Charm us, Mr President

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IOL pic jun18 sona jacob zuma smile Reuters President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Sumaya Hisham

If Zuma wants our attention he cannot simply rely on his rank or the importance of what he has to say, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

Pretoria - Chances are that you are reading this because you suspect it might have something interesting to say rather than feeling loyalty to or pity for me.

You might even read some or all of it depending on whether I keep you interested enough to go through until the end.

Whatever you decide and whatever you make of this article, I have no authority to demand your attention, less so that you give me a “fair” chance by reading every word of what I have to say.

I prefer that you read until the end and not skip paragraphs, but I can only hope. It does not matter how important I think what I have to say is.

Consumers of media do not owe writers, radio or television stations anything. Rightfully so.

We cannot do anything about what are at times hateful and quite irrational responses to what we say.

If we are to get the audience’s attention and respect we must earn it.

We must couch our products in a style that appeals to those whose patronage and attention we seek.

We must give our audiences what they want and how they want it.

Most, if not all, successful businesses have long understood this.

Customers do not need to satisfy the business’s needs – it is the other way around.

They have understood that it is them, not their customers, who carry the onus of changing when conditions change.

Understanding this, I find it odd that some demand that South Africans follow the State of the Nation address live because it is “important” or because President Jacob Zuma is head of state even if he delivers it in a style that does not demand our attention.

This demand that we listen to Zuma even though we might have opinions about his delivery style comes from the same place as the expectation by local politicians, even low-ranking ones from one-stop sign towns, that the public serves them instead of them serving the public.

It creates the wrong impression that the voted for are more important than the voters.

In fact, Zuma’s much-lauded decision to move the address from a Friday midmorning when the people he was trying to reach were at work and have it on a Thursday evening was founded on the idea that it was the head of state who had to adjust himself to the realities and preferences of the electorate.

From what we hear from ANC insiders, the trouble with Thabo Mbeki was not policy heresies (otherwise policies would have changed) but rather that he communicated with comrades in a style they did not like.

Before we go too far, it is necessary to emphasise here that those who want to criticise the president have a duty to familiarise themselves with what he has to say.

They could do so by listening to Zuma live or by later reading a copy of the speech.

Those who have given themselves the task of critiquing the government and Zuma must not go around telling us that the president said nothing new without saying what it was that he said and showing us why it was not new or practical.

The rest of us who would rather be watching Generations or the Fifa World Cup at that time, must be allowed to do so without being made to feel like idiots or seditionists.

We do not have to justify our tastes and preferences to anyone including those who say they have something important to tell us.

We should not be made to feel guilty because we have what political connoisseurs have decreed is an unsophisticated palate.

It would be great if people were more discriminating in their tastes – whatever that might mean to you – but if you want to reach them, you have to speak their language and adapt to their tastes.

To each their own.

Just because something is important does not necessarily mean it is interesting. Packaging and delivery matters.

It is simply not enough that what you have to say is “important” or even earth-shattering.

The world has long moved from judging stuff on the basis of utility. The president and his people should not take it personally. It is nothing new that people would have a thing for charismatic leaders with a gift of oratory.

History is littered with such characters, many of whom left ultimately ruinous legacies.

If the president wants our attention he must not simply rely on his rank or the importance of what he has to say.

As a man famous for his charm, he ought to know that how you say it is as important as what you say.

We too would like to be charmed.

We are a people who judge books by their cover. Unfortunately, this is not a habit that power or money can alter at a whim. Adapt or go the way of the dodo.

* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an executive editor at the Pretoria News. Follow him on Twitter @fikelelom

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