Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
Pope Francis is now the world’s most influential climate activists, not to mention opinion leaders. His words and ideas have the power to influence billions of people and they can even shape the future.
So it’s a real shame that his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, is an epic communication fail.
It is opaque, badly structured and inaccessible to readers. An unholy trinity which destroys the opportunity to express a clear view and influence the public agenda.
For any other world or business leader, it would be career limiting to go public with a document like that.
This isn’t a free kick at Pope Francis, but it is a great opportunity to look at the structure and techniques that drive powerful communication.
In the world of Sacred and Profane communication, it’s hard to go past St Barbara Minto of the Minto Pyramid Principle. Laudato Si would be all the more powerful if Pope Francis had borrowed a few of her ideas.
The Minto Pyramid Principle is a discipline to ensure you engage with your audience and deliver a clear and compelling argument.
McKinsey & Co and other management consulting firms have been using the Minto Pyramid for years, as have all good journalists, even if unknowingly, but it’s only now becoming mainstream. It’s also known as Structured Thinking.
But let’s go back to the unholy trinity claim - opaque, badly structured and inaccessible – and let me reframe that into three simple things you can do turbocharge your communication.
Make your insights blindingly obvious
Having read through Laudato Si, it’s pretty hard to work out what exactly Pope Francis is calling for. The best I can come up with is ‘Dialogue’, which is a bit vague, and even that took nearly the entire Executive Summary before he mentioned it. The thing about opinion pieces is that they need to express a clear view – up front and in your face.
If you leave it to your audience to interpret what you mean they could come up with anything - which defeats the purpose of trying to shape opinion. It also transfers the effort to reader rather than the writer which is lazy communication.
Use structure to guide the reader to the insights
Laudato Si fails here on nearly every level. True, Pope Francis does include Chapters and some attempt at paragraph headings. But it’s like wearing a blind fold and stumbling around a strange city when you could fire up your Tom Tom or Google Maps.
Let me give two examples.
1. Powerful communicators focus on what something means, they don’t narrate events. But in the Executive Summary, when he finally gets there, Pope Francis tells you what sort of things he’s going to tell you. That’s a table of contents not an insight.
2. Make your headings tell the story, treat them as headlines not laundry lists. What works better: “My Appeal” or “Let’s work together to save our planet”. Still not convinced? How about “The globalisation of the technocratic paradigm” vs “Flawed thinking is reinforcing flawed behaviours”.
Engage your audience by being relevant and respectful
When we want to reach out to someone, to be heard and to influence them, it’s critical we talk to them in language they understand and express our ideas using concepts they get. To fill your document with jargon makes it incomprehensible and alienates readers.
The title Laudato Si, is a great example of that. It’s an obscure reference in a dead language to a virtually unknown Canticle (which is itself a rare, complex and confusing form of song writing little used in the last 300 years except for Simon and Garfunkle’s Scarborough Fair).
If you have to explain your metaphors to your audience you’ve failed to communicate.
Even if you buy the argument that this style of communication is ‘traditional’ or believe it’s an appropriate voice for the Pope, the bottom line is it’s inaccessible. Inaccessible language creates confusion – which is the natural enemy of understanding.
In stark contrast let’s close with a look at this week’s opinion leader dominating the headlines with commentary on a social issue. Barack Obama’s view is clear, well-argued and accessible.
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”