It’s Official: The Missing Link for a Democrat Victory

The theme for the last two days should be “Make America Debate Again.” The Democrats need a do-over if they’re going to nominate a candidate who can win in 2020. Here’s why the vast majority of candidates missed the mark last night.

(As a reminder, my angle is apolitical, solely evaluating the effectiveness of the messaging strategies of the various candidates on both sides of the aisle, looking at what is working for them, what isn’t, why, and what that implies for the future of the election. I keep my political preferences out of the discussion.)

As the second cohort of 10 candidates engaged in their first official debate, I was hopeful. Subconsciously I think I hoped that some of them had read my analysis yesterday of the first night’s debate, and taken heed of the Big Three lessons their counterparts had missed, to give us a much more powerful and valuable experience on day-two. Clearly, that did not happen.

The Big Three lessons the whole party needed to learn from their defeat in 2016 were:

  1. Use Sound-bite messaging for campaign promises – short, clear, concrete, memorable, results-oriented phrases to remind people of your promised deliverables as president, a-la “Make America Great Again”, “Build a Wall,” or “Repeal Obamacare.”
  2. Use Action Verbs in those sound bites (see previous examples) rather than “to be” static verbs regarding “being stronger together” or the need to “be united.” These statements are philosophical and contextual, not results to vote for.
  3. To Sustain the Credibility Factor by balancing Verbal, Vocal, and Visual communication cues. Both the content (verbal) and the delivery (vocal/visual) need to match up for listeners (especially voters) to buy into what you and your message. (For more on this, check out my new book: Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice.)

Today, I want to focus on the biggest trends in missed opportunities in these three areas in Thursday’s debate. Specifically, the lack of summary sound bites for ANY candidate (with or without the action verb at the forefront), and the role that storytelling did, didn’t, and/or should have played in establishing each candidates’ credibility.

Just about any business professional can tell you the three stages of the standard business presentation: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” Not that a debate is a generic business presentation, but the relevance, in other words, is that people need to hear things three times, in the introduction, body, and conclusion, and those repetitions need to be clear, concise and concrete, in order to be understood and maybe remembered. In the debates, the key deliverables need to be identified up front, and reinforced at the end, as if to say, “If you forget everything else you heard tonight, remember these three things about me and what I’ll do for you.”

We all know that regardless of what the first question is, candidates will use that opportunity to identify all their top issues, and they all did. But why is it so hard to put them into sound bites that are concrete and outcome oriented? Einstein reportedly said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” (Further evidence that he was a genius.)

There were plenty of moments where candidates did include an example of such sound bites, but they were always in passing, in the middle of a much longer and more convoluted sentence, and got lost in the weeds:

  • Senator Michael Bennett said he wanted to “end gerrymandering” and “overturn Citizens United.” Clear, practical, results oriented. Why did he gloss over them?
  • VP Joe Biden referenced targets for renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, but in passing, not a core campaign message
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg referenced his promises for “Medicare for all who want it” and Free college tuition just for lower- and middle-income families, which he could have stated as “and free college tuition for all families that need it,” but didn’t reinforce them in the end. Instead he did mention climate solutions, racial equality, and an end to an endless war, which is a step in the right direction, but they’re abstract and/or generic references. Some “what/how-much-by-when” language would have made all the difference.
  • Senator Kristin Gillibrand had the makings of some good, concrete sound bites, from creating “clean elections” (i.e. election reform) and a family bill of rights with a litany of deliverables therein, but it was a laundry list of topics, and nobody memorizes laundry lists. With no prioritized core of sound-bite deliverables at the end, the whole list – and the candidate – becomes forgettable.
  • Senator Bernie Sanders, like Gillibrand, had a litany of deliverables that got lost in the tirades, from using Roe v. Wade as a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, to cutting the price of prescription drugs in half. He needed to pick a few priorities and reinforce them at the start and finish.
  • Senator Kamala Harris had the first “breakout moment” of the night, as the evening began with everyone competing to speak, when she set the bar for leadership presence by commenting, “America doesn’t want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Although she had powerful stories (which I’ll get to later,) and a number of concrete deliverables such as banning imports of assault weapons, none were phrased in a way that was as singularly memorable as that breakout comment. She wrapped up with passing reference to her “3am plan” which would have been a perfect time to bullet out the specific objectives therein, but once again, the opportunity was lost.
  • Gov. John Hickenlooper offered plenty of concrete, concise deliverables… but all in the past tense. They focused on what he DID for Colorado, not what he WILL DO for the US. He might think the connection should be obvious…but that’s not how it works.
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell had a few quotable moments, but at best they were cute or clever rather than compelling, such as “Breaking up with Russia, and making up with NATO,” or comparing his current duties of changing policy at work with changing diapers at home – and musing that sometimes the diapers smell better than DC. If he had reinforced his plan to buy back all assault weapons with as pithy language at the beginning and end of the night rather than continually invoking his youth and the notion that it’s time to “pass the torch to the next generation” (i.e. most of his opponents are too old), it might have been easier to take him seriously as a competitor.
  • Andrew Yang was clearly an underdog, which was reinforced by the fact that the moderators gave him all of about two minutes the whole evening. But that’s all the more reason that he of all people needed to have his elevator pitch down to a science.
  • And finally, Marianne Williamson… oh, Marianne. Her one truly pithy, insightful moment pertained to the current handling of the immigration crisis, observing that taking children away from their parents and neglecting their basic needs, in any other context, would be considered kidnapping and child abuse. But aside from that, her many books on women, spirituality, love and the like may have positively impacted the lives of millions, but neither her “author’s voice” nor literal voice translated effectively to the political stage. Her lack of ability to state anything concrete, using very flowery language and talking in abstract terms about how love will prevail, merely confirmed that her skill and calling is in writing poetry and prayers, not policy. She belongs in Barnes & Noble, not Washington, DC.

