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.

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