What we have here, folks, is a failure to communicate

In all the hoo-ha about a speech writer earning $300,000 a year penning talks for Government Services Minister Bill Shorten, a crucial point has been lost, writes Madonna King.

Jun 06, 2024, updated Jun 06, 2024

Almost nothing tops communication as the requisite skill for those needing to tell a story.

And Immigration Minister Andrew Giles proved that with stunning clarity this week, with his bumbling efforts to explain away his earlier claim that drones were used to track those released from immigration detention.

Perhaps politics stands out as the arena where communication skills, and being able to articulate a message, is most missing.

Anthony Albanese’s flagship attempt to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice was mired in confusion and an inability to explain, successfully, why this was so important.

Peter Dutton’s bid to become prime minister is similarly hamstrung by an inability to communicate in a way that would convince voters he’d use his heart, as much as his head, in decision making.

And it’s not just our contemporary leaders – although their inability to fashion a narrative that engages voters is at the heart of the distrust we now have in both their politics and their policies.

But it’s our leaders’ communication styles, in history, that has both floated, and sunk, their popularity stocks.

Paul Keating could never work a mall like his predecessor Bob Hawke, who could spend hours talking to voters, while holding their babies. Hawke loved it. It wasn’t Keating’s style.

John Howard won over voters across the political pendulum with his plea to change gun laws. It was passionate and heartfelt, and told a story that we found difficult not to believe.

Hawke and Howard were masters of communication. Malcolm Turnbull’s authoritative style won him plaudits, until it crept across to what could appear as arrogance. It looked as though he always thought he was the smartest in the room.

Julia Gillard’s slows-talking style looked like she was thinking on the run. Kevin Rudd fashioned his leadership around being a normal bloke from Queensland, who could be like anyone else. Except he wasn’t.

The key to communication is forging a connection, and that starts with listening. Too often, it stops with our politicians.

If people, aka voters, believe someone is connecting with them, they’ll meet them on common ground. That’s why Howard, who wasn’t a typical suburban bloke, was able to connect over the horror of Port Arthur.

That’s why Hawke, who was both a drunk and a Rhodes scholar, could connect to all sorts of voters, who believed he was listening – and they were being heard.

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It’s no different when it comes to running a company, delivering a sermon, presenting a talkback show or parenting a teenager. Without that connection, the chance of winning support and delivering a message is muted.

So far, new Reserve Bank Governor Michelle Bullock is presenting a communication masterclass. We know she is shocked at filling her own car with petrol, and that reading letters from those struggling to make ends meet breaks her heart. But we also know she’s determined to make decisions according to the law that governs her role.

As a result, Bullock comes across as credible and empathetic; someone who understands our hardship but has a job to do. That’s a tricky tightrope to master. Add in her comments last year about the value of her team, and the importance of young people believing in themselves and speaking up, and it only adds to her leadership.

Julie Inman Grant, the straight-talking e-Safety commissioner, has the ability to cut-through and communicate in a way others talking about social media cannot. And it’s earned her plaudits from both sides of politics, the nation’s police and worried parents.

What about in business? Where are those authoritative voices with the ability to tell a story, and have us become true believers?

And why aren’t we valuing the art of communication, more, in our politicians?

Talk about leadership and yes, it’s crucial to value authenticity and credibility, teamwork and empathy. But we shouldn’t shy away from the importance of crafting a story that carries all of us with it.

That’s communication.

Andrew Giles learnt it this week. And Bill Shorten could show enormous charity by introducing his ministerial colleague to the clever Services Australia speech writer and communicator behind many of his own recent public addresses.

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