As the presidential campaign came down to the wire, we surveyed HBR.org readers to gauge their sense of each candidate's ability to conduct and manage communication with voters. Both candidates, according to respondents, displayed an ability to communicate well. Yet the survey results indicate that Obama and Romney showed their respective strengths as communicators in very distinct ways.
In the survey, which was open to HBR.org readers from September 21 to October 14, we asked 54 respondents to rate how well each candidate performed along each of those four dimensions. Then we asked them to rate how well each candidate performed "overall" with respect to "conducting and managing communication with key constituencies." In addition, we asked respondents to indicate whether they planned to vote for President Obama or Governor Romney.
Not surprisingly, those who intended to vote for Obama gave their candidate higher marks as a communicator than they gave to Romney, and vice versa.
But we also observed an intriguing pattern that cuts across party lines. All respondents gave Romney higher scores on his overall communication performance than they did on any of the four categories of organizational conversation. Those results suggest that, in the view of our respondents, Romney displayed a talent for communication that differs substantially from the talent that Obama displayed.
Romney, to be precise, excelled at communicating with voters in a traditional manner. Consider his performance in the first presidential debate, held in Denver on October 2. In that venue, Romney was clear, cogent, and forceful. He knew what he wanted to say, and he said it systematically, using a tone and a rhetorical approach that he knew would appeal to his target audience. For decades, communicating in this model — communicating in a top-down and tactically efficient way — has been a central part of organizational leadership.
By contrast, Obama excelled at pursuing a conversational form of political communication. So we argued previously in this space, and the results of our survey tend to support that conclusion. Respondents scored Obama particularly high on the questions that pertained to intimacy and inclusion; even Romney supporters gave Obama relatively high scores in those areas.
In business, as in politics, both of these forms of communication have their place. Leaders today, we believe, do benefit from the pursuit of organizational conversation. Nonetheless, we also appreciate the virtues of the more traditional model. Our model of organizational conversation, in fact, includes the element of intentionality precisely because that element addresses the need for clear, direct messaging.
The 2012 race for president was so tight that it's easy to speculate that this factor or that one made the crucial difference — and just as easy to dismiss all such speculation. But the communication factor played no small part in this contest. Both candidates, after all, waged this close-fought battle largely with words: Through their communication efforts, they each sought to forge a connection with voters.
The success of the Obama campaign highlights the power of the conversation-based model. Leaders in any kind of organization, we believe, are apt to benefit from adopting that model to communicate with key constituencies.