Communication and influence are both art and science. The ability to distill your core campaign promises into concrete sound bites is simple science. The ability to craft your point into a persuasive story, however, is also an art form, and some candidates were much more artistic than others. Most had the supplies, and several picked up the paintbrush, but few painted a compelling picture:

  • Bennett twice referenced the fact that his mother was a refugee from Poland during the Holocaust, but he said it as generically as if he had followed up with, “…and her name is Susanne” (which it is.) In discussing immigration policy, you didn’t think to give a few details about your family’s experience in the Holocaust? If you don’t recognize the importance of those experiences in your own family, how will people believe that you recognize the importance of critical experiences in theirs?
  • Biden’s personal life has seen heart-wrenching tragedy, with losing his first wife and daughter in a car accident, and Iraq-war veteran son to cancer. He missed the opportunity to more explicitly link and reinforce how those experiences inform his current policy choices. Stories would have humanized the policies.
  • Buttigieg had tons of fodder for stories and, frankly, was far more impressive than I expected, but let way too many story opportunities slip through his fingers. As a war veteran, he could have shared a field experience, such as detailing how it felt to train with or fire assault weapons as evidence of how he knows why they don’t belong in civilian hands. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for a Brene Brown-like moment of authoritative vulnerability when he started his response to the question about getting a more representative proportion of black police offers in South Bend by honestly stating: “I couldn’t get it done.” I was dying to know how he was going to turn that around with some powerful lesson learned… but he didn’t. (I guarantee his opponents – especially Donald Trump, should the opportunity arise – will find a way to use this against him, as they try to paint him as the guy who can't “get it done.”) And perhaps most powerful was when he shared the experience of having had to write a “Just in Case” letter for his family when leaving for military deployment. Just a sentence or two about the thought process of writing it and how he feels about it now would have made all the difference.
  • Gillibrand gave a thorough list of accolades, but no details. She submitted a complete resume, but we wanted the cover letter too.
  • Sanders is an artist in his own right, but his “medium” is statistics, lectures and tirades, not stories and personal experiences. His delivery was consistently passionate and angry, and he only has two hand gestures to go along with it: either a sweeping open hand that dismisses anything he doesn’t agree with, or his right thumb and forefinger tips touching and repeatedly “pecking” it at the audience as if his art form of choice were pointillism, using a golf pencil instead of a paintbrush, as if to say, “Listen to what I’m saying here-and-here-and-here.” He’s in Gillibrand’s camp of submitting resumes without cover letters. Like Biden, he is a well-known entity, stable and unchanging, love him or hate him, and the consistency of the brand is what he’s counting on.
  • Harris, in my opinion, won the storytelling award last night, for quantity, quality, and delivery. On the one hand, she illustrated the need for some policy changes with generic, archetypal stories of parents hesitating to take their sick children to the ER because the insurance copay would immediately demand $5,000, and the thought processes of every Latin American mother who makes the soul-crushing choice of sending their young child with a coyote across the border into the US. And on the other hand, she shared very real details of her own experiences regarding school integration and busing as a child, and neighborhood children who weren’t allowed to play with her because she was black. These stories all drove home her one core message: “I get it.” And her delivery was both credible and relatable. Her presence and voice were authoritative without being authoritarian, passionate without slipping down the slope into the unfortunate “angry black woman” stereotype, and authentic while still contextually appropriate. Well done, Kamala.
  • Hickenlooper seemed to have a solid track record of successes in Colorado, but not only was he in the story-free resume mode in talking about them, he also sabotaged himself by speaking too quickly with few pauses in meaningful places. I recall hearing important achievements, but he talked so quickly I couldn’t write them down fast enough while taking notes on my laptop, and I type over 80 words per minute. Storytelling rule of thumb: the strategic pause is one of the most important but underutilized rhetorical devices a speaker has. Learn to use it to your critical advantage.
  • Swalwell had the perfect beginnings of a powerful story but missed the mark telling it. In discussing school gun violence, he described himself “as a parent, of a generation who sends our children to school where we look at what they’re wearing so we can remember it in case we have to identify them later.” It’s a powerful point, but his mistake was in using the word “we” instead of “I.” Telling this story mainly from the general perspective of a demographic (age) group waters down its power. How much more would people have felt for him and connected with him personally if he had said, “when I send my children to school, I look at what they’re wearing so I can remember it in case I have to identify them later”? In this case, “we” sounds like a politician. “I” sounds like a parent. Who would you trust more?
  • Yang had so little time, he really only had the chance to make one point. Unfortunately, he chose to objectively explain how his $1000-per-adult program would work (think economic textbook), instead of illustrating it by creating an avatar, and walking the audience through a day in the life of the “Jones” family with or without that extra money (think storybook). Which version would you rather read?
  • And finally, Williamson… also no stories, but instead of sounding like an economic textbook, she ran in the other direction, sounding like new-age political Reiki (no offense to Reiki practitioners): there are people who will “feel” it, but it’s too “out there” for most.

