Jan 11, 2023
Society approves titles and status, especially in Japan. We rise through the ranks and following the Peter Principle, we peak at our upper level of incompetence. On the way up, we pick up titles and accrue status, respect and credence amplified through the power of our title. Our personal power though could be suddenly exposed as bogus, when we get up to open our mouths in public. This is one of those “The Emperor Has No Clothes” moments, when all is revealed, and we are found severely wanting.
I was at a function recently and one of the bureaucratic elite in Japan was there to give a keynote presentation. You generally get to become an elite official in Japan because you went to the right elementary school, middle school, high school and then University. The reason these were the right schools up until University, is because they have the absolute best system in place to help you be a legend in memorization, rote learning and test taking. At University you take a couple of years off, before you start cramming for the national selection exam, where again memory and exam technique are the most rewarded skills.
You join a Ministry and work like a dog for a squillion hours every day, for years, simultaneously looking for a powerful patron to whom you can pledge total loyalty. After decades of glacial progress, you emerge a grey haired, elite official. Now part of the bureaucratic upper crust, you are often called upon to represent your organization and speak in public and the whole edifice comes crushing down.
This was the case with this official – sent out into the firing line to promulgate the new way forward for his political masters, to impress everyone with the potency of their new policies, to win adherents to the path forward. Total fizzer.
Why? Because he spoke without energy or passion – nothing to indicate he felt at all impressed with his own recommendations. He looked down at his papers and hardly glanced at the audience. The opportunity to make eye contact, to combine words with the power of his face and to use the tonal variations available to his voice, were in total absence.
He was a truly dull correspondent and we were completely dulled to his message. There were no converts that day. He could tick the box though – the task was completed, a total failure, but completed.
Astonishingly, during the post speech Q&A session, he perked up like a man really engaged – sadly it was only sustained for 30 seconds, but it showed he could do it.
So why didn't he do it while he commanded the stage? No concept and no appreciation for the immense power at his beck and call, I would proffer. His self-concept seemed to be that he was just a grey bureaucrat, whose job was to be grey and boring. Obviously he had received no training or preparation for his task. So his brilliant university pedigree meant little when he was publically outed at the podium. He was a total failure as a communicator, he became a message killer, a brand assassin instead.
Was he an exception, a one-off, the runt of the litter among the bureaucratic ranks of the gifted, great and plausible public speakers? No he was typical of that bevy of elite officials, who are mainly acquired status and have almost no personal power projection.
Another vaunted profession is that of the elite government official who works in the foreign service. This has been a bad week for me, as I suffered more of the same, this time from an Ambassador.
You would think that given the high profile nature of their job, they would be experts in promoting their countries. No, this was another national reputation suicide effort.
Monotone, weak voice sputtering forth Ums and Ahs aplenty, with no engagement with the audience. A voice that sounded so very weary and where the last three to four words in every sentence, just slowly petered out. The energy and tone just subsided, guaranteeing the key message was a total downer, regardless of the actual content of the words.
Was this a one off – just the Ambo having a bad day? No, I have seen this gentleman in action on many occasions and there is a scary consistency to his public speaking murder of his country’s brand. He is not unusual – in my 37 years of survey here, I have found that most Ambassadors are hopeless public speakers. Yes, yes, there are some exceptions, but they just prove the rule (send me a list of more than 10 Ambassadors you know who are any good?).
Do these career diplomats get proper training in the art of public speaking? Astoundingly no! They become elite government officials due to their ability to write cables and reports, which usually almost no one reads, by the way. They have large analytical abilities and very big brains. They can really shine in small meetings, where they can one up their rivals and be the smartest intellect in the room.
So they get promoted and then get propelled to the front of the stage, handed the mic and away they go into ineptitude, writ large under lights, in front of the assembled masses. The good thing is that all of their colleagues are equally hopeless, so it seems normal to them. The fundamental error is they simply don’t value having a skilled public presentation facility.
The worst public speaking experience of my diplomatic career was giving a speech on behalf of one of our Ambassadors. I was “our man in Osaka” and had to deliver the speech on his behalf. The talk was in Japanese, which was no issue, as I had given around 400 public speeches in Japanese. The content however was challenging. There are four main types of speeches – to inform, to persuade, to entertain and to impress. Foreign Ministries around the world, tend to love the data dump, inform variety. This automatically leads to lots of dull information being imparted. Why they don’t go for the persuade type is a bit of a mystery to me and all countries seem to make that selection. I absolutely gave it my best shot to liven it up, while sticking religiously to the approved Ambassadorial text, but what torture it was!
Imagine when you combine dead data with a dead delivery? You have a massive bromide of winter surf Hawaiian North Shore frightening proportions, thundering down to bludgeon unsuspecting audiences into stupefaction. This is what we usually get from elite Government officials and it doesn't have to be like that.
There are some bright spots of hope though, even in Japan! Previous Ambassador Motohiko Nishimura, who I met in Osaka in the mid-1990s, during his posting to the Kansai (yes, Kansai is considered a foreign country by Tokyo, so they have to send an Ambassador down there), was skilled and excellent. English or Japanese, it did not matter, he was the consummate diplomat in the sense he could use his speaking power, to capture an audience and have them love Japan. He finished his career as Ambassador to Portugal, and I am sure he was a tremendous asset for his country in creating support for Japan there.
Hello to all of you elite officials and aspirants out there, stop boring us all to death, get some proper training and represent your Ministries with aplomb. Boys and girls – be ambitious? No be persuasive!