The Top Five Lessons about Communications from Game of Thrones
by Kevin Singer
2016 was — without a doubt — a difficult year for the world: Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But perhaps most devastating was the announcement that Season 8 of Game of Thrones would premiere in 2019, a full two years after the release of Season 7 in 2017.
Since that season ended, we’ve been wandering the desert like Daenerys wandered Essos, lost, confused, aching for catharsis in the form of our favorite characters being ruthlessly murdered and giant dragons laying waste to ice zombies.
But fear not my friends, for we have made it. 2019 is already looking brighter, and the premiere is just around the corner. It’s not too late to prepare yourself for endlessly confusing and complex plotlines by re-watching the series in its entirety, a feat I definitely did not complete in the first week of the year.
Just kidding. I absolutely did. And now I’m pleased to present a cross-over RALLY #hottake for the fans and communications professionals alike: the top five lessons about communications … from Game of Thrones.
1) Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
For being such a politically unsavvy family, the Starks sure know how to repeat a message. I mean Christ, we get it: Winter is Coming™. Ned Stark hardly says a word to anyone before — well, you know — but he won’t shut up about winter, that’s for sure.
That’s called message consistency, folks, repeating your message over and over and over again until you are sick of hearing the words. Beat that horse until it’s deader than the ones used in the Battle of the B*stards, and that’s when it’ll finally start to sink in with the broader public.
2) Values Matter
Nobody fights in a war in Westeros because they think it’s the wrong thing, morally speaking, to do. The Stark bannermen fought for independence from the Crown; Stannis and his bannermen fought for his rightful claim to the throne; Daenerys built an army by fighting for the liberation of slaves.
As obvious as it may seem in Westeros, it’s easy in reality to forget that it’s just as important to communicate your values as it is to communicate the facts. Ironically, it’s even more important in a democratic system of checks and balances. (Unilateral power does have its perks.)
You may not be building an army, but if you want people to fight for you metaphorically speaking, you must clearly and consistently articulate why your cause is a moral imperative. Otherwise, you may have to rely on sell-swords, and we know how unreliable they can be.
3) Set the Frame Early
Can we talk about Ned Stark’s biggest mistake for a second? Sure, he should’ve never trusted Little Finger, we all know that. But here’s what frustrates me: the guy knew that Geoffrey was a bastard, and what does he do? He tells literally one other person in the entire world. You don’t need to be a communications expert to know that was dumb.
However, Ned’s mistake serves as a strong reminder that it’s important to be the one to frame the conversation, whenever possible. Before he could make his case, Stark was branded as a traitor to the broader public, and as a result, the truth was muddled. By the time word got out about Geoffrey’s heritage, he was already sitting on the throne and the operating frame of Geoffrey as rightful king was set.
4) Narratives Are Fundamental
When Robert Baratheon rebelled against the Crown, did he tell everyone that his girlfriend ditched him for Rhaegar Targaryen? Hell no. Nobody goes to war over somebody’s ex, with the notable exception of Taylor Swift fans. Instead, Robert told everyone that Leanna Stark was captured. How clever! Now that’s a cause worth fighting for.
I’m not suggesting anyone make up a narrative to win an argument (or, you know, start a war), but every cause has a story to rally around, and every story has a hero, a villain, and often a moral lesson to draw that motivates people. Stories are a fundamental piece of the human experience and should play a critical role when communicating with a broad audience.
5) Actions Are Worth a Thousand Words
Saying, “I’ve got three dragons, and they are big and scary,” is one thing. Arriving fashionably late to a meeting on the back of a giant dragon is another. Remember the Red Wedding? You may call what they did to Rob Stark barbaric. I call it powerful symbolism and good communication.
While we are conditioned to think of communication as linguistic, sometimes non-verbal communication is even more important. Often, messaging doesn’t sink in because of poor non-verbal communication or quality of messenger (the Faceless Men can tell you all about the importance of a quality messenger). In Daenerys’s case, the visual display of her dragons is the most powerful form of messaging at her disposal.
Fortunately, we don’t live in a medieval-based society under the thumbs of a series of ruthless leaders. But the games of Westeros can still teach us about how to be better communicators in a democracy rife with misinformation. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to cram in a few more “lessons.”