Memo To The White House: Embrace The 4 Cs Rule
February 15, 2010
By John David Powell
White House honchos and others use the term "communication failure" to explain the inability of Congress to pass healthcare legislation and other key parts of President Obama's agenda. Such reasoning assumes the bills deserve passage in their current forms. That, however, is another topic.
This week's topic looks at why, from a communication standpoint, some of politics' brightest operatives failed to present a comprehensible message. To do this, we start with the basic communication model taught in high school: Message => Sender => Medium => Receiver
Interpretation of the message and feedback complete the process. Any glitch along the way can produce negative outcomes of varying degrees. Too little information can knock the message off of the political radar while too much information can distract and confuse, which will derail any debate, whether on Capitol Hill or in the local town hall.
The model creates its own communication failure, in terms of understanding it, because of the many variables involved in the process (type of message, characteristic of sender/receiver, choice of medium, etc.). This led me to develop the 4 Cs of Communication Rule: All credible communication must be clear, concise, consistent, and correct.
I've asked colleagues and my university students to find successful communication examples that violate my rule. None has crossed my desk.
Here are brief definitions of each C, in alphabetical order, because no C is more important than the others.
A graphic is the easiest and best example of this category. Any outfit with a logo needs a set of graphic standards dictating the appropriate use of the logo so that it's clear and easily identifiable.
Clear also refers to the meaning of a word or of the message. A writer should never assume the reader knows everything, and should clearly explain or identify anything that may not be common knowledge.
Have you ever received unclear directions? A Cuban friend looking for directions in a small Mississippi town was told to drive down the street and turn left at the tar place. He never saw a tar place, but he passed a tire store a couple of times.
Write as if you had to pay for each word and the size of the word. Sounds simple enough, but even the best of the pros ignore it. A few years ago, the Public Relations Society of America sent out a news release with an opening sentence containing 63 words, of which 20 were in the dependent clause that started the sentence.
How often have you seen "on a permanent basis" instead of "permanently?" Is it wrong or offensive to use three or more words instead of one? No, but why would you?
Adding just one word to a phrase may not seem like much, but it can make the phrase look silly. A local university frequently touts that its students come from more than 130 different countries. I hope so, because it would be strange if the 130 countries were the same.
Consistency may be contrary to nature, according to Aldous Huxley, but it is imperative to credible communication in any form. Your high-school English teacher drilled you on parallel structure because it keeps your points, items, or phrases consistent.
Consistency also keeps you out of trouble. Nothing raises suspicions among journalists, or with significant others, more that inconsistencies in your story.
Even if there is nothing nefarious going on, you must be consistent in message, style, and information. A national corporation bragged in its news release that its Houston aquarium had 600,000 gallons of underwater tanks (a statement that belongs in the next category), while its brochures placed the gallons at a half a million. Nitpicky? Maybe. But it's still not consistent.
Correct information is a given for any organization, particularly one that wants stakeholders to take it seriously and wants to maintain control of its message. Incorrect information doesn't help one's credibility.
When I worked for a state university, I used to say being an institution of higher education meant we had to look like we had a higher education. One year, the annual financial report had four mistakes on the cover, six on the first page, and five in the letter from the VP. Accountants may have written the report, but the number of mistakes in the first few pages could call into question the accuracy of the numbers.
Misspellings (alright), non words (irregardless), noun/verb disagreement (media doesn't) are bad on their own, but imagine the damage from incorrectly identifying someone in a photo. A non-profit organization's magazine not only gave the wrong name to the wife, but used the first wife's name.
Here's what may be the best and simplest example of the importance of the 4 Cs Rule. Awhile back, some guy wanted a CHI-TOWN tattoo. When finished, it was clear (easily read), concise (seven letters), consistent (one color, font and point size), but it came out CHI-TONW.
So, does the 4 Cs Rule work in every situation? Show me the exception.