If you crack open Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, his overture sounds like the sentiment of both political parties during their 2020 conventions.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .”
One hopes the similarities end here. Dickens set his novel in the period leading up to the French Revolution and the Jacobin Reign of Terror. But we digress . . .
While running the risk of offending everyone who reads this blog, a superlative opportunity would be missed if we didn’t reflect on the eight days of pageantry, posturing, portraying, and the inevitable prognosticating that emerged in our 2020 pandemic presidential convention cycle. Both political parties faced the unprecedented (there is that word again) challenge of capturing an audience, widening their sphere of influence, and communicating their message from multiple venues, using a symphony of diverse voices, and leveraging every conceivable form of media to get the job done. The 2020 COVID landscape eliminated the possibility of the edge-of-your seat suspense seen in the 1924 Democratic convention when it took 103 ballots over 17 days to secure a candidate—after a fist fight by two governors, spitting on delegates from the gallery, and delegations having to leave early because they ran out of the money needed to stay in New York city.
In the whirlwind of disagreement and debate about who got a bump, who took a hit, or who missed a chance during their convention, as senior leaders continue to explore ways to focus a scattered workforce around a shared vision, two weeks of historic events leave us with some enduring insights.
Technology improves efficiency and creates complexity.
When both parties accepted reality and embraced some type of virtual conventioning, they set themselves on a course that required juggling dozens of locations, getting feeds from simultaneous events, and orchestrating everything so the networks would carry the best content during the few hours they devoted to the event. It worked, and it didn’t.
Pete Buttigieg left more than a participle hanging when one network stopped broadcasting his speech mid-sentence. A delegate roll-call across the states made for intriguing television, but without the opportunity to offer context, the impact of the identities of the delegates was lost. Using a location to add meaning to a message underscored the unfortunate reality that the desired interpretation of something cannot be assumed.
As communication teams try to help leaders engage with their organizations in fresh and innovative ways, the temptation to take the use of technology to new heights is alluring. While crucial leader messages are more engaging when presented live, the risk of a wonky (or over-loaded) wi-fi, the unexpected occurrence at a virtual venue, or the inability of an employee to properly engage with an online platform may result in the message getting blurred by the medium.
Authenticity is hard to discern in a medium designed for illusion.
From the early days of television and for decades that followed, when Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it is,” or Huntley and Brinkley bid each other, “Good-night,” people knew the news was over and entertainment was ahead. As employees now live and work in the same space, they can, in seconds, shift from watching news, to hearing opinion, to engaging with social media posts that have no link to reality, to being entertained by illusions offered by people with too much spare time. Add to that mix larger-than-life FPS video games and augmented reality and for many people, fact is separated from fiction by choosing what to believe, not necessarily by knowing what is true.
Political candidates using television to communicate what they consider life or death, peace or chaos, me or the other guy messaging, somehow have to help people remember the candidate is presenting (one can only hope) facts, not reality TV.
As more work gets done online, leaders are wise to remember the broadly blurred line between what is real (true) and what is imagined. An employee escaping into the world of a video game or catching up on the Kardashians during lunch may not take seriously what happens in the next business call. Leaders wisely time important discussions and orchestrate serious presentations when team members are least likely to be distracted or to be reorienting themselves to work after a dive into virtual reality.
It is helpful to remember the wisdom of one media mogul who noted, “It is difficult to communicate an authentic message through an inauthentic medium.”
Less is more in a virtual world.
For decades, political conventions were multi-night extravaganzas filled with roll-call votes, crowd-stirring speakers, floor fights (the last was in 1976), and unexpected moments like when Dan Rather was roughed up by security guards while trying to interview a delegate on the convention floor. Those televised marathons were the exception. During the first forty years of television’s reign we developed 12-minute attention spans—the length of the average scene in a T.V. show before a commercial break.
The instantaneous nature of communication, the speed by which we can find an answer to a question, and real-time everything has reduced an adult’s attention span today to less than a minute by even the most generous surveys.
In on-line and virtual formats, less is more. An unengaging leader using Zoom or Microsoft Teams can become a speaker without an audience with the click of an employee’s mouse. People won’t listen to endless strategy presentations or boring quarter-end reviews when an alluring list of YouTubers are begging for “likes” or screaming to be discovered. However long a leader thinks a speech should be—it should be shorter. An executive unable to make a point in 3-5 minutes will quickly lose his/her audience and an opportunity to influence. Shorter engagements with enhanced interaction are critical when communicating important information in a virtual environment. The 2020 political conventions showed us that even an 88 year-old institution built around crowds and bravado can adapt to a virtual environment. The key concept in that statement is adapt. A leader that wants to engage more effectively with employees and expand their influence as a leader across a dispersed workforce will leverage technology to communicate authentically and make a point quickly in the new normal of employee engagement.