Many talk about it.
Fewer, in my view, demonstrate it.
So when the Labour Party play out their leadership battle over the summer “silly season”, the contest gains more publicity than normal and is subject to greater media scrutiny.
It’s a great opportunity to paint a positive vision of where potential leaders want to take the country.
But with the paintbrush they’ve been handed, some are choosing to fill their canvass with images of what they don’t want – rather than what they do want.
Take Yvette Cooper.
Here are some of her brushstrokes, starting with her view of leadership rival Jeremy Corbyn’s policies:
“I feel really strongly…that his are the wrong answers for the future,” she said.
“They aren’t radical and they aren’t credible. And they won’t change the world. They will keep us out of power.”
She said she would not “pander” to the values and intentions of Mr Corbyn or his supporters or pretend she agreed with his answers for Britain.
She said she feared Labour could be out of power for a generation, but would not walk away from the party.
It would seem her main policy is to advise labour supporters against voting for Mr Corbyn.
Now her policies have been printed and broadcast by the media.
It’s just that what she doesn’t want – Jeremy Corbyn elected – is grabbling all the headlines.
And let’s dissect the key words and phrases in these headlines.
“Radical”…“credible” and “change the world” are three she used to describe her rival.
“Pander”…“pretend” and “walk away” are three she used to describe herself.
Yes – she’s talking in Pink Elephants!
Any one from the 3000 clients who’ve spent a day with us at our Glasgow studios, across the UK or in the 23 countries we’ve visited will be familiar now with the Pink Elephant.
It’s the name we give to a clear and unnecessary phrase that paints the very picture you want to avoid.
Because if I say: “don’t think of a bright pink elephant”…that’s exactly what you think about.
The golfer who says “don’t put the ball in the water” has now made the water their focus.
The speaker who stands in front of an audience and tells them “I’ll keep it short so you won’t become bored”….will now prepare to become bored.
Whichever way you look at it, Yvette Cooper has chosen bold and appealing colours for her picture of her leadership rival…and weak and watery colours for her self-portrait.
Critics will claim it’s the media’s fault for highlighting her Corbyn remarks and ignoring policies.
I would argue that we are 100% responsible and accountable for the words we choose.
We need to choose every word carefully.
Last week I had the pleasure of working with someone who is also in a leadership contest that will be decided next month.
To protect their identity, let’s call them David.
David had three key policies he wanted to project.
We started his speech with a warm and respectful introduction, then launched straight into his vision.
His vision was built on three main legs: healthy funding, fairness to all and developing youth for the future success of the organisation.
We wrote a speech on this platform that highlighted the benefits of his vision in detail.
It started with the “what’s in it for you” for voters.
It ended with a strong Call to Action: a request for delegates’ votes to ensure the future of the organisation.
Every single word was positive – so we avoided painting the wrong picture for delegates.
It was jargon-free…and full of vivid imagery instead.
It body swerved watering down words like “try” and “hope” and “do my best” and instead focussed on “commitment” and “determination”.
“I think” was a banned phrase. But “I firmly believe” launched several clear goals.
And what did David have to say about his rival for the leadership contest? Well he refused to give him airspace.
So what did he say about his rival’s policies? Nothing – he concentrated on his own.
The result was a cracking presentation, full of vision and commitment, that I believe will see him elected to a position of great leadership next month.
And however the media reports it, they will only have David’s positive words about his own policies to focus on.
David came to us because he had been through both presentation skills courses and media training courses with us in the past in a campaign that proved hugely successful both for him and his organisation.
He wanted his speech to be passionate, powerful and positive.
Having crafted the words, this week we rehearse the delivery on camera.
We’ll record the speech and play it back several times, each time polishing and honing the delivery.
So when David takes the podium in October, he will be fully rehearsed with a powerful, passionate and positive speech that concentrates only on his policies that paint a bright vision of the organisation he loves.
That’s what dozens of clients do each year as they come to our Glasgow studios or rehearse from their boardrooms how they’re going to win business with clients or change the way their organisation is run.
I believe one of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn is running away with the leadership contest is that he’s sticking to his vision – a vision that alarms the old guard of New Labour.
But they’re very clear on where he wants to take the country, as are his supporters.
What’s he saying about his rivals?
Don’t know – has he mentioned them?
I’ll give the last word to Kezia Dugdale, who won the leadership contest for the Scottish Labour Party last weekend.
“We are down – but we’re not out” she told an enthusiastic crowd in her acceptance speech.
But wait a minute….
Isn’t that a Pink Elephant? Speaking about Scottish Labour being “out” in her opening remarks.
She’d be much better focusing on a more positive version of her values and her vision.
So next time you communicate about your business, make sure every word is 100% positive, avoiding the Pink Elephant.
Make sure you choose your words carefully – before your words choose you.
Bill McFarlan is managing director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can view his full profile here.
Photo credit: Shelter Scotland / Foter / CC BY-NC; garryknight / Foter / CC BY; DavidMartynHunt / Foter / CC BY; Chatham House, London / Foter / CC BY; Nicolas Alejandro Street Photography / Foter / CC BY
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