Michael Lea Rock has enjoyed a stellar career in communications.

He served David Cameron and Gordon Brown as Chief Writer to the Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street before spending four years as a speechwriter at the US Department of State, where his material was used by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He recently spent five years as a senior writer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he worked as a speechwriter for Melinda Gates. At the start of his career, Michael spent 12 years as a news reporter and political correspondent for two UK national newspapers, The Sun and Daily Mail.

Here he talks to Harpswood founder James Clench about how digital communication is causing “news” to be replaced by “views”, which PM failed the football fan test and how whiskey helped him to think differently about speech writing.

You have worked with some amazing communicators. Who stood out for you and why?

Every person I’ve worked with has taught me something—and each has their own style and unique qualities that set them apart. Obviously, communicating—whether through speeches, interviews, or social media platforms—comes more naturally to some than others. I’ve always been especially impressed by those who recognise that public speaking or media engagements are not their natural habitat but work hard to get better at it by listening to people like you, James, who know how they can make it work for them. In terms of individuals who stood out for me, I would pick two. Melinda Gates puts other people’s stories and experiences at the heart of her communications. This not only elevates other voices, usually those voices that typically go unheard, it also creates empathy—a hugely powerful communications tool. Matthew Barzun, who was US Ambassador to the UK, gave me a whole new way of thinking about speeches—from how they are structured to how you can use analogy to make a point. We wrote one speech about UK-US trade through the prism of how you make whiskey!

You have written speeches for people who are operating at a global level and calling for international action. Are there differences in the fundamentals of communicating at that level compared to trying to reach a more localised audience – or are the basic rules of communication always the same?

I think the same basic rules apply. The difference comes more in what your specific message is than in how you present that message.

Tech has transformed communication in the last 20 years. What has been the most important change in that period? Also, what has been the biggest danger caused by those developments? And what do you think is the next big transformation in comms coming around the corner?

I’d say that the most important change is the ability for people to respond or react in real-time to an interview or speech. Danger comes from the fact that many of these comments go out uncensored—and can spread far and wide at breakneck speed. The trend for soundbites and limited character posts also diminishes the purpose and potential of making a fully reasoned, logical argument, which is what you get through speeches and op-eds. We’ve also seen the demise of traditional media powerhouses. Consider how Radio 4’s Today programme is no longer treated with such reverence by politicians (especially the government), or that The Sun and Daily Mail don’t lead the national conversation in the way they once did. In some ways, that’s a refreshing change but at the same time, they’ve been replaced by “views” over “news”, which I don’t think is ultimately a good thing. There’s also been the explosion of podcasts, which has given politicians, organisations, and individuals a chance to speak more directly to their audiences. What’s the next big thing? I wish I knew. I suspect it will be something around more direct communications. I’m also intrigued by the potential of what’s called ephemeral content—that’s social media content which is available only for a short duration and then disappears. I can imagine the hype created around these, coupled with audiences’ fear of missing out to be a powerful new tool.

With so many communications channels now available, how can individuals, businesses or organisations cut through the noise?

Authenticity, absurdity, and creativity.

Social media channels are an extremely effective form of communication. How should innovative business leaders use them? Should they be on TikTok or stick to appearing on a business podcast?

They should be (a) where their audience is, and (b) where it is most authentic for them to be. That said, there can be great rewards in counterintuitive comms—especially if you’re trying to change perceptions.

Some businesses and organisations bury their heads and hide away when it comes to communicating. Are there risks to that insular approach?

Absolutely. In an age where openness is ubiquitous, and publicly sharing personal information is so instinctive, then appearing to be secretive, aloof, or opaque can be risky. Without a clear, consistent message it can be much easier to fall foul of conspiracy theories and misinformation or disinformation.

Coronavirus has obviously had a huge impact on how we communicate – from the rise of video conferencing to (perhaps) the death knell of the handshake. Do you think this has changed how we communicate forever?

It’s certainly changed how we interact with each other on a personal level. But I think there’s been less of a change in how businesses and organisations communicate with their audiences since, in most cases, these were always done virtually or remotely.

A quote that’s been attributed to American comic George Burns (and others) is “The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” How easy is it to pick out inauthentic communication?

Very easy. And that’s why authenticity is so important. David Cameron claims to be an Aston Villa fan, then suggests in a speech he follows West Ham. No football fan would ever confuse their club with another. Ever. Now, I know that Theresa May was widely ridiculed for her “running through fields of wheat” answer but it was totally authentic. Whatever they thought, everyone knew it was true. Imagine how different the reaction would have been had she claimed that the naughtiest thing she had done was steal a car or vandalise her school.

Is there a business/organisational use of jargon that irritates you? Is there any place in communications for jargon?

All of it. I hate acronyms especially and actually have a self-imposed rule that I never use them in emails, even to people who know what they stand for. For me, jargon—and every industry has it, including media and communications—just makes people feel like outsiders. And that’s one of the worst things you can do in communications. Now, having said all that, I do believe a case can be made for its (limited) use, and that is when an individual needs to get across that they know what they’re talking about. I once heard Trevor Phillips say something similar that has always stuck with me. One accepted rule of speeches is that data and statistics are dull and unmemorable (unless they’re truly amazing) and so should be used sparingly. However, Trevor said that as a Black man, likely to be challenged as uneducated given people’s prejudices and biases, he needed to use lots of data and numbers in his speeches to back up his arguments. I can see how jargon could perform a similar role for some.