By Tim Hayes
An old boss once said to me, “The hardest thing in the world to change is someone’s mind.” And, as a professional communicator and speechwriter, I’ve come to see the wisdom in that notion.
In business, communications plays to both sides of the human brain. You line up your facts into a logical sequence and tell a story to humanize them, so that your ideas are both understood and embraced.
Then there’s the world of politics, where the likelihood of changing minds may be small, but the chance to make the other side abandon parts of their plans based on pressure, embarrassment, or pragmatism is much higher. It’s a game I never enjoyed playing, but it sure is fascinating to watch.
As an observer of political rhetoric, I see a risky but regretfully successful speechwriting strategy being used in the current healthcare reform debate. This strategy first uses inflated, overblown language to describe the opposition’s stance. That mischaracterization, then, becomes the dominant focus of the next few news cycles, leading to the real end game – to swing the pendulum of public awareness, debate, and negative pressure so far to one side that the opposition’s original stance is either watered-down or abandoned altogether.
The recent statement by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that the healthcare bill in Congress called for “death panels” of federal bureaucrats deciding whether elderly and ailing Americans would receive healthcare, I believe falls into this category. Palin based her statement on a section of the bill referencing end-of-life consultations. Taxpayer fears about government intervention and control of healthcare fed into this incendiary phrase, which catapulted to the headlines of newspapers and cable news shows for days.
The growing firestorm led to the removal of all end-of-life provisions in a version bill being considered in the U.S. Senate, which I’m guessing was the ultimate goal of Palin and her supporters all along. The House bill still has some end-of-life provisions, but a final bill will need to be hammered out in conference so any remaining provisions may be removed or modified as well.
Make no mistake, I don’t mean to point fingers at Palin alone. Quite the contrary. This approach gets put into action by both sides of the political aisle constantly, regardless of whoever’s in power or whatever’s the issue. So there’s little disputing that this sort of “Chicken Little” communications strategy works in the political realm, where changing minds takes a backseat to roundhouse punches to the loyal opposition.
But as a professional communicator and someone who respects the integrity of language and the leaders entrusted to use it, that sort of thing nevertheless turns my stomach. After all, for Pete’s sake, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, right or left wing, the sky isn’t always falling.
Copyright 2009 Tim Hayes Consulting