When Politicians Talk Too Much
We see them on television almost every day - Prime Minister Trudeau and Canada's Premiers talking about the coronavirus pandemic. They normally are providing an update on the virus. Sometimes they have good news to share, but most often there are more deaths and illnesses to talk about.
On some occasions, they really don't have much new to report, but they're still making an announcement and answering questions from the news media.
They're in a tough spot. If they appear in the media too much they look like they're seeking attention, but if they're not in the public eye, many people will think they're not working hard enough.
A Tale of 24 Hours
Last Tuesday night, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney made a televised address. He talked about what the models were telling his government about the coronavirus pandemic in Alberta. There had been criticism of the federal government for not doing the same thing, and as provinces started to unveil their models, Kenney wanted to keep ahead of the game by being transparent with Albertans.
The address had been recorded earlier in the day and Kenney was excellent. He hit all the right notes. He laid the important numbers on the table, told Albertans they face an incredible fight, especially economically because world oil prices are so low, but ended on an optimistic note, saying the province and its people will overcome.
It was just the right length of time. He made his points, looked to be in full control, didn’t stumble, and had just the right amount of information. He received very positive feedback, including from me.
Less than 24 hours later, he appeared at a media conference with the CEO of Alberta Health Services Verna Yiu and the face of the pandemic in Alberta Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the Chief Medical Officer of Health.
It was a much different story this time. Kenney went on for over an hour, using a PowerPoint-type presentation to talk about Alberta’s health care system during the pandemic. He stumbled and bumbled and some of it was painful to watch.
We’ve all sat in an audience when a speaker went on way too long didn’t understand that “less is more” makes incredible sense. That’s what this was.
Practice Makes Perfect
Why were the two presentations so different?
There were several factors, not the least of which was, the first one was recorded and was likely edited in several places. Kenney was reading from a teleprompter, which is much easier than using prepared notes on paper, once you get the hang of it.
As a speaker, I’ve learned any time you use new material, you should spend as much time as you possibly can reviewing it and practicing your delivery before hitting the stage. This is especially important if you’re not totally knowledgeable of the subject matter and if there’s a lot of information. I think we can all agree that any Premier likely knows a lot about health care, but isn’t an expert on the topic. It’s also only common sense that when you have more information to pass along, more problems can occur, simply because of the sheer volume of information you need to wade through.
Here’s another factor that most people don’t understand. I don’t care how good of a speaker you are, when you have a presentation to make, you need to practice. I do it all the time. I’m pretty sure Premier Kenney didn’t have the necessary practice time before launching into that presentation last Wednesday. He’s a busy guy, especially these days. A presentation like that should have required hours of practice.
Who knows, he may have got halfway through the media conference and wished he hadn’t decided to be a part of it?
My Advice for Political Leaders
The question then becomes, why does a politician take on such a task? He had health care experts like Viu and Hinshaw who could have taken on more of the presentation. Many people on social media complained that Kenney should let the experts do the talking about the details and quite frankly, they were right.
We’ve seen a trend towards politicians grabbing more of the media spotlight during crisis situations over the years. It’s a trend that started in the US and seems to have moved to Canada. Years ago, after a mass shooting in the US, the main spokesperson seemed to be the Police Chief. Now it’s the Governor. When there was a major tornado, we would normally see the head of disaster services. Now it’s a Mayor.
Politicians have to walk a tightrope during a crisis. How much facetime in the media is too much? How much is too little?
My advice for politicians is to remember that less is more. They need to show they’re in control by appearing at media events they need to be at. That doesn’t mean every one, or every day. Bring the experts to do the heavy lifting for you and stay out of their way. The media will almost always go easier on the bureaucrats than the politicians anyway. Politicians can look much better by giving others the limelight and being a cheerleader. It’s a signal to the electorate they’re leading a strong team.
In Canada, Premiers are the highest elected official and as a result, need to be accountable. The buck stops with them, however that doesn’t mean they need to be front and centre all the time. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re trying too hard to be front and centre, it’s likely a good time to step back a little.
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