Obama’s Communications Problem

I sympathized with President Obama. It’s difficult to get very complex, technical subjects across to a huge mass of people in a soundbyte. I had this precise problem yesterday. I have run into a roadblock of mammoth proportions and sent out an email describing the issue in some detail and got… total silence. I paged people wondering what was going on, since it’s a pretty bad showstopper, and the answer was:

“It sounds bad but I don’t understand!”

The meeting request got more traction when I simplified down from a lengthy, technically complex issue down to: “What you want will not work. Networking BAD. Here are the options. Discuss.”

President Obama needs to learn how to take the issue from A to “system is broke.” One of his many virtues I do deeply respect and like about him is his ability to hoover up unbelievable amounts of information, synthesize it all, and spit out a decision. What he cannot do is explain the hows and the whys without the technical jargon. Either he must learn this skill fast or he must hire people (like Plouffe) who are gifted in helping him put those words in his mouth. I know he’s a brilliant writer — Dreams of My Father is a fantastic read — but that doesn’t mean he can explain complex subjects on the fly to people who, for example, believe somehow that the world of Avatar is real and need antidepressants to get over the end of the movie. He has that engineer brain; the engineer brain loves details. Most people don’t live in engineer space, and the engineer-human being communications gap is vast.

The stimulus was too small but a good idea. Some to a huge tax cut. Some to keep teachers employed. Like sending your kids to public school? Stimulus. Enjoy having cops in your neighborhood? Stimulus. It kept states from completely going under and turning off the lights. Because the number is so vast and the information was communicated poorly it looks like it was “wasted.” Not true. But the communication mechanism has been terrible.

The Health Care Reform Bill sounds like a horrible Frankenstein mishmash of what is or what isn’t. No one understands what it is or why anyone would want it. People are full of apprehension on the unknown. How hard would it be to say: “You know those rising costs of your employer-based health insurance? You see how much it has risen year over year? Maybe you don’t realize it but it is costing much more. In a few years, you won’t receive your insurance benefit any more. Or if you do get it, you won’t be able to afford it. Your kids won’t be able to go to the doctor when they get sick. Better hope no one gets an ear infection!” But instead it is nothing but sausage making on display.

Going into the State of the Union I want one thing for 2010: the White House to learn how to communicate with the American public. Even smart people need clarity from time to time. Learn to communicate the hows and the whys clearly, concisely, and simply. Learn fast because time is always running out.