The importance of optics

Common wisdom tells us that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then most likely, it is a duck. We all know, however, that this is not always true.

The idea of optics is captured perfectly in a scene from the movie “The Tuxedo.” Jackie Chan is working for a millionaire and in the scene the millionaire turns to Jackie and says, “It’s 90% the suit.”

What he is referring to is the optics of a situation–what perception the picture creates.

In Australian politics, the Federal Treasurer, Mr. Joe Hockey, was photographed smoking a cigar at the time when he was bringing down a tough budget in parliament. The imagery was all wrong and the press had a field day depicting Mr. Hockey as a fat cat, smoking cigars while the common man battled. The depiction was completely unfair and most people knew it, but it was an association Mr. Hockey was never able to fully shake.

Optics is the non-verbal, subliminal messaging that surrounds the actual message. When it comes to stakeholder management, optics is central to everything. It is the backbone to effective communications.

Optics are why politicians kiss a baby whenever there is a camera about. They are demonstrating their support for families and that they are in touch with the community. It is most certainly not because they like kissing babies.

A key feature of optics is that they are primarily associated with a person or a business and are not time sensitive. It is common for people to unconsciously develop a view of a person over a period of time simply by watching how they handle themselves in and around the office. This will include how they dress, the hours they work, or even their punctuality at meetings.

What this means is that, when it comes to stakeholder management, what you do and what you don’t do, and how and when you say something are as important as what you say, and possibly even more important.

The best example I have of this is a client I worked with a few years ago. He asked for me to analyse a significant body of data. This assignment was beyond my skill set and I invited a colleague to join the project to complete this piece of work. My colleague had a PhD in Physics and was undoubtedly the best person for the job. Unfortunately, he also had numerous tattoos and body piercings. My client was unable to see past the earrings and tattoos and requested that he be removed from the project. I argued that he was a PhD and was highly professional. My client was unrepentant. He was unwilling to accept that a person who looked like my colleague could ever produce a creditable outcome. He was concerned that if the project outcome was suboptimal, then he would be blamed for giving the work to such a person.

The words “What were you thinking?” were already ringing in his ears.

Optics can extend beyond the person to the theatre in which the message is delivered. When Tony Abbott was shadow prime minister he spoke at a political rally. I don’t remember what he was talking about, but I clearly remember him standing in front of various signboards that said “Ditch the witch” and similar slogans. The slogans all referred to the then Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard and while these slogans had nothing to do with Mr. Abbott, he did make the decision to stand in front of them. His poor choice of theatre gave Ms. Gillard significant political capital and she went on to portray Mr. Abbott as someone who disrespected women and consistently brought up his apparent misogyny at every opportunity. There was not a lot Mr Abbott could do in response, as he had put himself in front of the signs. The message he delivered that day was lost, dwarfed by the poor choice of the theatre in which he chose to deliver the message. The optics of that day were just wrong.

Optics generally refer to the perception that a person creates by their behaviour, dress, and choice of presentation theatre. The term can also subsequently extend to the spoken word. I say subsequently as the audience will already have formed an impression about the speaker long before the person starts to speak. I witnessed this firsthand when I was working with a senior IT executive. We had arranged for a supplier to showcase their solution. Unfortunately, the presenter was young and he pronounced the word “something” as “some think.” He also said “yous” when referring to my client’s company. The combination of youth and pronunciation errors irritated my client so much he stopped listening to what the person was saying and worried only about how he was saying it. The relationship with the supplier died in that meeting. My client felt disrespected and that his time had been wasted. It is worth noting that had my client wanted to buy expertise on social media, then the presenter’s youth probably would have been an asset.

The take out is that effective stakeholder management requires the speaker to look the part, sound the part, and to manage the theatre in which the message is delivered.

This can include everything from how a person dresses to how long they took to prepare a presentation. Consider a manager going out to a factory to address the staff. If they wear a suit and cuff links, the factory staff will find it difficult to see past the suit and hear the message. All they will see is a stuffed shirt coming from head office to give them news they assume they don’t want to hear.

Equally, if the manager arrived wearing factory uniform, the staff would question who the manager was trying to impress. They might reject the approach, and say, “You are not one of us.” Once again, the message would be discounted.

There is no right answer. It really depends on the message. If it is bad news, I would counsel the manager not to stand behind a table or lectern or on a stage. Rather they should stand in front of the staff with no barriers and no ceremony. The manager will look sincere and will have a much better chance of being heard. After addressing the staff, the manager should leave through the same door as the staff, at the same time. All these cues will reinforce the subliminal message the manager respects the staff and sees them as equals.

The opposite can hold true when addressing a senior audience. In this case the manager should wear a tie, have polished shoes, and be on time. When the manager enters the room, the senior team will immediately make a judgement on the quality of the information they are about to hear. The quality of the presentation is important. It should look like the presenter took the time to do a good job. A great message poorly portrayed will have less traction with the stakeholders than a well-presented weaker message.

Managing the optics is especially important when a country suffers a natural disaster. An unfortunate but excellent example is how the U.S. federal government responded to Hurricane Katrina.

You will recall that in the days and weeks after Katrina flattened New Orleans and the surrounding countryside, the world’s press beamed live pictures of people who had lost everything. The implication was that the government had failed in its duties. The press repeatedly asked, “When is help coming? Why weren’t people warned? Etc

The optics were that the government was caught napping, was incompetent, and indifferent.

In the lessons learnt document published in the months following Katrina, the author notes:

On September 1, conflicting views of New Orleans emerged with positive statements by some Federal officials that contradicted a more desperate picture painted by reporters in the streets. The media, operating 24/7, gathered and aired uncorroborated information which interfered with ongoing emergency response efforts.

The truth of the matter is that the local, state, and federal administrations had put substantial preparation and risk mitigation strategies into place prior to the storm. The media ignored this and only presented half the story.

This example reinforces the point that the optics created about you or your company can be created just as much by a third party as they can be by you. And no matter who creates them, or how accurate they are, they do need to be managed.

My mom taught me not to judge a book by its cover. I would love to say I don’t, but I know that I do. We all do. In business terms, when it comes to successfully managing stakeholders, it is essential that you are highly sensitive to your “cover” and that you manage the perception it creates. Fail to do this and your audience may never take the time to really listen to what you have to say.

The problem is that you can only do what you can do. The stereotypes, bigotry, baggage, biases, and cultural differences that your audience brings with them are largely beyond your control. I say largely because you can still mitigate for these hidden filters with some consideration of who your stakeholders are and what they represent.

If you are talking to an older audience, you should expect them to be more conservative and unlikely to make a quick decision. If you are talking to women, then swearing is unlikely to be well received. Equally, a young underdressed female presenter is unlikely to get a warm reception from senior executives, male or female. Engineers are generally detail people. They will forgive a few faux pas if the presenter knows their topic in detail. By contrast, senior managers do not want detail. German audiences respect formal dress and titles and Japanese audiences respect the past. Younger audiences are more receptive to a technology demonstration and frequently less hung up on the formalities that senior audiences appreciate. Having said that, it would be a mistake not to take a young audience seriously.

For each one of these examples, there will be folks immediately quoting examples that contradict me. That’s to be expected because when it comes to stakeholder management, you have to deal with individuals and known groups. Stereotypes may not apply.

The take out is this. Always respect the theater in which you work.

Hi, Please let me have your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s