Pity the poor billionaires. They might have crisp, fresh snow and winter sunshine, private jets rather than check-in queues, champagne on tap and hotel suites larger than many people’s homes but those attending Davos this week are under attack.
Although around 3,000 people will be present Boris Johnson has reportedly banned ministers from attending, in order to avoid them looking elitist. Certainly, the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the reputation of the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting at HAS TAGS Davos. It was described as “a family reunion for the people who broke the modern world,” last year by Anand Giridharadas, editor-at-large, at Time magazine.
Media training for Davos?
From the point of view of media training providers who have worked closely with corporate communications for decades, we wondered what those attending the World Economic Forum this week could do to improve their image and their communications with the outside word.
First of all, they need to look outwards. They might be a collection of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world but they need to remember that as well as talking to each other, they need to consider the concerns of those who live in Derby, Detroit or Dunkirk as well as Davos. So often in our media training and presentation courses we’re helping clients to think about how their messages, their language and their examples might work not just internally but for those who know little about them and care even less – or who might even be actively hostile, as is often the case here.
It’s all about the audience – and the audience for the World Economic Forum’s messages is increasingly to be found outside the confines of the Davos meeting rooms, hotels and restaurants. The language echoing around these venues doesn’t necessarily translate into the language used by those in the wider world. As we say to the people that we’re working with on media coaching and presentation training, it’s good to use language that people understand but it’s better to use language that they use.
Greta Thunberg says it how it is – organisations should take note
Compare the kind of cliched, bloodless corporate language that we have so much of with the simplicity and power of the words used by Greta Thunberg – also at Davos this year. “Our house is still on fire,” she said. “Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour, and we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.”
The Davos set should think about their arguments too. Consider the example of the economist who was arguing against Brexit during the 2016 referendum and talked about the potential rise in labour costs caused by Britain’s departure from the EU. Let’s just translate that. You mean my wages will go up because of Brexit? Right, all the more reason to vote leave, then. Arguments that might resonate among the businesspeople and economists of Davos won’t necessarily work with audiences outside.
The Davos crowd need to think about telling human stories alongside the macro-economics. Many of them, especially the wealthiest, are actually self-made people. They set up businesses themselves. They might have left a good job and worked all the hours God sends at their kitchen table or in their garage. They might have had to handle scepticism and scorn of colleagues and even family and friends. Very likely they made mistakes. When our speechwriter Simon Brooke writes speeches for senior business leaders or the founders of companies or when we work with organisations to develop their corporate messages as well as doing media coaching sessions for them, we’ll ask them not just about the ups but also the downs. The mistakes people make – and what they learnt from them – are as interesting to journalists and the public as the successes.
Telling human stories
People such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Benioff of Salesforce as well as many of the politicians and economists have come from pretty ordinary backgrounds. They should talk more about their personal stories and make it clear that – in theory, anyway – anyone else with enough drive, tenacity and imagination can do the same as they’ve done.
Creating these connections and building empathy with the audience is essential in any form of communication – before you’ve even said the first word. If people can’t connect and empathise with you, they won’t listen to you, let alone believe you. In our presentation courses we often look at Steve Jobs’ Stanford University commencement speech. Here he famously talked about sleeping in friend’s rooms, collecting Coke bottles for the deposit walking seven miles across town every Sunday night to get at least one good meal a week at a Hare Krishna temple.
“Get out more,” is another piece of advice we’d give to improve the communications of the WEF at Davos. In other words, don’t always do Davos at Davos. Go to the North of England, the flyover states of the US and those little bits of France, Italy, Germany and Spain that are outside the main cities, in other words most of the country. It might be risky for them but at least the Davos set would be seen to making an effort and there are certainly opportunities to translate what they talk about into the things that affect ordinary people.
Breaking down concepts and ideas into everyday examples and anecdotes, in other words describing what it means for the person in the street rather than the executive in the boardroom or the academic in the ivory tower is essential for good communication, we explain in our media training sessions. Davos, are you listening?