Back in the 1960’s in the UK there was a band called The Animals. One of their early hit records was a classic blues song
called, “Please don’t let me be misunderstood”. Being misunderstood can be the difference between winning and losing. As my old friend and mentor Rob Irving used to say, “It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear”.
Last night some friends came round to dinner at my house. Geoff is retired and Penny still works – in health care. Penny’s sister lives in the US and works for the World Bank. She is married to a guy who used to be a senior executive at Goldman Sachs. Penny mentioned that she had been talking to her sister during the past week. She had apparently been present at an event at which our Prime Minister had given an address.
Penny was recounting how her sister, while listening to the PM talking to the conference, had found herself fielding questions in hushed whispers from those Americans around her, asking her what was being said by the PM. The people in the room just couldn’t understand her!
Now, everyone knows that if someone from the outside world wants to get an acting job in Hollywood, they have to go to a voice coach. They have to learn to speak like an American. They have to because the studios know that if they put a movie out into the market with accented speech in it, people in the US will stay away in droves. So they don’t do it. The movie industry is big business. It is also perhaps the most marketing oriented business there is in the world. If you make it difficult for the customer, the customer responds accordingly: he just stops spending money. The result is that when you see a movie with Scarlett Johansson (from South Africa) or Russel Crowe, or Nicole Kidman (from Australia) what you get is American accents. The only people who seem to be able to get away with speaking in their native accent are the classic Brits like Maggie Smith or Hugh Grant, who built their careers playing classic Brits, and so presumably are now type cast…
But, back to the point: Our Prime Minister is hard on the ears for most Australians. But we can all cope with it. However, when the people in the audience for a speech in the nation that substantially determines our foreign policy, can’t understand her, surely, we should all be concerned. The Hollywood stars who learn to talk American get paid big bucks to do so. But the people who represent our nation, have a much much bigger responsibility to be understood. Surely our PM could take some lessons in how to talk to ensure that people in the audience at the World Bank or the UN actually understand what she is saying. If not, why should she bother with going overseas, and why should any of us tolerate having her represent us? It doesn’t mean that she has to talk like Nicole Kidman. But it does mean that she should learn to make herself understood. It is the basics of marketing. And if her role is to be the CEO of the country, that means she should be the #1 salesman for the country too.
By the way: the same goes for each of us too. I learned a long time ago, that if you want to do business in the US, you have to think like an American and you have to speak so as to be understood.