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Good communications make good politicians

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POSTED: January 8, 2010 11:33 a.m.
Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of high-school students when one raised his hand, declared he wanted to run for Congress, and asked what he should study to prepare. I suspect my answer surprised him. I told him to study English.
What I had in mind were writing, reading and public speaking. Members of Congress need to be good at a lot of things if they want to be effective, but chief among them is the ability to communicate. Politics — both getting elected and making a meaningful contribution — is largely about interaction with other people. You won’t succeed if you can’t make yourself understood, don’t know how to pay attention to others and don’t care about the dialogue that underlies our democracy.
When I say “communication” I mean it in the broadest sense: formal and informal; one-on-one and before an audience; in writing, in speeches and in discussion; with small, friendly groups and in front of larger, not-always-friendly crowds; on television, on radio, on the Web, and in print; in the formal setting of the House or Senate floor and sitting at a luncheonette table over coffee and doughnuts.
Sometimes politicians have a chance to choose their words, but more often they have to speak off the cuff, weighing their words as they say them. Some people are born with this ability, but for lots of us it’s a skill we learn with practice, and it’s invaluable to a politician.
When you accept an invitation to speak, you never know what the environment is going to be — not just in terms of the venue, which could be anything from an old VFW hall to someone’s living room, but in terms of the political moment. Often, I’ve prepared for a public appearance only to have my speech become irrelevant when some issue became the only topic people were interested in discussing.
And the truth is, most audiences are less interested in hearing a speech read than in having it delivered in a way that seems fresh. They prefer dialogue with their elected representative rather than a set speech.
It also helps to remember that in public life, presentation matters. You have to be able to write clearly and, even more important, speak clearly: don’t slur your words, don’t let your voice fade. You’d be amazed how many people have difficulty hearing.
Be enthusiastic and energetic, and speak with conviction. Learn how to calibrate what you say to the medium: you’ll be more convincing on TV if you speak conversationally than if you come across as angry or impassioned; but before a crowd, speaking conversationally will just put the audience to sleep.
All of these things are helped enormously by preparation. You may not have to know your exact words ahead of time, but you most certainly want to master your subject. When you’re not sure of the facts or even of your own position, you have to tread carefully: that’s when politicians make mistakes, and in politics a slip can be devastating, especially in the age of mini camcorders and YouTube.
At the same time, the best politicians know that a crucial part of good communications is the ability to listen to constituents, to members of an audience, and to political opponents. The importance of paying attention to the first two should be obvious. You want to be able to address the concerns of listeners and to be ready to learn from them: not only do you not want to come across as an arrogant know-it-all, but also you’d be surprised and humbled to discover how much a crowd of average Americans can teach even the best-versed politician.  The same is true of your colleagues and opponents.
In the end, politics is a discussion among many interested parties — lawmakers, lobbyists, policy analysts, journalists and ordinary Americans. Being a good politician means being a good conversationalist, not simply scoring a few rhetorical points and then going home. Our system depends on give and take, not on drawing lines in the sand, and the more budding politicians there are who understand that, the better off we’ll all be.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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