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Communications Theater

Communications, as has been discussed, involves far more than verbal exchanges between speaker and listener. It is also a form of theater, a pageantry of drama, history, and symbolism. It is important for leaders to keep a dramatic image in mind. We find such moments everywhere.

When the last pile of rubble was hauled from the site of Ground Zero at the World Trade Center, there was a marking of the moment. Again and again we heard that there would be no music, no speeches—just silence. It was a fitting moment of reflection to remember those who had died in the horrible and unprovoked attack.

Conventions are another form of communications theater. Whenever people united in a single purpose are gathered together, whether it is an annual convention of union members or a quadrennial presidential political convention, there are set activities that occur. Some groups open with the Pledge of Allegiance and close with a song. Political conventions are designed to peak at the selection of the presidential candidate and the candidate's address to the group and the nation. These are moments with a time-honored tradition. Consider them as part of the liturgy of the organization. They are rooted in the culture of the event. Therefore, leaders must know their meaning and abide by their significance. Here are some considerations to keep in mind.

  • Use symbols. Symbols are metaphors for organizational values. In our legal system, the judge wields a gavel to begin and adjourn sessions and to call for order. The gavel is a symbol of power, of coming together for a joint purpose. The range of symbols is endless. In sports, the Stanley Cup, which is given to the winner of the National Hockey League playoff series, is a potent symbol. One at a time, players and coaches skate around the rink hoisting the cup over their heads in victory, sharing the moment with the fans. The name of each player and coach is engraved on the base of the trophy. And in a spirit of genuine celebration, each member of the team gets to keep the cup for 48 hours. Traditionally players take it to their hometown and have a party so that all the player's friends and relatives can share in the moment. In recent years, the cup has traveled to Europe to the hometowns of players from Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Russia. This gesture brings the tradition of the NHL to other hockey-playing nations and demonstrates the international spirit of the game.

  • Dress the hall. Gatherings of people mean more when the room is "dressed" for the occasion. Create an environment that will remind people of the strengths of the organization and why they should care about it. The room may contain nothing more than a banner with a logo, or it may be dressed to the nines with pennants, banners, video walls, and product displays.

  • Choose your clothes carefully. Wear something that is appropriate to the expectations of the audience. Mother Teresa adapted her nun's habit to local custom. The white garment trimmed with blue served a dual purpose: It symbolized both her commitment to her religious faith and her order, the Missionaries of Charity, and her solidarity with her adopted land, India. Hamid Karzai, the leader of the post-Taliban Afghan state, uses his manner of dress to make a similar statement. He combines a Western suit with the colors, capes, and headwear of his native land.

    Closer to home, a union boss addressing a group of hardhats is best off not wearing a tie, the symbol of management. Likewise, a politician who wants to curry union votes will don a jacket emblazoned with a union logo. This is not a jacket that he would wear in a corporate setting.

    Likewise, the CEO who dispenses with a tie in a factory or wears cowboy boots is one who is demonstrating outwardly that he is one of the people.

  • Wear the hat. Hats are another form of dress. We live in the age of the baseball cap. Every leader wears one bearing the logo of the group that he or she is visiting. Hats have significance. Calvin Coolidge was photographed wearing an American Indian chief's headdress of eagle feathers. Jack Kennedy dispensed with a hat during his Inaugural Address and thereby established a trend. (Caution: Choose your hat carefully. Candidate Michael Dukakis agreed to wear an army helmet during his run for the presidency. Rather than appearing presidential, he looked ridiculous.)

  • Think music. Every baseball game, and for that matter every major sports event, in America begins with the National Anthem. Every Rotary Club meeting begins with a song. Music can serve two purposes: It can remind the audience of who they are as a people (the National Anthem), and it can get people up out of their seats and make them feel more energized (the Rotary Club anthem).

  • Consider the backdrop. Politicians are adept at creating the picture- perfect moment where the setting makes more of a statement than the words of the speaker do. For example, when Bill Clinton spoke up for the environment, he did so in a national park in the West. George W. Bush has made a strong case for schools. When he delivers a speech, he does it in a school gymnasium, drawing parallels between the immediate location and the universal values he espouses.

  • Respect silence. A moment of silence to reflect on the events of the day or in memory of others is a time-honored tradition. While this technique may be common among both politicians and preachers, a selective use of silence can be powerful. Leaders may use the dramatic pause to underscore their points as well as to enable people to reflect on the meaning of the words.

Communications theater is a time-honored tradition. The selection of the right background or the proper use of symbols can make the leadership message resonate more deeply than words alone can and allow it to be understood on an emotional level that rings true and helps bond the leader to her or his followers.

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