Jonathan Spencer

When in Rome: the nuance in the narrative

A furore for this polymath of Pisa, it was. A fandango that today might mirror a Twitter storm. / By Jonathan Spencer

We can’t be as brilliant as Galileo, or indeed as misrepresented – the great astronomer and physicist perhaps ahead of his time with nuance, 400 years ago.

When the original draft of a letter to his friend and former pupil, Bedenetto Castelli was discovered in an archive at the Royal Society this time last year, his choice of words in his original hand – and tone – would have been clear enough for his toughest audience.

Castelli had tussled with dinner guests, defending Galileo’s arguments on the Earth’s motion around the Sun. After the party, Castelli was summoned by a Tuscan duchess to explain the science conflicting with religious teachings. He wrote a letter to warn his friend. Galileo responded swiftly – within a week – seeking to clarify and expand his arguments. He would later write to the duchess to explain (in 40 pages) that in his view there was no confliction.

His original letter wasn’t published, though his studies and arguments were widely circulated – shared – around Catholic and science fraternities; other incomplete or edited copies emerging as the debate intensified, leading to an audience with the Roman Inquisition. Galileo protested at the ‘wickedness and ignorance’ of his enemies, adding how the Inquisition was ‘…in part deceived by this fraud which is going around under the cloak of zeal and charity’.

Machiavellian… perhaps. But a furore for this polymath of Pisa, it was. A fandango that today might mirror a Twitter storm.           

With information instantly shared, audiences are as much a fog in cyberspace. What we say in the moment over dinner may take on a more measured tone later. That is why we take care, to work with the factual details and ensure clear messages cut through the speculation.   

Of course, the calculated narrative can be taken to extremes in international debate that seeks consensus. Climate change is a case in point. Language and tone, the cross-cultural nuance is everything; reading between the bracketed text is an art. Lines are softened, redacted altogether, as nation states argue towards compromise.

Working through the night with successive drafts may explain the red-eyed sherpas and discarded pizza boxes, though the end-product is often a bland communiqué of frustrated progress. The business end is done in the op-eds / comment pages and the unilateral spinning. This is what engages editors, who won’t get much further than the executive summary.    

But in an incident the media is looking for the company’s response. The first draft is vital. Similarly, an ambiguous answer in a broadcast interview can mislead, inviting tougher follow-up questions.

Why do the interview? Because with care we can meet an audience. Squaring up to a point can add nuance to the narrative or correct an error in public perception.

A spokesperson must be prepared for the sharp interest of an inquisitive journalist. Language, expression and tone as you restate the clear facts are the best tactics. If it requires a quantum of character or humanity, then add that; so often the hard-driven advice worth restating – for CEO or minister – in the minutes beforehand.    

I’ll not compare the Today Programme with the Roman Inquisition (others can). But you usually get one shot at your audience to make a clean go of it on solid terms. Yours.

Afterall, that is where the buck stops – with or without the fandango.

Email: jonathan.spencer@navigateresponse.com

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