The Senator Experiment

The other day I got a call out of the blue from a U.S. Senator (who’ll remain anonymous here), with an interesting problem: he wanted to get better at his job. Quick background: he’s in his mid-fifties, and not a career politician; he’s not in danger of being defeated in an election, so he figures he’s going to be in D.C. for a while. The Senator was essentially asking a strange and fascinating question: was there a way he could practice being a better senator?Here’s how he described his goal:

“I want to become one of those people who “gets” big issues — who can frame them quickly and talk about them in clear, compelling ways. I want to be one of those senators who might only say a few words, but to whom people listen because their words cut through the clutter and capture the essence of an issue.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. The question seemed kinda crazy. Then we talked some more. It gradually became clear that the people who do well in this area essentially possess 3 distinct skills: 1) recognize a pattern in the landscape; 2) choose a strategy; 3) communicate that strategy to others.

We’re talking, of course, about soft skills. This is not like learning to play an E-major chord or shoot a free throw (see previous post) — it’s not about repeating with precision. It’s more like learning to be a jazz singer, or salesperson, or an improv comic — building a fast, fluent brain capable of choosing exactly the right sequence, at speed, out of thousands of possibilities. The question the Senator is asking is the same one most of us face: what’s the best way to practice soft skills? We kicked around some ideas and here’s what we came up with:

  • 1) To improve pattern recognition and choice, practice like a soccer player: consider creating “game films.” Pick a recent Big Issue — for example, the financial crisis — and do an analysis of how each of the key figures behaved. Walk through the events in slo-mo; recreate their decision patterns, and learn from them. Figure out how you would want to behave in that kind of situation.
  • 2) To improve the ability to distill issues to their essence, practice like a comedy writer: start generating material, test it out, keep what works. Political communication is like any other communication; it’s about distilling and framing — figuring out just the right combination of images and words to tell your story. One good tool is Twitter: the discipline of the 140-character limit enforces the principle: it’s easy to be complex — the true challenge is to get good at taking immensely complex issues and making them simple, compelling and accessible.
  • 3) Set aside some daily time and space for practice, and start keeping a journal to record ideas, results, and to make plans.

I’ve no idea how this is going to go, but it feels like a potentially interesting experiment. The Senator said he’ll keep me posted as to how things are going. So feel free to offer any other suggestions, and post them below. Who knows? If this takes off, he might have to call you “coach”!

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