Explaining is losing (but only in politics)

Written By: - Date published: 6:24 am, April 9th, 2018 - 48 comments
Categories: greens, Politics - Tags: , ,

It is often said that people (voters) have short attention spans – imagine a class of school kids. Get the message across, plain and simple – teachers follow tested guidelines for effective pedagogy and, of course: repeat, repeat, repeat. Unfortunately, nothing in politics is plain and simple and to claim otherwise is lying or propaganda.

People are not as stupid as some like to think but they all have their biases. They will easily jump to conclusions that are based on and confirm their biases. We all do this.

Context (background) is hugely important in getting the right message and the message right. People love to shoot (at) the messenger and the message gets lost; this is often deliberate.

A political party obviously wants to get its message out, understood, and well-received. This means that they have to build a good rapport with their audience. This is particularly important for the Greens because they do not conform to the simple left-right paradigm and thus are easily misunderstood. A prime (but not fine) example was the recent announcement by the Greens to hand their Question Time over to the Opposition (i.e. National). Almost everybody’s first (and lasting) reaction was: WTF? And that includes many a bewildered Green supporter! Similar charges could be laid at Labour’s doorstep regarding the CPTPP.

Political parties need MSM to get their messages across. Without MSM it is like this Zen kōan:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Simple catchy headlines are the lifeblood of MSM because they bait entice readers to click on the article and spend more time on the website, which indirectly or directly increases revenue – it is no different in supermarkets and shopping malls. Obviously, this click-baiting does little towards explaining the contents or the message of a political party. In fact, it is very common to be quite misleading and to create a false impression or expectation. And just like supermarkets or shopping malls, MSM are not necessarily for or against a particular party or brand, they are simply trying to make money!

Trying to explain a well-intended political decision or policy announcement afterwards is more like installing smoke alarms while the house is burning down around you: too little, too late.

It takes time for people to get to know you, to understand you, to warm up to you. You have to take them gently by the hand and guide them, step by step. One misstep, one stumble, and the trust is gone, often for good. Others will make sure of that.

Without taking this time to ‘educate’ people, to explain itself so that their messages may be received as intended, a political party is asking for trouble and resistance, every step along the way. Alienation with the electorate is a death sentence in politics.

It is a real shame when good information or a good opinion gets ignored and squandered because of poor preparation and delivery (communication). Never forget that people’s attentions spans are short and their patience thin.

So, please can I ask all progressive politicians and all radical thinkers & activists to build a good rapport with the general public, through MSM and other channels, so that their good work does not get lost in fighting a rear-guard action, damage control, and wasting the most precious of resources of all: time. In addition, there is a dearth of public intellectuals in New Zealand who can be instrumental in breaking down complex issues into pieces that can be understood by the general public without resorting to spin or framing, over-simplification, or banality unlike so many MSM opinion pieces.

This Guest Post is by Standardista Incognito.

48 comments on “Explaining is losing (but only in politics)”

  1. Sacha 1

    Political communication requires more than ‘rapport’. And headlines are not written by political parties, though the framing supporting them certainly can be.

    The left needs to do better at articulating the overall concepts that give context for media stories. The right have been doing that so well for several decades that you will notice even lefties talking about ‘taxpayers money’ now rather than public funding. Time for the shoe to be on the other foot.

    • Incognito 1.1

      By “rapport” I mean a conversation that leads into dialogue & debate. It also means a mutual understanding and respect and a kind of connection that goes deeper and further than just consuming letters & words.

      Yes, clear articulation is very important; be specific & clear with the messaging and the intentions and thinking behind all of these. This means to be honest & transparent and, ultimately, be accountable for all of it. By “accountable” I don’t mean that you should be punished or penalised when something goes wrong, and it will, but that you take responsibility and learn from mistakes and do better next time.

      It really is down to the basics and then upwards & onwards …

  2. Robert Guyton 2

    Explaining isn’t losing; The phrase, “explaining is losing” is a weapon used by Right wingers when they know “I’m not listening !” would sound too, too childish.
    The most perfectly crafted headline can only do so much; people, as you said, aren’t stupid and pride themselves in knowing what’s going on, in everyday life and in politics.
    Explaining can be counterproductive when the tone is defensive or strident, but clear, assured explanations are powerful agents for enlightenment when they are well-aimed and well timed. I reckon.

    • One Anonymous Bloke 2.1

      +1

    • Gosman 2.2

      Complex narratives don’t usually get cut through to the electorate but by all means try to do so in future.

