BookWatch: A messaging pro’s advice to Democrats: Listen to your haters
If you are like me, watching our current political discourse is getting painful. As politicians in both parties play to the base, the overlooked political middle is feeling forgotten, frustrated and fed up.
There’s even a name for us—the More in Common organization calls us “The Exhausted Majority”— and a study following the 2018 midterm elections suggests that two in three Americans fall into this group.
As a political commentator and messaging expert watching the 20 Democrats running for President, I find myself hoping that someone sees us, and speaks to us. Forget the vitriol and division; focus on helping and healing.
America has a long history of leaders who stepped up in divided and difficult times with messages that transcended politics and made us believe again. Leaders like Ulysses Grant after the Civil War with “Let Us Have Peace.” FDR amidst the Great Depression with “Happy Days are Here Again.” Reagan’s “A New Day in America.” Obama’s “Hope and Change.” You get the point.
What I fear is that the Democrats running for president are missing that to really win, defeating Trump is not enough. Being the less-bad of two bad options is not enough. They need to do the hard work of leading the us out of our disillusionment and cynicism and give us all something to hope, strive for and believe in again.
Read: Here are the Democrats running for president, after the latest exits from the race
If I were to advise the Democratic candidates I would tell them to follow these five steps of effective persuasion.
1. Create a clear vision. Sure, you want to win. But what is it that you really want? What is your idea of a better America, and how will you ensure everyone gets a chance to participate in it?
Spending a significant amount of time being clear about your vision has real benefits. First, it will keep you focused by making sure that everything you do is filtering through that lens. Second, it will get voters on board. If you develop a vision that is clear and compelling, we will follow. And third, it will keep you going even when the going gets tough. And it will get tough.
2. Get to know — and love — your target audience. Before you even open your mouth, it’s imperative to get clear on this: who is your audience? That might seem like an obvious step, but I cannot tell you how often I see and hear candidates who are focused simply on what they want to say, rather than meaningfully engaging and connecting with their target audience.
Your job is to reach us. To understand us. To communicate with us. Essentially, to have empathy for us.
I would advise you to go through a practice I call active empathy — the ability to understand other people’s emotions, values, and behaviors:
Emotions: What emotions will make it possible or impossible for you to effectively communicate with us? How can you address our respective emotional states so that we can have a constructive conversation?
Values: How can you better understand the values that are most important to us so that you can communicate about what matters to us?
Behaviors: How can you better understand us by looking at what we actually do in addition to what you think we do or what we say we will do?
If you find yourself in a place where you can’t imagine why somebody would disagree with you, you have an empathy gap. And nothing will sink your campaign faster than that. To win you must live by the golden rule of communication: talk to your audience as they are, not as you want them to be.
Read: The next Democratic debate lineup is set — here’s who qualified
3. Listen to your haters. Every time I hear an interview with a candidate that questions how it feels when they are criticized, the candidate will say, “I don’t listen to the haters.” Do you have any idea how much you can learn from your haters? Hearing your haters doesn’t mean you have to join them, but you do need to understand them to neutralize them.
Think about it.
Why do supporters of President Trump seem immune to your facts, ideas, and arguments? Is it because they are naive? Is it because they are racist or misogynistic? (Likewise, if you are trying to convince a Democrat, why do they seem to ignore reasoned arguments from the right? Are they naive? Too idealistic?) There are surely many reasons no matter who’s on the other side, but only one that you can actually control. They believe that you hate them. That you judge them. That you look down on them.
Once you learn to see the world through their eyes, you can create a message that might not get them on your side – but will avoid any major missteps (read: no new basket full of deplorables comments, OK?)
4. Define your one thing. I call it a master narrative. Whatever you call it, it is your singularly focused message that defines and differentiates you. It is a focused idea that lives in all communication about you. It takes different forms and words, but its spirit is always connected.
Once you have found it, it becomes your true north, the criterion against which everything else aligns. Trump had Make America Great Again. Elizabeth Warren seems to be building hers around saving the middle class. The candidate who wins always has one.
5. Narrow your messaging to a few signature policies. Yes, you are prepared. Yes, you have hundreds of ideas. But a laundry list isn’t persuasive. What works is identifying a few ideas and policies that best highlight your vision, and why they matter to your target audience. Then boil those ideas down to something that is short, sweet, and memorable. Bernie Sanders isn’t creating a task force on health care — he is talking about Medicare for All.
Pick a few policies and make them your own. Brand them like you would a product.
Read: Where the 2020 Democrats stand on climate change
There’s a reason people gravitate to candidates like Reagan or Obama. It’s the same reason so many Democratic candidates flipped those purple districts in the 2018 midterms.
Persuasion starts with understanding and empathizing with your audience. It’s about having a clear vision that you can communicate across all media consistently over time. Above all, it’s about inspiring voters to think bigger and better.
If you want to win in 2020, I hope you are listening.
Lee Carter is the president and partner of maslansky + partners, a language strategy firm based on the idea that “it’s not what you say, it’s what they hear” and author of “Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter.” Follow her on Twitter on @lh_carter.