up."
We should never neglect the need for emotion and humanity when we speak and when we write, either for our own or for Minister’s signature. Emotions make a very clear impression on those with whom we are communicating, and contribute greatly to the effectiveness of our communications. They should therefore form a small but vital part of almost all communications, including inter-Ministerial correspondence, Ministerial submissions, letters to the public and speeches – indeed any communication in which you are trying to persuade or leave a lasting impression. Dry, official sounding texts are simply less effective in these circumstances.
We must also always be polite and, if there is anything to apologise for – including a late reply – then apologise generously, using the word ‘sorry’ (as ever, a short Anglo-Saxon word is the most effective). Always try to avoid jargon, officialese, legalese, foreign or Latin phrases, acronyms and abbreviations. And please avoid insincerity. I distrust rounding off sentences at the end of letters e.g. ‘I hope you find these comments helpful’. These words are certainly entirely inappropriate if the letter conveys unwelcome news.
Purpose and Content
Before you turn to your keyboard, pick up a pen, or turn up for a meeting, take a little time to decide:
- What you expect to the recipient to do once they have read your missive, or what action you expect to be taken following your meeting,
- When you expect it to be done, and (if appropriate) ...
- How much work you expect to create.
The answers to these questions are not always obvious and, if they are not obvious to you, they will certainly not be obvious to the recipient. Are you looking for a decision, information or advice? Are you seeking to persuade, and if so are you expecting confirmation that you have been successful?
It is particularly important to think about the amount of work that you are creating. You may think you are asking a simple question, but the recipient might be able to answer it at a number of levels after varying degrees of research. So do you want them to spend 15 minutes, or 15 hours, on the reply? This question is particularly relevant if you are addressing a request to several people. For instance, if you send out a request for briefing or information to the Heads of 10 Divisions, and they each pass it out to four Branches, and if each Branch then has to do three hours work, you have created 120 hours of work. Even more work can be created when Ministers write to other Ministers, and letters to trade associations and the heads of large organisations. Do you really intend this? Could you not target the request more carefully, or write to a sample of recipients?
Once you have answered the above three questions to your own satisfaction, you should include the result in the first few sentences of your letter or minute, or at the end of the meeting. There is no need for this to appear as an order. You can add plenty of words and phrases like ‘please’, ‘I should be grateful if’ and ‘it would be helpful if’. But do not disguise your expectations. The recipient needs these to be crystal clear.
If you are simply seeking agreement to a proposal, phrase your minute in such a way that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be given by the recipient, e.g. finish the minute: ‘Do you agree please?’.
It is obvious that an audience of subject experts will need to be approached in quite a different way to an audience with only a general interest in your subject - and that applies whether you are planning a speech or a magazine article or a letter. It is also obvious that a letter to a concerned member of the public will most likely need to be drafted in quite a different way from a letter to a colleague in the Treasury. At the very least, they will have different shared assumptions, and different interest in features such as the legal background to the issue.
It is also important to recognise that otherwise similar people can have quite different attitudes, responses and beliefs. Jonathan Haidt, in 'The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion', explains very clearly how different people can perceive ‘fairness’ in different ways, and can have different perceptions of, and attitudes to, the risk of moral hazard associated with, for instance, welfare payments.
And do be aware of the voluminous research which shows that most of our deeply held beliefs and prejudices will not be altered by logical argument and hard evidence. We all to some extent become stressed if we try to held contradictory beliefs. (Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance.) As a result, we reject information that challenges our prior beliefs and we change our deeply held views only very slowly, and in response to gentle encouragement, not aggressive debate. It is vital to bear all these truths in mind both when planning communications strategies and when preparing individual communications.
Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People includes similar advice:-
- No-one ever won an argument or changed someone else's mind purely through rational debate.
- Everyone thinks they are right. So condemning or criticising others is always counter-productive.
- We all crave recognition and approval from others. Praise is therefore a much more powerful motivator than threats.
It follows that the only way to persuade anyone of anything is is not to focus on facts, or to ridicule them, or to seek to prove them wrong, but to make them feel heard, respected and understood.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was a respected communicator but even he forgot the above lessons when seeking to defend his staff following the forcible ejection of a passenger, Dr David Dao, in order to make way for delayed crew who were needed in another city in order to avoid a cascade of further cancellations. The resultant PR disaster caused him to reflect that the episode was "a failure of epic proportions. ... I should have responded with my humanity and values. I got caught up in the facts when I should have responded to the raw emotions of the event."
One topical example communication problem might be the debate about climate change. Those concerned with its consequences have in the past been seen as too relaxed about forgoing economic growth, and so not being concerned about worldwide poverty, but instead being more concerned about 'a few polar bears and low-lying islands'. They have learned, I think, to focus on issues which resonate much more with doubters - such as energy security, wastefulness and affordability – and to talk about the threat to Norfolk, or even London, rather than the Marshall Islands. And it is, with the benefit of hindsight, a shame that we started talking about global warming rather than global over-heating.
