Comments on Congress

Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of high-school students when one raised his hand, declared that he wanted to run for Congress, and asked what he should study in order to prepare. I suspect my answer surprised him. I told him to study English.

What I had in mind were writing, reading, and public speaking. Members of Congress need to be good at a lot of things if they want to be effective, but chief among them is the ability to communicate. Politics – both getting elected and making a meaningful contribution to public life – is largely about interaction with other people. You won’t succeed if you can’t make yourself understood, don’t know how to pay attention to what others think, and don’t care about the dialogue that underlies our democracy.

When I say “communication” I mean it in the broadest sense: formal and informal; one-on-one and before a mass audience; in writing, in speeches and in discussion; with small, friendly groups of admirers and in front of larger, not-always-friendly crowds; on television, on the radio, on the Web, and in print; in the formal setting of the House or Senate floor and sitting at a formica-topped luncheonette table over coffee and doughnuts.

Sometimes politicians have a chance to spend time choosing their words, but more often they have to speak off the cuff, weighing the import of their words even as they say them. Some people are born with this ability, but for lots of us it’s a skill we learn with practice, and it’s invaluable to a politician.

When you accept an invitation to speak, you never know what the environment is going to be – not just in terms of the venue, which could be anything from an old VFW hall to someone’s living room, but in terms of the political moment. More than a few times, I’ve prepared for a public appearance only to have my speech become irrelevant when some national issue became the only topic people were interested in discussing.

And the truth is, most audiences are less interested in hearing a speech read than in having it delivered in a way that seems fresh and spur-of-the-moment. They prefer dialogue with their elected representative rather than a set speech.

It also helps to remember that in public life, presentation matters. You have to be able to write clearly and, even more important, speak clearly: don’t slur your words, don’t let your voice fade – you’d be amazed how many people have difficulty hearing.

Be enthusiastic and energetic, and speak with conviction: if you don’t believe what you’re saying, your audience won’t, either.

Learn how to calibrate what you say to the medium you’re using: you’ll be much more convincing on television if you speak conversationally than if you come across as angry or impassioned; but before a crowd, speaking conversationally will just put the audience to sleep.

These are things you can practice, though only experience will teach you how to relax in front of an audience, put them at ease, and, most important, enjoy your time in front of them.

All of these things are  helped enormously by preparation. You may not have to know your exact words ahead of time, but you most certainly want to master your subject. When you’re not sure of the facts or even of your own position, you have to tread extremely carefully: that’s when politicians make mistakes, and in politics a bad slip can be devastating, especially in the age of mini digital recorders, camcorders and YouTube.

At the same time, the best politicians know that a crucial part of good communications is the ability to listen to constituents, to members of an audience, and to political opponents. The importance of paying attention to the first two should be obvious. You want to be able to address the concerns of listeners and to be ready to learn from them: not only do you not want to come across as an arrogant know-it-all, but also you’d be surprised and humbled to discover how much a crowd of average Americans can teach even the best-versed politician. The same is true of your colleagues and opponents. Any public policy debate of consequence will have good points on both sides, and learning to welcome multiple perspectives is vital.

Because in the end, politics is a discussion among many interested parties – lawmakers, lobbyists, policy analysts, journalists and ordinary Americans. Being a good politician means being a good conversationalist, not simply scoring a few rhetorical points and then going home. Our system depends on give and take, not on drawing lines in the sand, and the more budding politicians there are who understand that, the better off we’ll all be.

Lee Hamilton

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)

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