      • Robert Guyton 2.2.1

        “clear, assured explanations” are “complex narratives”, Gosman?
        Nice re-interpretation there!

        • Gosman 2.2.1.1

          What you think is clear and assured isn’t necessarily what others regard as clear and assured.

          • Robert Guyton 2.2.1.1.1

            Yes it is.

            • Robert Guyton 2.2.1.1.1.1

              Was that “clear and assured”?
              Yes.

              • Gosman

                Give me an example of a clear and assured explanation for a policy that you support but one that has a degree of complexity that means it is often misunderstood by the electorate.

                • Robert Guyton

                  Policies are generally complex by necessity – make one too simplistic and it won’t stand up to scrutiny. I suggest separating policy into its parts and explaining each clearly and assuredly.

              • weka

                😁

    • Chris 2.3

      As soon as I hear that phrase I think of slater.

    • mikes 2.4

      “…people, as you said, aren’t stupid…”

      Have you talked with any people recently?

    • Incognito 2.5

      I am 100% with you Robert.

      There’s explaining, there’s educating, and there’s defending and being (put) on the back foot.

      A little explaining is perfectly fine, necessary even, but it requires proper groundwork and ought to be done at the right time & place. As with planting, the flower and the fruit are sustained by the root; with good preparation you’re more likely to get a good result 😉

      An effectively delivered message that builds on well laid-out prior explanations is more likely to be understood and received as intended; it becomes more than a message and like a tool to build a step to the next level.

  3. Ad 3

    There’s too much of the governments’ few public supporters having to suck it up while the government does such a poor job of communicating and continues to stumble.

    Amongst the many self-inflicted wounds, the petrol tax/not tax/cumulative tax argument has been the worst.

    I was gong to write a post about it, but thought I’d hold off until budget – which better come off like a goddamn miracle.

  4. esoteric pineapples 4

    I think the left has to become more aggressive and strategic in holding much of the main stream media to account for not fulfilling its journalistic role. It could take a leaf from the “tax payers union” book and form a ginger group to highlight media bias and inconsistencies at every turn. Of course, the challenge would be to get one’s views published! Media aren’t going to want to quote someone criticising them. But one can start by doing press releases and forwarded them to all news agencies including Scoop and cultivating particular journalists who are sympathetic. As one can see from the Tax Payers Union, it’s not hard to start such a group. All you need to do is give yourself a name, have a spokesperson and start putting out press releases every day.

    • Keepcalmcarryon 4.1

      We need media watch type investigative journalism to highlight how out of kilter and trash our media has become.
      Let the public see what fools they are being played for.
      This in turn requires public broadcasting which needs better funding which labour were starting with RNZ but were scuttled by the right wing embedded In the media already.
      That and stupidity.
      And so the vicious cycle repeats unless major change is enacted.

    • Tuppence Shrewsbury 4.2

      so not building a rapport with the media as they aren’t reporting on what you want reported and are reporting on what you don’t want reported?

      Go for it, see how that goes

    • cleangreen 4.3

      Well said esoteric pineapples,

      “The left; – could take a leaf from the “tax payers union” book and form a ginger group to highlight media bias and inconsistencies at every turn.”

      Could not agree more as we need a strong voice and strong “advocacy” to reach the masses now with the principles and policies of the new Government as today a leading media expert says Labour will suffer as time goes by if their message is not heard soon as there is no clear policy that is coming out that people can embrace.

      So we must face reality here as labour are loosing the media war now since the Minister of broadcasting screwed the whole RNZ plan up to make us a voice within RNZ which is now likely to be scrapped sadly.

      We need to hold Clare Curran responsible for her stupid errors in judgement as she is still acting very obstinate; – stubbornly adhering to an opinion, purpose, or course in spite of reason, arguments, or persuasion without showing any remorse.

    • Muttonbird 4.4

      Although The Standard isn’t yet visible enough, right here is a good start.

      The Standard is read by journalists and political analysts and the better of thoughts expressed here do make it out occasionally. We already know this. Just need to grow it – the better expressed thought, that is.

      We need to keep re-enforcing the voice of the left with well-argued socially conscious ideas and firm rebuttal and dismantling of the moronic conservative click-bait.

      And stop the petty bickering – you know who you are!

      In terms of watching the media, someone else will have to look at the Herald because I have just removed it from my phone and favourites bar! Drastic action I know but, not buying into Incognito’s supermarket analogy, it is my form of boycott.

    • Obtrectator 4.5

      “Media aren’t going to want to quote someone criticising them.”

      Quite so. Case in point: the Herald suddenly stopped enabling comments on its articles a year or two ago.

