The Horse, The Bayonet and The Case of the Lost Message
So, did you hear the one about the horse and his bayonet?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, or you exercise monk-like discipline in avoiding all things news, you’ve probably seen an article or two about the “horse and bayonet” exchange between President Obama and Governor Romney at Monday’s debate.
Quick recap: Mr. Romney, in making a case for a larger military, states that “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.” Upon which President Obama whips out an industrial-sized can of snark and responds to Mr. Romney’s statement in terms of capability versus quantity. And utters the now-famous quip: We also have fewer horses and bayonets.”
The social media realm immediately jumped into quantum hyper-drive, followed by hours and hours of media coverage pig-piling on one candidate or the other, and presto, an Internet meme is born!
But something happened on the way to the hype. Something, I think, got ignored.
Look at Mr. Romney’s actual statement:
“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” said Romney. “The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.”
Let’s put politics aside for a minute. (Go ahead, tuck it in the desk drawer for a few. I’ll wait. You can do it. Honest …). Mr. Romney was trying to make the point that the Navy doesn’t have as many ships as it says it needs to do the job. And the inventory could possibly get smaller. And that, Mr. Romney says, is a problem.
But that point got lost.
This isn’t the first time Mr. Romney used the “The-Navy-is-smaller-than-it was-in-1917” line. (He’s used it at least once before in a GOP candidate debate earlier this year. And while it makes for a nice one-liner (and probably looks great on a bumper sticker), on it’s own, it’s not exactly a smooth point, because it brings up the issue of capability. (And as someone who just retired from the Navy, spending more than two decades around ships and now earns a paycheck writing about them, I can tell you we’ve got some VERY capable ships out there).
So while we could argue that the “1917” line may be factually correct, it’s not the best message. And it gave Mr. Romney’s opponent an opportunity to jump all over it and provided more than enough material for political pundits, late night talk shows and Facebook posts.
And it also smothered the real point Mr. Romney’s was trying to make.
Crafting and communicating our message should focus more on substance over style. Now, there’s nothing wrong with snappy one-liners, bumper-sticker phrases or attention-grabbing data points. But they should serve to reinforce our message, not detract from it.
That means as communicators, as we craft our messages, we need to think them through and ensure that it’s making the point we REALLY want to make. In today’s media-rich environment, we get (or lose) points based on what we SAID, not what we MEANT. All the more reason that our messages say what we mean and mean what we say. Because far too often, today’s catchy one-liner becomes tomorrow’s headline and the thing that gets talked and Tweeted about…
…while your real message gets trampled by a horse and stabbed by a bayonet.
Dave Nagle never met a cup of coffee he didn’t like and downs many a cup as Vox Optima’s premier speechwriter and communications expert. With more than more than 20 years of DoD and Navy public affairs and journalism experience, Dave’s definitely a “been there, done that” guy – reporter, photographer, editor – broadcaster, PR dude. Be sure to connect with Dave by following him on Twitter at nagleblend, on LinkedIn or by emailing him.
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