How to Sabotage Your Message

Maybe you have the best idea in the world. A plan to explain life, the universe, and everything; a solution to the world’s biggest problems; or maybe just a campaign to change a few people’s minds. Ideas don’t, however, speak for themselves—they need you to do that, and a lack of planning can be an idea’s worst enemy. There are two major ways people sabotage their own messages: through poor visual communication design, and through poor media quality.

The above example is from yesterday’s press conference that followed Robert Mueller’s testimony before two House committees. While House Democrats were there to promote the successes of the Mueller investigation, they also supplied a visual aid that they intended to provide further context and emphasize their points. Unfortunately, they violated the three rules of public speaking visual aids:

  1. Use as few words as possible
  2. Make those words as readable as possible
  3. Only display a visual aid while directly referring to it

These aren’t complicated rules, but Pelosi, Nadler et al managed to steamroll right through them. The only clearly visible words are a meaningless “YES” and “NO”; they’re meaningless both because they outsize the title of the chart itself and because the text beneath them is unreadable. That’s due to the very, very bad choice to use a condensed, oblique, and all-caps typeface against a pure white background—something that’s guaranteed to devolve into mush once broadcast on television. (“YES” and “NO” are also inconsistent with the chart’s title which includes the words “BY THE NUMBERS.”)

If you look closely, you’ll see too that there’s no fewer than six typeface sizes on the chart, which makes it appear unbalanced and not unlike the eye chart at your optometrist’s office. A better solution here would have been to use multiple charts, with bigger text and fewer words; photos of the seven people convicted would have proven a much bigger point than the unreadable mess that fills up the bottom line, at least. 

The other common mistake made by an incredible number of our representatives in Washington is the use of low-quality media to promote themselves or their message. This is Rep. Kathy Castor—who represents my district here in Tampa—and she’s contributing here to an important debate over disaster funding—except the clip she’s uploaded to Twitter couldn’t possibly be of worse quality.

The video uploaded was only 426×240 large; that’s less than five percent the resolution of its original C-SPAN broadcast. To make things worse, Castor’s social media team grabbed the video from a secondary source that further letterboxed that video, making it difficult to even discern her name in the lower third:

Those are the practical problems with this, but there’s a broader problem implicated when a public official displays a lack of competence in media management. Confidence and credibility are only derived from making every public representation—be that in social media, on broadcast media, or in print—as high-quality as possible. The end result of this low-quality video is that only 500 people have watched it, as of this writing—failing to penetrate an audience with the intended message. Castor’s staff could have averted this by using a native HD feed of C-SPAN for grabbing this video:

To be clear, this is not a problem unique to Rep. Castor. It’s shared by nearly every member of Congress, because the skills necessary to get high quality content on social media are in short supply.

That’s one of the reasons I founded Burke Communications: to work with politicians and their staffs to learn the skills needed to get content to constituents that reflects the best of those who represent them. “Be First & Be Best” is a commitment owed by every elected official to those who voted them into office, and we’re here to make that happen.