Conversation We Can Believe In

A presidential campaign is many things. It’s a race. It’s a fight. It’s a long-term venture and a high-risk investment. But for a presidential candidate—and for the voters, volunteers, and donors whose support he or she seeks—a campaign is also a conversation. It’s an effort to talk about issues in a way that engages people. It’s a bid to develop a rapport with current and would-be supporters. It’s a process that hinges on a two-way exchange of information: Voters tell the candidate what they care about, and the candidate tells voters what he or she stands for.

In our book, Talk, Inc., we describe how more and more leaders today manage communication within their organizations in a way that calls to mind ordinary, person-to-person talk. Indeed, a new model based on organizational conversation (as we call it) has come to the fore at many companies. Where organizational conversation has taken hold, leaders build engagement and drive strategic alignment by enabling ideas and information to move efficiently across their company. The task of a conversationally adept leader, according to this model, is to ensure that the right messages reach the right people at the right time.

It’s a task, in other words, that resembles the one that a successful presidential candidate must undertake.

In 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama developed and led a campaign for the presidency that not only achieved its main goal—sending Obama to the White House—but also set a new standard for innovation and execution. He did so, we believe, by mounting a campaign that fully leveraged the principles of conversation-based leadership.

Earlier candidates, of course, had excelled at communicating with voters in a conversational manner. (Think of Franklin Roosevelt, who became famous for his radio-based “fireside chats,” or Ronald Reagan, whose easy-going style earned him a reputation as “the Great Communicator.”) Yet the Obama campaign signaled the emergence of a novel framework for managing electoral communication at a national level. From the way that it deployed advanced digital media to the way that it incorporated rank-and-file supporters into its messaging apparatus, the Obama for America operation in 2008 demonstrated the power of conducting a campaign as though it were a conversation.

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Effective organization conversation, we argue in Talk, Inc., depends on how well leaders are able to promote four key qualities. Four years ago, each of those qualities was very much in evidence in the campaign that culminated in Obama’s victory on Election Night.

Intimacy: Effective leaders treat an opportunity to communicate as an opportunity to close the gap that might otherwise separate them from their followers—whether those followers happen to be employees or voters. From his fabled keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to his high-pressure speech on race in 2008, Obama proved able to talk about sensitive issues in a way that promised to bring people together.

Interactivity: Taking steps to promote dialogue—real, back-and-forth interaction among people from all parts of an organization—is another hallmark of conversation-based leadership. In 2008, Obama built an operation that used social-media tools (such as Facebook and its own “mybarackobama” platform) to enable two-way communication between campaign operatives and grassroots supporters.

Inclusion: A truly conversational leader engages people by empowering them to become full-fledged conversational participants. A highlight of the Obama campaign in 2008 was its ability, and its willingness, to leverage unsolicited pro-Obama messaging efforts. Notable examples of supporter-generated content included the “Hope” poster created by Shepard Fairey and the “Yes We Can” video produced by the music artist will.i.am.

Intentionality:HopePoster.jpg Enabling open conversation isn’t enough. Leaders also need to pursue a focused agenda that ties together the various strands of conversation—an agenda that clearly ties organizational conversation to organizational strategy. The 2008 Obama campaign, through its “Change We Can Believe Inmessaging strategy, aligned diverse constituencies around a vision that differentiated Obama from his opponents.

There’s more to a successful presidential campaign than building a great communication operation. Other factors, many of them external to the campaign itself—the state of the economy, the demographics of the electorate, the salience of certain policy issues—each play a critical role in rallying voters to one candidate rather than another.

Even so, Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the presidency illustrates the value of adopting a conversational approach to engaging with key constituencies. These days, whether you’re leading a private-sector company or a campaign for high political office, it pays to communicate with people in ways that are intimate, interactive, inclusive, and intentional.

[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, at the Harvard Business Review site.]

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