What Makes a Professional Communicator?

The Key To Professional Communication Is Not Great Ideas and Flowery Language.

By Thomas J. Roach

Wise communicators assess the rhetorical situation before they speak. Who do we need to speak to? What communication channels do they use? How do they view the world? Where does the argument rest? This can be done minimally through observation, and more thoroughly with surveys and focus groups.

Most people think of what they want to say and say it. They have no research step and no strategy. The professional, however, identifies a desired result, researches the audience and the situation and then asks, “What do I need to say to achieve that result?”

If resources are available, the professional will research and test a message with focus groups. A focus group matched to the intended audience can guide strategy and predict outcomes.

The Campaign
I was once asked to run a political campaign for a candidate in a sheriff’s race. The challenger raised $40,000. The opponent, an incumbent, had raised $140,000 and rented every billboard in the county. His slogan was everywhere: “Promises made; Promises kept.”

My candidate was the challenger. Before he hired me, he wasted $10,000 on planes pulling banners with his name on them over high school football games. I called a meeting to discuss message strategy so we didn’t waste the $30,000 we had left.

The campaign staff believed the incumbent was operating a patronage system. They wanted to run newspaper ads saying that our candidate would make hires and promotions based on merit. I insisted on conducting a survey and focus groups before committing to their plan.

The focus groups gave us some good news and some better news. They thought that “Promises made; Promises kept” meant that a crooked politician had made deals with people of influence in order to get elected, and he was reminding them that he would continue to take care of them if he was reelected.

Oddly, they had no interest in merit raises and promotions, but they were outraged that the incumbent sheriff had gone several million dollars over budget building a new jail and that the inmates had cable TV, a weight room, a dry cleaners and a beauty salon.

What We Learned
So, we learned that the incumbent’s billboards were doing him more harm than good. If we had the money, and if they were any billboards still available, we might have offered to buy him a few more. We also learned that my candidate needed to shift his focus from merit raises to the jail, and that is what we did.

We won the race by a narrow margin. My candidate took office and instituted a merit system, but decided not to take the cable TV out of the jail. Four years later another candidate ran our jail ads against us, won the race, and reinstituted the patronage system. This case study illustrates the difference between amateurs and professionals. The incumbent was proud of the fact that he kept his promises, and that is what he said, and it cost him votes. The challenger wanted to get rid of the patronage system, but in order to win the election he talked about the jail. When he got elected, he realized his goal and cleaned up the system.

The focus groups were an accurate reflection of the public mood. People didn’t want their tax dollars used to provide a country club atmosphere for inmates, and they didn’t have much interest in merit and patronage. The voter issue bias turned up by the research was rock solid. My candidate got elected when he paid attention to it, and he got unelected four years later when he ignored it.

Who are your key publics? What do you want from them? What do you need to say to get it?

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