A column I wrote in April 2008 reported on a BBC radio programme that analysed how Britain’s then Prime Minister Gordon Brown came across in the media – which was not at all well. The poor fellow had a hard act to follow, I noted, for the man who occupied No.10 before him was that consummate public performer, Tony Blair.
But even without resorting to such a challenging comparison Mr. Brown appeared dull and boring. He made heavy weather with his language, in the manner of a technocrat, a boffin, a “policy wonk”, lacking a touch that resonated with his audience.
My article also eulogised the emergence of the exciting Obama, then still a Senator, but mostly I wrote about the need for our politicians to be coached into becoming more articulate and inspiring. In passing I drew attention to the fact that technocrats, business leaders and others who appear before the media must equally learn to put across their cases effectively. Which leads me to my theme for today, the way the Supreme Court judges read their full judgments on the presidential election petition.
The reactions to those that were below par have been mixed. Some expressed disappointment, while others urged us to just focus on the intended meaning of their messages without worrying about the elegance with which they were delivered.
Those disinterested in the clarity of pronunciation and enunciation explained that English is not the first language of most Kenyans, and that we should therefore not judge the judges negatively when they cannot articulate the language as do the likes of Queen Elizabeth and PLO Lumumba.
They suggest that the critics who condemn those who communicate poorly in the language of the court assume that they are therefore illiterate, ill-educated and less wise, and so these critics are in turn condemned for their unreasonableness.
Surely though this is not the point. Surely no one doubts the level of education or the wisdom of the less assured communicators. The issue is that the quality of one’s verbal communication is a key factor in determining the extent to which those listening will be able to easily absorb the messages and related to that how strongly they will be influenced by them.
While appreciating the pressure the judges were under to get their reports together in the unduly short time available – hence too the absence of time for rehearsing – nonetheless some performed superbly even as others struggled.
OK, some are just better at communicating than others, maybe more interested in doing so. Maybe they were brought up in a more conducive environment, attended schools and benefitted from teachers who placed more emphasis on good communications.
But here they are now, in positions where being able to communicate effectively is a core competence, not an optional extra. The next question therefore is what if anything can be done about remedying the situation. Is it too late? Is there scope for progress? Of course there is.
But the first requirement is for the individuals to accept that the need is there. A problem defined, they say, is half-way to a problem solved.
In another column I wrote about how King George VI hired a coach to help him with his speech-making, overcoming a particular challenge with stuttering. Guess what? He improved significantly, in competence and hence in confidence. It wasn’t easy for him to accept help, mind you.
His wife had to conspire with the prospective coach to create an environment that was unthreatening enough for the monarch of the British Empire to go along with agreeing to be supported.
My appeal to high profile Kenyans therefore, and not just to their Lordships and Ladyships, is to seek help from those who will enable them to get their messages across more effectively and hence to increase their impact. Find the strength to accept the need, my learned – and less learned – friends, and look forward to a journey of progress and greater fulfilment.
PS: Congratulations Eliud Kipchoge on your victory in the Berlin Marathon… and on your delightful interview thereafter. Not in brilliant English but who cares, you communicated really well!