My prediction: By default, most people will vote for the candidate who makes them feel “safe.” While Biden and Sanders may have taken the lead in the polls, it is primarily because they are so well known. People feel safe with the “what you see is what you get” brand stability, and the difference between them is whether voters find any reference to socialism to be hopeful or scary. HOWEVER, for another candidate to come from behind and take the lead, they’ll need to follow my rules from yesterday and today and get their brand messaging down to concise, concrete, outcome-oriented sound bites, repeated consistently at key moments, and illustrated with relatable, personal stories.

In my opinion, based on these factors alone, Kamala Harris was the only one this time who showed signs of being able to do that. She joins the ranks of Cory Booker and Bill DeBlasio as the current candidates with the most potential – if they take my advice – to talk their way past establishment candidates Biden and Sanders to the nomination, and past Trump to the White House.

3 Key Messaging Lessons Dems Haven’t Learned from 2016

Last night was the kickoff to the 2020 Presidential Election: the first part of the first round of Democratic Primary Debates, with 10 candidates, half of the 20 candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring so far. (The other half will debate tonight.) My goal is to provide a series of apolitical analyses of the messaging skills and strategies of the various candidates, looking at what is working for them, what isn’t, why, and what that implies for the future of the election.

Let me be clear: I’m keeping all of my own political opinions to myself. Whether I praise candidates for effective messaging or point out major shortcomings in their performance is no reflection on whether or not I would vote for them.

Also, this is not a comprehensive listing of everything that was said, but rather the first impressions that were made. If you feel something was missed, feel free to add it (diplomatically, please!) in the comments below, but realize that if I missed it, it may be because it simply didn’t register on my radar clearly enough to write it down in the moment. And in the end, what registers with voters is what will determine how they cast their vote. If something gets missed in this context, it’s the fault of the messenger, plain and simple.

Overall, there was lots of good information exchanged and it was a good introduction to some of the candidates, but what I noticed that was MOST IMPORTANT to me, was that there were THREE KEY MESSAGING LESSONS THAT THE DEMOCRATS seem to have FAILED TO LEARN FROM 2016. Let’s explore them now:

  1. Stick to Sound Bite Campaign Promises – Trump had “MAGA,” “Build a Wall,” “Repeal Obamacare,” “Bring back Manufacturing,” even “Lock her up!” They were all three to five words long, easy to remember, easy to understand, and easy to repeat in conversation. It was easy to envision each outcome, and how it would be different from the current status. Not one candidate did that tonight. They talked about lots of issues, but no memorable, concrete sound bite core campaign messages.