A more extreme example might be the gun control debate in the USA. The thought processes of those opposed to further gun control are a closed loop best described by a brilliant headline in The Onion: 'NO WAY TO PREVENT THIS' SAYS ONLY NATION ON EARTH WHERE THIS EVER HAPPENS. It unfortunately seems almost impossible for the two sides in this debate to engage in an effective dialogue.
Much of the above was summarised in an article by Nicky Hawkins in the Guardian in August 2017 entitled "Telling people 'you're wrong' doesn't work". However, as John Heawood pointed out a day or so later, it ironically follows that Nicky Hawkins' article won't have worked either (- nor maybe the above advice?).
A couple of other points:-
We sometimes have to deal with people who are highly stressed or obsessive. Don't be judgmental. Remember that we can all act uncharacteristically and irrationally when under pressure. Try to provide clear unambiguous information and advice, or else you will get absolutely nowhere.
And it is always a mistake to be rude or to show anger or frustration. Such reactions (a) raise the emotional temperature, and so get in the way of clear communication; (b) immediately make people dislike you, and (c) lay you open to criticism. All these severely reduce your effectiveness.
Communicating with Ministers
There is much advice elsewhere on this website about working with Ministers, but this is probably the best place to draw attention to the (obvious) need to be extremely careful when seeking to suggest that a Minister's views may be mistaken, or his/her performance less than optimal. Luckily, the English language provides numerous ways of softening a critical message:- 'I am afraid that ...'; I am not sure that ...'; 'I wonder'; I gather'; 'I imagine'; 'presumably'; possibly/probably'; and so on.
Much the same applies to communicating unwelcome advice to very senior officials and other 'Great and Good'. The risk, of course, is that important advice and messages do not get understood by the recipient. I confess that I have generally chosen to err on the side of clarity in order to avoid being misunderstood, which undoubtedly meant that I was never going to become a Permanent Secretary!
Especially when dealing with Ministers, attention to the above factors tends to increase their trust in you - and trust is a valuable commodity which is hard to gain and easy to lose. The later happens, for instance, as a result of simple mistakes, failure to check statistics or consistency, and a failure to understand the political background to the issue.
Remember, though, that civil servants should be politically aware, not politically aligned. Former Defence Minister Nick Harvey put this rather well when he said that "Sometimes the advice strives so hard to be objective that it becomes unworldly. I was not looking for politically biased advice but I did want advice that was politically aware: political neutrality was fine, but political naivety was unhelpful."
Crises, Dangers, Risks
Emotions run very high, and communication gets very difficult indeed, when there are perceived to be risks to health and safety. Important and excellent advice is on this sister Understanding Regulation website.
Accuracy or Pedantry?
As I have discovered to my cost, the best way to wake up an audience of senior officials is to put up a slide which includes a misplaced apostrophe. This is not (just?) because they are a bunch of boring pedants. It is mainly because, like lawyers, they are trained to write accurately and unambiguously. Rightly or wrongly, therefore, they will write you off as unintelligent if you make grammatical and other mistakes which are commonly made by lots of other (very intelligent) people. So do make sure you know the difference between its and it's, and avoid common errors such as mixing up principle and principal. (Hint - the person has got 'pal' at the end.)
If you need help, then I recommend Graham King's Collins Good Grammar.
Emails, Spell-Check etc.
Emails are quick and easy to send, but surprisingly permanent and often the source of regret. They are always worth a second look for tone, content and list of recipients. Does the whole department need to read your reply? And I (almost) never blind copy an email. If it would be seriously bad for the addressee to know that you had done so, just think how they will feel when a blind copy recipient 'replies to all'. The only exception might be when blind copying to a long circulation list of people who probably do not want their email addresses to be shown to many others. But even then there is a risk that you will one day forget to blind copy, and instead email openly to all of them. If this risk is unacceptable then you will need to use Twitter and or a blog or other mechanism to communicate with larger numbers.
Spell-check is good, but fallible. It happily accepts Minster and manger rather than Minister and manager, and will allow you to forward a daft letter. And one official found himself briefing a Minister on Aids in Uganda that "74% of sufferers had had contact with women and 26% contact with me". If the document is important, get someone to read it who has not seen it before.
I confess that am an obsessive hoarder of emails - assuming they can be organised in a way that makes some sort of sense. In part this is because it the cost of doing so - in time or money - is so very low that it is is easily repaid by the occasional value of finding that old email that proves that you had specified the correct time for the appointment, or had issued a sufficiently clear warning that a colleague was about to do something stupid. Of course it's not so good when they prove the opposite, but at least you can then issue a swift apology.