It’s NOT About Policy: What does Winning Sound Like?

Last night was Round 3 of the Democratic Primary Debates, with ten qualified candidates in the running. Each candidate had two main goals: to connect with more voters than anyone else, and to convince those voters that they (the candidate) would have the best chance of beating Donald Trump this time next year, an area in which nobody effectively stole the show.

Sure, each candidate had some good moments, but they also had individual polishing to do in other areas: For example, Yang was a human metronome, perpetually shifting his weight from foot to foot as he talked; Sanders sounded like he had phlegm in his throat all night, and Klobuchar’s overall debate image is still generically “nice.” In this context, such little details can be subconsciously off-putting for viewers and detrimental to gaining popularity.

However, as I mentioned earlier in the week, the key to meeting those two goals would be based on who came across as most MEMORABLE in their debate performance. In particular, being (the right kind of) “memorable” at this stage could be achieved if they remembered to include three kinds of information:

1. Refrain-style sound bite campaign promises (that were “tweetable and repeatable”)
2. Personal stories (to make the candidate relatable and therefore likable), and
3. A Call to action at the end.

So how did it pan out?

First, as far as campaign promise sound bites, some were pithier than others, and although a lot of candidates listed specific promises ranging from eliminating our energy dependence on fossil fuels (O’Rourke), or raising teachers’ salaries to a minimum of $60,000 nationwide (Sanders), to guaranteeing access to healthcare (everybody) or giving $1,000 per month to every American (Yang), most lacked two things:

One is saliency: each promise was mentioned once in passing and embedded in a litany of other ideas. None was a repeated refrain, elevated as a fundamental “If you don’t remember anything else, remember this” levels of priority. Think of it this way: If you’re going to the grocery store and someone asks you to buy three things, chances are you will remember them; if they rattle off twelve things, you probably won’t remember any of them.

This was one of the most effective strategies in Donald Trump‘s 2016 campaign with expressions like “make America great again,” “build a wall,” and “repeal Obamacare,” which he repeated over and over again; even people who didn’t like him can still recite them easily today. I guarantee he will do this again in 2020, and any opponent who does not have a clear refrain of a handful of “tweetable and repeatable“ campaign-defining promises will already start out behind the proverbial eight ball.

Second, regarding use of personal stories, the format of Round 3 actually promoted this: the closing statement round was replaced with a question for each candidate to share a personal story about overcoming professional setbacks. Since it was teed up so well, all candidates made contact with the ball one way or another, so to speak. There were however a few who managed to hit it out of the park while others just rounded some of the bases.

As part of a “good, better, best” comparison, some of the candidates who’s final stories were in the “good” category included Bernie Sanders who focused his story on his political career, losing initial races and eventually coming out on top, and Andrew Yang’s story of multiple failed start-up businesses before finally being successful in business. Both implied the “never give up” theme: It is familiar to everyone, but doesn’t necessarily make you sit up and take notice.

Some that were “better” included Pete Buttigieg who shared a moment of vulnerability in describing his decision to “come out” (as gay) in the middle of an election cycle, and Kamala Harris who was always underestimated as a black woman and told that things “can’t be done,” but not letting it stop her. Unsurprisingly, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar‘s stories were all gender-related. All of these were inspiring, touching and relatable, and these kinds of stories will hit home with people of similar demographics, but it’s harder to predict how they will land with others, or even how it will allow any one of them to get more traction than the other two.

But the “best” ones really sucked you in. Cory Booker probably won the storytelling award from a quantity perspective, as he regularly illustrated his points with snippets of dialogue (a great rhetorical device) between him and other key people, allowing listeners to imagine themselves in each moment.

Beto O’Rourke was also given an extra boost this evening because so many of the questions lent themselves directly to the opportunity to talk about the shooting in El Paso, which is still fresh experience for the whole country. He did this very passionately and authoritatively, and most of his counterparts on stage even took a moment at some point in the evening to praise how he had handled the situation.

But Joe Biden stole the show for a quality story, despite a couple of dubious false starts, with the most heart-wrenching tragedies regarding the deaths of his first wife, daughter, and son. It’s a personal tragedy sequence that would make it hard for most people to get out of bed every day. It was humble and relatable and for just a moment, you forgot you were listening to a debate. That’s a winning story.

Finally, in an interesting twist, only ONE person had a call to action. As we just mentioned, unlike in the first and second rounds of debates, this time there was no closing statement round, which would have been the natural place for a call to action.