    At best, John Delaney had a couple of them like “Get America Working Again” and “Real solutions, not impossible promises,” but note that these are comparatively uninspiring. “Make America Great Again” sets an inspiring and aspirational standard: GREATNESS. It implies going from zero to 100. “Get America Working Again” sounds like it’s just going from reverse to neutral: the goal is merely to make it not broken… not actually great. And “real solutions, not impossible promises” is too generic. If you ask anyone to explain what he meant, and give an example… most would need time to think of one and figure out how to explain it. (Hint: If it doesn’t jump off your lips, it’s not real enough.)

  2. Use Action Verbs, not status words – All of Trump’s campaign promise sound bites above had energized action verbs and concrete objects/targets of the action. Make (America)… Build (wall)…Stop (illegal immigration)…Lock up (her)… Hillary’s one central campaign slogan was: “Stronger together.” What’s the verb? To Be. It’s about status, not action or change. Some would argue it was too “kumbaya.” United, inclusive… nice. Nice – alone – doesn’t inspire, and what doesn’t inspire, doesn’t win.So what slogans did we hear tonight from the next generation of Democratic hopefuls? Here are a few excerpts from closing statements:

    – “I’m running…to build infrastructure, to fix our broken healthcare system,… to improve education” (Delaney)
    – “I am not the establishment candidate.” (Klobuchar)
    – We need to “call the country to a sense of common purpose” and “show the best of who we are.” (Booker)
    – “It’s time to come (be) together” (Ryan)
    – “We are better than this.” (Delaney)

    The “be” statements aren’t bad statements, but they’re insufficient, especially when combined with comments that just list topics (“healthcare…clean air and water… good paying jobs…” – Gabbard) or are otherwise too verbose to be memorable. And Delaney’s references to infrastructure and health care are still too process-oriented, without a clear vision of what the resulting product would look like.

  3. Sustain the “Credibility Factor” – If you’ve heard me speak, attended any of my trainings, or read my new book, Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice, you’ve heard me explain that the foundation of a leadership image is the appearance of credibility. Credibility is strongest when your three messaging channels are all in alignment: Verbal (e.g., word choice, stories, data, lack of fillers), Vocal (e.g., intonation, speed, emotion), and Visual (e.g. hand gestures, facial expressions, body language).

    This is something that Donald Trump has virtually mastered. Even when he makes statements that are inaccurate at best (verbal), he delivers them so convincingly (vocal/visual) that many people either don’t care (perhaps because they like his version better) or suspend disbelief because he seems so confident and convinced (vocal, visual) in the moment that he’s right, that it seems like what he says has to be true. As research has shown, when the Verbal content doesn’t match the Vocal/Visual delivery, people instinctively trust the delivery over the content itself.

Last night, most candidates were out of alignment with one or more of these factors, which inspires doubt in the listener and undermines credibility. As there were only three, let’s start with the women. For example:

  1. Elizabeth Warren gave pretty solid, specific and refreshingly direct answers to questions (verbal), and was clearly passionate about everything she said (vocal/visual), but she only had one facial expression (visual) and tone (vocal) all night: angry/frustrated. And while that may be both fully justifiable and acceptable for people like Bernie Sanders who has turned the “crotchety-but-passionate advocate” into a lovable brand for many, the fact is that there’s a double standard for women, and “the angry woman” isn’t someone who has widespread appeal to most people who aren’t also similarly “angry women.” It’s not that she shouldn’t display her anger; it’s simply that she can’t only display her anger if she seeks more widespread support. Moreover, almost every time she spoke, her head would rapidly shake back and forth in a slight-but-on-going “no” motion. If your words say “yes” but your body says “no,” trust me, people will ignore what you say and believe what they see.
  2. Amy Klobuchar was the other side of Warren’s coin: she remembered to smile (visual) at times, made some good points (verbal), and was much more approachable overall. But where she might have won the “likable” vote, it was at the expense of projecting gravitas and authority when she spoke (vocal). Likability without authority is simply “nice,” and once again, “nice,” by itself, doesn’t win elections.
  3. Tulsi Gabbard came to life at the end when she shot down Ryan’s comment about American “engagement” in foreign wars, saying that to her, as a soldier having served on active duty in the Middle East, his answer was “unacceptable” (verbal), but even then, on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), her overall passion and apparent connection (vocal/visual) to her own words was only up around a level 4. For the rest of her contributions, regardless of content, her face never moved (visual), and her voice barely fluctuated (vocal). It was like listening to a mannequin with a sound track. Not charismatic or relatable at all. Donald Trump will most likely home in on that and dismiss her like he did for Jeb Bush in 2016 with the “low energy” refrain.

