Saturday, December 15, 2007

David Cameron and the Wonders of small tv

Hierarchical organizations have difficulty speaking to individuals. That’s because most individuals prefer to exchange information face-to-face and organizations are essentially faceless.

Human beings, one the other hand, do have faces and we’ve evolved over millions of years to recognize facial cues that tell us if the person we’re communicating with is sincere or not.

In short, human beings are highly calibrated authenticity detectors.

To communicate effectively, organizations such as corporations and political parties need to replicate authenticity and master the art of “org-to-face” conversation. That involves constructing an artificial face and signaling sincerity through artificial gestures and expressions.

Not easy . . . but do-able.

In the one-dimensional world of text, the old wisdom of Eliot Noyes still holds true: write everything as if it’s addressed “Dear Mom.” But with electronic channels there are entirely new opportunities to “scale up” face-to-face communications.

One of the truly great practitioners of mass intimacy is David Cameron of the Conservative Party in Britain. Last year Cameron faced a classic organizational challenge: how to define himself and connect to a multitude of disparate people separated by time and space?

Among other things he launched WebCameron, a video blog that he updates almost weekly with a short (3 minute) seemingly behind-the-scenes looks at his activities. It began with him in his kitchen:

Can you imagine another major political aspirant putting him or herself out there like this? It's virtually impossible because the handlers and hangers on would say it's "not presidential" or it looks sloppy. Also, it's unscripted so the handlers are reduced to one, the video editor.

Cameron makes it work because he's a good actor. Not to belittle him, you need to act because your audience is an unblinking lens. He does it well because he's let you in on the pretense. Plus, he's pretty informative.

He answers viewer questions, talks in cars, on trains, and summarizes his meetings and speeches backstage.

The beauty of this is that rather than simply showing him delivering the speech, Cameron tells you about the speech and sums up his top three points.

The difference is in knowing your audience. The audience for a speech are those people in the room. The audience for “small tv” is you . . . even if “you” is a million people just like you watching their computer screens.

There is a formula to these videos that makes them easy to produce and edit.

First there is the narration track delivered without a script probably in several takes. Next is the event itself which is recorded with a static camera. And lastly is the b-roll that overlays all the edits to the narration and the event.

Together it makes a coherent mini-story rich in direct and contextual information. You can see his facial expressions. You can see activity in the background. He seems to be subject to uncontrollable elements such as the wind, the light and regular people on the street.

What does all that say?

Not much by itself, but over time and in similar situations you begin to “know” Cameron and perhaps even to trust him. Yet, he’s not an individual per se. He’s representing a large national organization of people that depends on the support of individuals for its success.

It’s been said that in communications sincerity is the key. And if you can fake that you’ve got it made. I’m not saying Cameron is insincere, but he has demonstrated a remarkable ability to create mass intimacy skillfully and cheaply.

Ronald Reagan used radio this way. His weekly addresses as President were an extension of the short radio essays he delivered for years on AM radio.

Presidents continue the tradition but no one has made the leap to small tv. I wonder if President Bush would be as unpopular today if instead of talking stiffly from the Oval Office he had adopted the small tv approach and explained Iraq using maps and on the spot reports?

No American presidential candidate has shown any aptitude for mass intimacy . . . yet.

But it's coming.

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