Optics of crucial speech could have been better
STATE Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech on September 19 was one of the most watched of her career. After the speech, her words were reported and analysed by pundits around the world. What was not analysed to nearly the same degree were the optics of the speech, the visual aspects of her presentation and what they said to Myanmar and the world.
Optics has gained a place of priority in politics in most of the world. Some leaders seem to pay as much attention to the optics of events as they do to their actual statements. How leaders appear to be engaged visually is not of minor importance. The background, the people around them, the language on the banners, and the general scenery all influence public perception. World leaders, and their political handlers, consider the optics.
And optics could also be a valuable tool for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to cement their point of view and reputation in Myanmar and abroad.
While none of us can imagine the massive pressure the State Counsellor and the NLD face each day, we can see opportunities for her, her team and the NLD to communicate effectively to all of their audiences by using optics effectively.
Following are some of the takeaways regarding the optics of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s major announcement last week.
Staging Let’s go to the setting of the State Counsellor’s much-anticipated speech. She stands alone, a slender person on a massive stage. There are rows of giant Myanmar national flags flanking her. In front of her is a large podium and behind her is a plain wall draped in maroon. Despite being adored by millions of Myanmar people and revered for her staunch belief in peace and multiculturalism, on this stage, she appears alone and as a single voice.
Supporters In politics – and most importantly while delivering an important speech – leaders should always surround themselves with people. By using a human background, it sends a powerful message of support and strength. Few politicians in the world have the domestic support that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has, and her message would have been effectively communicated visually if she had been surrounded by key representatives of her government, leaders of international humanitarian organisations, and most of all, active supporters. This would have conveyed a statement of authority, humanity and inclusion.
Audience During the televised speech, when the camera panned to the audience, a couple of things stood out. First, the auditorium was filled with what appeared to be officials and media. The front row comprised VIPS from Myanmar and abroad, who had their own tables and bottles of drinking water. Behind them, were more rows with too many empty seats. The decision to deliver the speech in a closed-door venue attended only by government officials and local and international journalists was optically inadequate. It would have been better to invite supporters to attend. Though inviting journalists helped amplify the speech’s reach, asking supporters to attend would have established her party as a pool of cheerful and supportive partisans. It would have sent a powerful visual to the rest of the country and the world, reinforcing her reputation as an acclaimed, familiar and trusted leader.
Operatives The 30-minute address was the start of engaging in a conversation with Myanmar citizens, the affected people and the international community. It now needs to be complemented with an on-the-ground engagement strategy. The political communicators supporting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be well-served to communicate on the major issues, and they would do a great service to their country and to the legacy of their leader if they gave more consideration to the optics of her engagement and what they mean to the delivery of her message.
No doubt, some people will say optics are superficial. Some may say it is only the words and deeds of political leaders that matter. But even the most hardened skeptics must agree that we are visual creatures, and appearances do matter. This especially rings true in our attention-span-starved world, where many just take a few seconds to digest information before passing judgment. Recall the reactions of George Bush in the wake of September 11, 2001: he made a point of visiting mosques. This was to not just to deliver a speech, but, more importantly, to construct a positive image of himself for people around the world to witness. Bush wanted to enhance the optics of his words and actions.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has so many qualities that have earned her adoration at home and respect abroad that she deserves a chance to fix the issues in Myanmar today. Given all the trials and tribulations she has been through, she deserves some patience, but her communications team needs to put her in a place to succeed, and optics are a vital part of that success.
The State Counsellor will deliver many more important speeches in her time, and her team would be doing Myanmar a favour by seizing the opportunities to provide her with the optics she needs to communicate effectively.