The shootings in Tucson, Arizona, have moved people far beyond the friends and families of the victims. When a tragic event captures the public mood, political leaders try to articulate a response: to give expression to people’s emotions and satisfy the desire for an adequate reaction from those in power to our shock and pain. It must be among the hardest tasks they face, trying to speak with one voice for millions of people.
The core message of sympathy, grief and unity in the face of death is an obvious, decent human reaction. But we can see, from the responses of President Obama and Sarah Palin, just how much can be gained and lost in the margins of delivery. I am neither a Democrat nor Republican; my comments are purely about communication, not whether I like or agree with the individuals politically.
The great strength of Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service is his focus on the personal stories of the victims and the individual acts of heroism surrounding the shootings. His insights into the lives, motivations and actions of those involved allow us to connect with them as people, not just as “the victims”, a statistic at the bottom of a news screen, or the catalyst for renewed public debate on, say, gun control or hate speech. Once we make that human connection, we feel more deeply the need to find hope in tragedy. We appreciate his willingness to appear humble in the face of the inexplicable. His message of unity is stronger for being grounded in common feelings. His language tries to bring us together in shared action – “rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together” – and we feel grateful for the opportunity of shared reflection.
It is a beautifully structured speech – the simple stories of the victims and heroes providing the emotional fuel for the message fo unity. He articulates people’s feelings extremely well and expresses humility. Unless you believe the man is a phony you are liable to be moved by his words.
Sarah Palin adopts a different approach in her video response. Her opening expressions of sympathy lead into a longer discussion of the political ramifications of the tragedy. This risks giving the unintended impression that the shootings are the introduction rather than the theme. The strongest emotional moments in her talk, I would argue, when she gets most visibly animated, are about the politics, not the tragedy itself. She seems defensive about personal accusations of incitement against her and turns that into attack with a strongly-worded barb against the media. Who can blame her? – it must be deeply upsetting to hear such things said and very difficult to let them pass unchallenged – but it is unfortunate for her that she allows herself to be sucked in. The created effect – sadly – is a suggestion that Palin is someone more moved by her own political troubles than the event itself. Her words about unity do not sit well with the confrontational tone of parts of her message. Palin also employs an extraordinarily clumsy illustration – that of politicians duelling to resolve their differences – which creates an unfortunate, lasting association with the nature of events in Tucson. In the listener’s ears there is dissonance between message and tone. These problems emotionally dampen her expression of heartfelt sympathy and grief for the victims.
Two speeches, two very different public responses, two lessons for communication:
1) To move people, you have to experience common feelings with your audience and take them with you on an emotional journey. This insight into your audience must be the driver behind what you say and how you say it. It doesn’t mean telling people only what they want to hear. It means earning the right to be heard by engaging with people emotionally, rather than inviting them to travel the emotional distance to feel sorry for you. You must go to them.
2) There must be integrity between what you say and the way that you say it. Our brains sniff out differences between how things look and how they sound. A plea for unity feels less persuasive immediately after an attack on the media. Offering condolences at the same tempo as arguing for the 1st amendment undercuts the sincerity of grief in the experience of the listener. Voice, face, content and tone need to be aligned for us to open up and allow ourselves to be moved.