Diplomacy is an art of communication. As opposed to the warrior, diplomats bear no arms, their sole weapons words, spoken or written. It is no coincidence that great literary masters have also been part of the nomadic tribe of ambassadors, consuls and other official emissaries. Chateaubriand, Claudel, Stendhal, Giraudoux, Gary, Saint John Perse—to name a few on the French side—are fine incarnations of published authors who were also diplomats at some point in their lives.  All main aspects of a diplomat’s work revolve around language. As diplomats, we need words to analyze the place where we are posted and convey our understanding to our national authorities; we also rely on words to project our own country’s image and position and promote its economic and commercial interests. We must choose the right words and communicate effectively to win a negotiation that can be crucial to defend our country’s interests as well as to preserve peace among nations.

As counselors to the highest political officials of the State, the first duty of diplomats is to articulate a clear vision of the dynamics of the country to which they are accredited. “Ce qui se conçoit bien s’énonce clairement – Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément” (What you understand well, you enunciate clearly – and the words to say it flow easily”) is a famous quote by Nicolas Boileau, a French writer of the late 17th century, that accurately underlines this particular challenge.

Effective communication in this particular instance means the ability to understand and convey a correct analysis back home. Diplomatic reporting is a mix of journalism and research, and has to strike a balance between rigorous analytical explanations and synthetic presentation of the main actors and forces at play in a particular country or negotiation.  The challenge is to get an adequate perception of the national situation of a specific place or of the various positions on a particular question, and to translate it into a report that is clear, precise and concise.

What you understand well, you enunciate clearly - and the words to say it flow easily

— Nicolas Boileau

A good cable should go beyond trivial facts and explanations, it should unearth the deeper truths and really enlighten its reader, but it must also be to the point. High officials have little time—the added value of a good diplomatic report is therefore to convey what counts so that they’d be able to make enlightened and wise decisions. Who would read a note that is not structured and is confusing both in terms of content and form? Clarity of mind and clarity of expression are required for this sensitive exercise. Traditionally, good style was also expected and considered as the mark of a sharp and refined spirit— evidence of the author’s ability to make sense of a complex, foreign and often troubled world.

The revolution of instant communication has brought an inevitable change, and nowadays cables and reports are often written with less emphasis on style and more on speed and conciseness.  Efficiency prevails over all, but esthetics can help getting the readers’ sustained attention and many young diplomats still pay attention to their style and write beautifully.

Diplomats are not only observers and reporters, they are also representatives in charge of projecting their own country’s image, positions and interests.  They have to deliver speeches and to give interviews. They need to captivate their audience and chose the right way and right words to project their message.  Their work is about being visible and influential.  Many remember Dominique de Villepin’s vibrant address to the United Nations Security Council on 14 February 2003, winning applause for making the point against military intervention in Iraq: it epitomized the art of effectively delivering a message that perfectly embodied France’s values and stance and at the same time appealed to everyone’s heart and reason. In bilateral postings, speaking publicly is also one of the keys to exerting influence and promoting national interests.  Opportunities, small and big, present themselves everyday: the opening of a new outlet, a musical performance, an interview with a national or local media, lecturing students, etc.

The option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest. But let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace.

— Dominique de Villepin, French Minister of Foreign Affairs at the UN Security Council

Finally, what are diplomats for if not to be smart negotiators, in order to protect and promote their national goals and values, and even sometimes to avoid war and destruction?  The 2014 movie Diplomatie – about a fictitious encounter between the Swedish consul general and the Nazi general commander of Paris towards the end of WWII is a striking illustration of the power of words, as the Nazi commander is gradually talked into renouncing the demolition of the French capital. The mastery of language and persuasion are indeed instrumental in gaining the trust of interlocutors and convincing them of one’s argument. Basic rules of effective communication do apply: it is impossible to nudge others into aligning themselves with your own positions without listening well.  The great negotiator is first a good listener.

Sharp observation, attentive listening, structured thinking, logical argumentation, speeches that combine the power of reason and of emotion, patient discussion and negotiation: the list could grow longer, and shows that the ingredients of effective communication are in many ways similar to the tools of good diplomacy.

Anaïs Le Ny is the pseudo of a mid-career diplomat who has spent more than 20 years working on MENA and UN issues both in bilateral and multilateral postings.