    • Incognito 4.6

      The Government newsroom needs to get their act together, as Tim Murphy recently argued, but I don’t think they’d need to become more aggressive and certainly not towards hardworking journalists who already are under a lot of pressure.

      https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2018/04/04/102308/beehive-newsroom-needs-to-move-the-story-on#

      To reach the largest audience the MSM are needed but also other channels of direct and indirect communication should be explored. That said, the MSM is not the enemy! They too are struggling.

      https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/102844502/give-us-some-of-that-broadcasting-cash

      I believe a good relationship with MSM will pay off in the long run and possibly change the reporting from the highly polarised content & style to a more interesting one in which multiple angles and nuances become the norm rather than the exception. Polarisation has benefitted some, of course, and it still does so we can expect resistance to any change from the BAU.

      I believe people are tiring of the same-old-same-old ways of mudslinging, gotcha interviews, and DP. They want to be taken seriously and listened too and talked with, not talked to, by politicians, as grown-ups, not like children. MSM has an essential role to play for this to happen and I think they could benefit from this too; a ‘win’ all around 😉

  5. Carolyn_Nth 5

    As an ex teacher of diverse age groups from rising 5 years to adults, I couldn’t easily get past the first sentence.

    Get the message across, plain and simple – teachers follow tested guidelines for effective pedagogy and, of course: repeat, repeat, repeat.

    Well yes to the first part about evidence based teaching and learning. But it’s not that plain and simple as “repeat, repeat, repeat” indicates.

    Basically the main aim of education in a democracy is to teach people to be critical thinking, independent learners: i.e. to teach people how to learn.

    There is some repetition involved – but repetition of the rote learning kind is only good for certain kinds of leanings, and too much of it is authoritarian brainwashing.

    Spaced leaning is very important. ie trying something out, then coming back to that task and repeating the activity at intervals.

    I agree with some other things in the post.

    • ianmac 5.1

      Yes Carolyn. It is a long time since good teachers used “repeat,repeat,repeat.” Most people have long memories of that which they understood but forget quickly that which relies on repetition. (Is repetition nagging?)

    • Incognito 5.2

      My bad. Perhaps I should have written practice, practice, practice. To become critical independent thinkers & learners takes an awful lot of practice and repetition (!), which is indeed structurally quite different from rote learning; it is a stepwise process of development.

      Anyway, this post is not about the intricacies of pedagogy as such. I would love to hear what other things in the post you disagree with because I value your opinion.

      • Carolyn_Nth 5.2.1

        Thanks, Incognito. I’m pondering on further comment, but may not have time for it today.

        I’m always interested in topics about communication. So an important post.

        • Incognito 5.2.1.1

          No worries and I hope to be around for a while and look forward to your comment.

    • mikes 5.3

      “Basically the main aim of education in a democracy is to teach people to be critical thinking, independent learners: i.e. to teach people how to learn.”

      Maybe from your individual perspective.

      The state wants obedient taxpayers, not critical or independent thinkers.

  6. David Mac 6

    I think the ‘explaining is losing’ thing relates to the water we throw on our communication with detail that obliges our listener to swap over to the other half of their brain. It’s the difference between “Mr Mac in an emergency ABS applies the brakes more efficiently than 99.8% of human beings.” and “Mr Mac the ABS modulating valve in the control module is oscillating at 1000 pulses per second.”

    The first way lets me custom make my own explaining to suit me. I visualise my teen daughter getting her license soon and borrowing the vehicle.

    The 2nd way, the amazing technical aspects of ABS systems, the explaining is all done. Communication wise, I only have ‘Wow that’s fast’ to respond with. Gets me no closer to buying into the message, lost in the explaining.

    • Sacha 6.1

      And your framing is around keeping safe. That’s the level our messages need to be planned at.

    • ianmac 6.2

      Just thinking about how smokers grumbled about restrictions on where they smoked and how much the cigarettes increased in cost but generally accepted for the Public Good.
      Increasing petrol fees should be accepted by most (except for Bridges) as for the Public Good.

    • Incognito 6.3

      All communication must be tailored to the intended audience. Some audiences demand technical detail and others are satisfied with the assurance that it works and take it for granted.

      Don’t oversimplify things and don’t go too technical or hide behind technical lingo that almost no-one understands and wants to listen too for more than 5 seconds. It is no different for science communication as it deals with a broad audience with widely different levels of interest, knowledge, and understanding and attempts to explain very complex stuff. Some people are bored to death and some will be enchanted in a jaw dropping way 😉

      In my view, people cannot and must not escape exposure to complex stuff such as politics and science but it will require superb communicators and a whole lot of effort.