    And the men? As there were so many, here are just a few notable trends:

  4. Code Switching into Spanish (verbal/vocal) – at some point in the evening, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker and Julián Castro all switched into Spanish for exactly ONE sentence apiece. Their Spanish insert was always a general statement of inclusion regardless of the question they were answering, as an explicit nod to the growing Latino voting population in recognition of its increasing importance at the polls, as if to say, “I’m more like you and understand you better than anyone else here, so vote for me.”

    The content (verbal) was negligible, but the abrupt shift to the ears (vocal) sparks an emotional reflex of familiarity and comfort when someone suddenly hears their native language, and that familiarity makes people associate feelings of comfort with memories of you. Some people might call it pandering, but it was smart pandering. However, Castro may have gone too far in bragging (verbal) that his first campaign stop was in Puerto Rico instead of Iowa or New Hampshire, as opponents and other voters may view that not as merely including Latinos, but as prioritizing the interests of non-voting Latinos over voting Americans of any background. That wasn’t so smart.

  5. Storytelling – (verbal) – Stories bring data to life, period. Personal stories bring people to life. O’Rourke referenced a story of a young man in a hospital, and Castro and others referenced the tragic story of the refugee father and baby daughter who recently died trying to cross the Rio Grande, but they were other people’s stories, so had less impact. Castro also name-dropped – a LOT – from his daughter Karina to a list of African Americans and Latinos who were killed by police officers, and while they are good specific references, there was no STORY told. He might have gotten a “bingo point” or two for mentioning relevant names, but he missed his chance to really connect with his audience.

    In contrast, Cory Booker described life on his home street and the sound of gunfire at the corner, and Bill DeBlasio got particularly personal in sharing that his son is black (DeBlasio is white) and how it affects his perception of and attention to issues related to race (e.g. police action). As evidence for his connection to veterans’ affairs and the like, DeBlasio also shared seeing his WWII veteran grandfather return from Okinawa missing a leg, spiraling into depression, and eventually taking his own life. These stories were much more powerful and made the listener feel like the candidate understood issues on a more intimate, personal level.

    Note: Gabbard also made some headway with this when referencing experiences in her military service, particularly in the Middle East (verbal), but she would have gotten much more mileage out of the stories if her delivery (vocal/visual) had been more compelling.

    Others such as John Delaney left out any actual stories, and while his answers sounded “smart” (verbal), he came across more as a human economics textbook, which was not relatable, and likely lost a lot of potential traction as a result.

  6. Facial expressions and body language (Visual) – Beto O’Rourke’s handlers seemed to have trained him to contain his often-excessive gesticulations in order to appear more poised and authoritative, but may have gone too far as he seemed comparatively “vanilla.” On the far opposite end of the spectrum, when listening to questions, Tim Ryan’s default facial expression was like a deer in headlights, and while he loosened up and got more energized when responding, the listener’s instinctive reflex is to discredit him before he even starts talking. Then when Gabbard told him his one answer was “unacceptable” as I mentioned above, he immediately looked down, shuffled his feet and swallowed hard, all non-verbally acknowledging that he got his hand slapped and that she won that exchange.

    Jay Inslee’s passion on some questions translated into a facial expression that looked like he was about to cry on more than one occasion. Vocally, Inslee also has a slight lisp, and combined with a very crooked lower lip when making “s” or “sh” sounds, lends an overall “slushy” quality to his speech. It’s subtle enough that most won’t notice or care, and while it shouldn't matter, some will subconsciously register it and may find him off-putting as a result but not be able to identify why.

In the end, much of the vote will come down to charisma. Charisma is something of an X-Factor; a magnetism that draws people to you, providing a watchable quality that’s crucial in sound-bite media appearances as well as more personal town-hall style events. It’s the voice you listen to that comes from the pit of your stomach when you need to make a decision that you’re not completely sure of.

My prediction: The candidate who can internalize these lessons to get their message boiled down to repeatable sound bites with action verbs and a clear, inspiring vision for the concrete end-result, along with some good personal stories to tell, and deliver it in a way that is the right balance of confident, approachable, sincere, authoritative, relatable and likeable, is going to be the nominee, and the candidate with the best chance of taking the White House in 2020.

In my opinion, based on these factors alone, the front runners for Day-1were Cory Booker and Bill DeBlasio, with Elizabeth Warren as a trailing third, needing to get the “likability” factor up quickly to avoid succumbing to Hillary’s 2016 reputation and fate.