Working Voices urges its clients to become more perceptive of how they come across to their business audiences. We tell our clients that how one looks is crucially important to one’s status and gravitas in personal communication. In politics, too, and certainly in the most recent American election, something called “optics” looms large. “Optics” is the political science-y jargon for what our presenters are made aware of – how you look, literally what the audience sees when they gaze at you. It’s how one stands, moves, wears clothes, holds objects, uses facial expressions, etc–and where and with whom they do all these things. Like politicians, we can be aware of the optics and savvy in how we allow ourselves to be seen, or we can ignore or undervalue the optics at our peril.
In political races, optics may take the form of cliché images—kissing babies, shaking hands at post offices, visiting coffee counters, sleeves rolled up, smiling, etc. Certain optics in this recent election seemed particularly memorable and resonant—President Obama walking beside Governor Chris Christie in storm-blasted New Jersey just a few days before the election, Vice President Joe Biden laughing during the debate with a water-guzzling Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney speaking with energy and emphasis at the first Debate, Clint Eastwood conversing with an empty chair at the Republican Convention. Each of these motion pictures sticks with us, regardless of party affiliation. They each mean something, according to the viewer’s interpretation: President Obama looking “presidential” during a natural disaster, Biden looking dismissive or, alternately, happily combative with his wide grin and scoffing laughs, Romney looking bold and refreshed in the debate (after a rough couple of weeks of gaffes), and Eastwood looking… lost. They can be interpreted different ways, but powerful optics always cause conversation and resonate with viewers.
How we look in others’ eyes in any given circumstance is always political. Good optics can make us appear like a strong, flexible leader. Bad optics can erode our status and gravitas. It’s worth being attuned to the optics. It’s no illusion.