The Courier Mail’s Kate Kyriacou reported on 3 March that the ‘chatty’, ‘conversational’ style of the State’s Premier, Campbell Newman, was to be copied by departmental and agency staff when writing letters to the public.
Other terms used to describe Mr Newman’s style were reported to have been ‘personal’, ‘informal’ and ‘everyday language’. Departmental staff members have apparently been asked to write letters that would create a sense of having a ‘direct conversation’ with the Premier.
I imagine that everyone would agree with this praiseworthy initiative.
Some of this blog’s readers already know that I am a specialist on ‘ministerial correspondence’. I have been a consultant on government writing for 24 years and have trained about 35,000 public sector workers in state and federal government organisations.
Over the last couple of years, I have increasingly turned my attention to developing DeepWord as a commercial application. However, the news from the Queensland government drew my attention. I was interested to discover what Campbell Newman’s style was really like and decided to use DeepWord to measure it.
I took a snippet of Mr Newman’s natural speaking language: just over 100 words that he reportedly used when talking about an audit plan to privatise the electricity network. That is not a comprehensive sample of his natural ‘voice’, but I thought it may be illuminating.
The words of Campbell Newman I tested were:
‘I’m going to have to be convinced, because it’s a natural monopoly. I will be reading this report and taking the time to do this right. I have read the executive summary but I don’t have to read the report at this stage because we’ve made no decisions. We’re about to consider the report in the way that the Treasurer has said and we’re then going to have a proper debate in Queensland about how we clean up the mess those opposite have left us. There are many things on my plate at the moment—for example we’re seeing power prices go through the roof.’
Even with those few words about electricity privatisation provided a fascinating fact. Mr Newman’s focus is on action. DeepWord found his ‘wavelength’ (the central focus of his communication) to be on moving and changing. That fits neatly with his ‘Can-Do’ political persona. In fact, Mr Newman expresses his focus on action through his language style.
Not unexpectedly, DeepWord found his ‘silent stance’ (how open or closed his message was) to be mostly closed. As a political leader, he was expressing his opinion. He did not lack certainty nor did he ask others to express their opinions. So, there were no surprises in DeepWord’s finding.
What about the tone of Mr Campbell’s ‘voice’? DeepWord’s ‘message mood’ measured the emotional ‘colouring’ of his words and identified three descriptors: attentive, serious and purposeful.
Of course, Mr Newman used a simple vocabulary (4.2 characters per word on average) and standard sentence lengths (an average of 21 words). The Flesch Reading Ease of the text I tested was 68.6: well within the range of Plain English.
However, simple talk is not the key to Mr Newman’s excellence in communication. It is his tone: direct, dynamic and brimming with intent.
DeepWord delved even deeper to discover motivating characteristics in the Premier’s words. The descriptors that appeared in the ‘deep down’ analysis were determined, smart and expectant. Again, this is all of a piece in relation to Mr Newman’s style and, more to the point, his character.
Simple communication styles are easy to emulate. Microsoft Word provides all the measures needed and has done so for over a decade. That’s how I measured Mr Newman’s vocabulary, sentence length and language complexity. However, Queensland public servants could match Mr Newman’s ‘voice’ almost exactly by using DeepWord to measure the focus, stance, tone and motivational characteristics of their drafts.
One of the difficulties in requiring public servants to write in a ‘conversational’ manner is that departmental subject specialists and their supervisors are often skilled in writing in academic or bureaucratic styles that are formal, professional and neutral. Encouraging them to use a different, specified tone and style can be a lengthy, frustrating process. As public servants grapple with these communication subtleties, judgements become subjective and deadlines are overrun.
The starting point for improvement involves standardised measures that are readily deployed and easily understood by all concerned. The ‘purpose-focused’ analysis of language that underpins DeepWord provides a measurable, consistent and inexpensive solution to the age-old problem of public service communication.
See DeepWord, the prototype of our commercial version of this technology.