      Once people are properly informed they can actually make informed decisions. Isn’t this essential for democracy?

  7. Rozgonz 7

    well there is a lot of explaining going on at the moment isn’t there…

  8. indiana 8

    I think a good example of “explaining is losing” is when Phil Goff tries to explain how much tax would be collected from a CGT in a debate.

    • weka 8.1

      Do you mean Cunliffe? He bungled the explanation, for a whole range of reasons. A clear explanation grounded in values based politics along with being able to stand up to FJK would have had a different result.

      • savenz 8.1.1

        Or why trusts were not subject to capital gains taxes…

        If Labour and Greens talked less about taxing people and focused on helping people and getting a result or working out where all the money being collected in exisiting taxes has gone or is going…

        example 200 million plus with America’s cup village for a billionaire event (trickle down apparently is expected to occur to help the little people aka SkyCity and Hotel owners + their minimum waged workers who may or may not have to be specially flown in from other countries).. but Auckland council has no money apparently and $2 million a day for rate payers debt… likewise I’m sure the America’s cup village will be built on time, unlike the Unitech houses that people need today…

        Petrol taxes well they are apparently coming in… but since Auckland Transport is already receiving 1.3+ billion a year in rate payer money, and has no public transport at all in many parts of the super city and even the simplest journey in Auckland such as 2 bus stages takes 1.5 hours and costs mega bucks for a family…

        Isn’t giving our transport agencies more money to implement something, like giving a kid with matches another lighter to burn the house down in case they can’t do it the first time?

        There is talking about something, but completely another thing to build and implement something properly and fairly that will be helpful to a lot of people with the taxes and if they can’t do anything reasonable with the existing taxes then there is zero guarantee giving more money will help?

        Are our politicians capable of thinking things through themselves anymore, and are they well advised by their officials, because they crack rapidly under basic questioning on their policies?

  9. savenz 9

    I think it goes way beyond getting a message across, the politicians biggest problem is that they often lose touch with reality because they get into a bubble of politics and around too many lobbyists and spin.

    The Jacinda factor was this idea that she was one of us and cared about local people in NZ…. the issue is… has she already lost touch while thinking what the media write about her is actually what people think…. the media is not actually the people – but advertisers… quite different things, ha ha.

    this is a super article about Madeleine Albright and similar issues… reality and perception – they are against something but somehow do not understand it did not arrive out of the blue… I don’t mean to target Jacinda with this, but Labour and Green thinking…..

    “Trump, fascism and democracy: Here’s what Madeleine Albright can’t or won’t say
    Former secretary of state sees the “storm clouds” of fascism: But she helped make the world that brought us Trump”

    https://www.salon.com/2018/04/07/trump-fascism-and-democracy-heres-what-madeleine-albright-cant-or-wont-say/

    • Incognito 9.1

      Getting the message across is just one side of the coin. The other side is receiving a message back. In other words, a dialogue or conversation about stuff that both parties involved do understand, stuff that is highly relevant to both. I agree that politicians need to listen more & better to the people and stop playing lip service. Unfortunately, politicians cannot talk with every single individual separately so they have to package & deliver it in order to reach as many as possible without distortion or interference. As I said before, I think MSM is key in this but other avenues are opening up too.

  10. Matthew Whitehead 10

    I think “explaining is losing” is probably valid for scandals, and for having your policies misunderstood initially, but explaining can actually be winning if people don’t know about your policies or values and you get an opportunity to explain them.

    The trick is to balance giving enough detail to actually understand in context with not overloading the audience.

    But yes, having to explain after everyone has already formed a first impression is very difficult and it’s better to avoid it.

    • Incognito 10.1

      When explaining becomes or is perceived as correcting it becomes very tricky and easily an exercise in futility because people will resist even if only subconsciously (or perhaps even more so when subconsciously).

      Explaining should not attempt to ‘convert’ or ‘assimilate’ and be based on the principle that it is o.k. to disagree. We actually need a rich diversity of opinions and a contest of ideas, not a mono-culture of yes-sayers and obedient & compliant workers or citizens, which is as bad, in my view, as the Left-Right false dichotomy that we are currently ‘enjoying’.

      • Matthew Whitehead 10.1.1

        My point is more that sometimes people become converted when hearing the details, and that getting technical isn’t always a bad thing, not that explanation-as-campaigning is always okay.

  11. AsleepWhileWalking 11

    Fuck MSM.

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