Three Tips for Political Communication | | 01.11.12

When it comes to making your case to the voters, here are three tips for every candidate to keep in mind.

I. Communication is simple – and hard:

Simple:Let’s start with the simple part: communicating has three elements, only three – strategy, message, and distribution. To put them to use, all you have to do is answer a few simple questions:

  • Strategy: a) To whom are you talking, that is, whose votes do you need? b) What do they care about — not what do you care about, what do THEY care about? Politics is not about you. It is about those you are seeking to represent.
  • Message: a) How does your platform touch your audience and what they care about directly? Try writing down your answer and showing it to someone you feel is a typical voter. How do they react? b) How do specific policies you’re advocating link to your audience’s larger values, aspirations and beliefs, even to the story of our country, its past, present and future, its purpose? c) How do you express your case in a manner suitable to the various places your audience will hear you? The web is different from an op-ed, which is different than a speech or a radio or TV ad. Messages and key facts will remain the same through all media you use. But how you express your case will change from platform to platform.
  • Distribution: a) What communications vehicles best reach each segment of your potential audience? b) What are the costs and capabilities of each? For example, TV and radio ads can lay down big ideas and reach mass audiences, but don’t have space for extensive detail and can be expensive. Speeches allow for fuller development of a case and don’t eat up a lot of money, but reach fewer people each time you deliver them. A website gives you a place to make both your top line case and to archive tremendously detailed back up, but how do you get people to go to it?

Hard: That is the simple part — now for the hard. You must think all these questions through – and act on them. In particular, you as the candidate must develop the case for your election fully. Too many candidates are sloppy about constructing a rationale for their election. Often, they turn over the job to pollsters. That’s a mistake. You must dig in and develop your own positions, asking at each step not just what am I saying, but what are the voters hearing? You must do the same with your opponent’s case, asking how to turn the other side’s arguments around on them. Pollsters can help, but only so far. Most of this must come from you.

II. Persuading millions is the same as persuading a friend – but more so:

The key is clarity and trust. Think of four “S”s:

  • Simplicity: Aristotle said that when talking to the public, you must be able to make complicated cases simply, compressing multi-step arguments into one step. How? It is not magic, but it requires a lot of work – a lot of trying ideas out on family and friends. You are looking to harness insights your audience can draw from their own experiences that will help them see what you are saying about larger issues. And you are bringing out the contradiction of your opponent’s arguments. Remember that in attacking, humor helps. It is a vehicle for highlighting the absurd.
  • Self-evident: Think about your average day. How many times does someone try to sell you or persuade you of something? All the time, right? How do you decide whom to believe? Usually by lining up what you already know to be true with what you’re being told – which is how all of us sort truth from flimflam. So as a candidate, doesn’t it make sense to build your case on facts and concepts that your audience already knows to be true? Even if you are building a bridge to an unconventional conclusion, should not all the footings and spans of the bridge be made of concepts and observations that your audience trusts? The more your audience considers your case to be constructed of self-evident facts and truths, the more they will feel secure in your conclusions.
  • Soul: Fact and reason are essential, so far as they go, but don’t stop there. We are never persuaded of anything until we have boiled logic and information down to an emotional essence. Country music songs are best at this. They speak not just to the head but to the heart – shared values, mutual experiences, common aspirations, all that we love. Do the same.
  • Stories: Use stories to link to common experience and to make your arguments vivid. Yes, facts and statistics are essential to strong communications. But study after study finds that when it is all over, audiences remember the stories most clearly.

III. Believe it: Unless the reasons you are asking people to support you and believe in you also live in your heart, they won’t live in anyone else’s.

One last thought: Communications is hard work and in politics, the hardest part of that work is keeping at it. Lots of speeches. Lots of articles you have written. Lots of effort. You must have the discipline to repeat and repeat and repeat, over an over. Sticking to your message is the key to victory – and persistence is not easy.

But though it isn’t easy, campaigning is fun. Good luck.

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