However, all of the candidates did know about this format change in advance, so they all should have figured out how to weave a call to action into that personal story in the last five seconds, to leave viewers with a clear, simple, immediately completable instruction of what they needed to do as soon as the debates were over. If people complete an action that helps you, they feel more invested in you, and are more likely to support you moving forward, bringing others with them. Most failed completely in this regard.

The only person who DID successfully beat the system was Andrew Yang. Political pundits panned it as a gimmick but I thought it was a very smart “outside the box” move. Yang effectively “gamified” his Freedom Dividend proof of concept in a call to action by personally offering ten families $1,000 per month for a year with the pitch, “If you personally believe you can solve your own problems better than any politician, go to and tell us how $1,000 per month will help you do just that.”

It not only has great “bait,” (who doesn’t think they’re smarter than politicians?) but since it’s a competition, it inspires people to be as passionate as possible in their efforts to explain how this gift will make their lives better, thereby creating an anthology of case studies he will now own and extol as evidence that his plan is really what Americans need and want….and hopefully ten case studies that demonstrate before-and-after lifestyle transformations. Very powerful, and the kind of thing people will keep talking about. Tweetable? Somewhat. Repeatable? Absolutely – watch any talk show today for proof.

Shame on nine out of ten candidates for missing this opportunity.

Overall, each candidate had moments in which they gained and lost inches, but nobody launched ahead. The candidate who can get their campaign-defining refrains together, consistently tell compelling stories and call people to act will be the one to leap to the forefront, and have the best shot at leaping to the presidency.

Let’s see if they figure it out by October.

It's NOT about policy: Winners and losers from last night's #DemDebate will emerge from who was most memorable in three key areas: (1) Who had the simplest campaign promise sound bites, (2) Who told the best stories, and (3) Who had the best call to action. Who were the real winners and losers? It's not who the pundits think. Here's why.

#election2020 #publicspeaking #influence #leadership #communication #executivepresence #politics #joebiden #berniesanders #elizabethwarren #kamalaharria #andrewyang #betoorourke #petebuttegeig #amyklobuchar #juliancastro #corybooker

Head of the Class or Back of the Pack: What to look for in Thursday’s debate

Thursday evening is Round 3 of the Democratic primary debates, but the question is whether the third time’s the charm that puts someone in the lead, or a curse that ends a campaign.

With ten people all competing for attention and votes, the answer will depend on one fundamental issue: whether or not their performance is MEMORABLE. Being memorable requires a balance of two things: being CONCISE (thus easy to understand and retain,) and RELATABLE (therefore likeable).

This is why candidates need to step up their game: because it’s the only chance they’ll have to convert some hearts and minds, and persuade enough people to jump on their bandwagon and help them get to Round 4. Lesson: If they don’t remember you, they’ll never help you win.

There are 3 key factors I’ll be looking for in the candidates’ performance: Core campaign promises, Personal stories, and a Call to action. Here’s why:

  1. Core campaign promises: Candidates need to summarize their stance on each issue in a way that is what I call “tweetable and repeatable.” If they can’t get their own promise into a sound bite of about a half-dozen simple words, nobody else will either. Then nobody will remember it well enough to be able to repeat it. Not only will candidates need to know and be ready with the details, but be able to drive the sound bite home, repeatedly and verbatim.
  2. Personal stories: The simple fact is that stories bring data – and policies – to life. Statistics and logical explanations get slowly processed in the neocortex: the emotionless calculator part of the brain. Concise, well-told, personal stories trigger an emotional reaction in the amygdala: the part of the brain that works on instinct, reflex, and survival. People remember how you made them feel far more than what you made them think about. Want people to remember you well enough to DO something? Tell a powerful story that makes their pupils dilate.
  3. Call to Action: On the first night of Round 2 debates in July, Bernie Sanders was the only candidate savvy enough to end the night by giving the audience a single, clear, immediately actionable instruction: “Go to…” It’s genius because it’s easy to understand, easy to remember, and most importantly, it’s easy to complete, and it directly impacts his ability to get to the next round. Needless to say, the next night nearly all of the candidates followed suit – some much more effectively than others – and as I predicted here, there’s an unsurprising parallel between which candidates had powerful closing statements with a clear call to action, and who’s here for Round 3.

There’s one more factor that will make or break the effectiveness of each of these elements: Not only does the content need to be strong, it needs to be delivered with a critical balance of variation AND authenticity. This is challenging but critical.

For example, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker did a great job of this in Round 1, being appropriately serious and passionate at times, but easy going and approachable at others. That flexibility gives voters a chance to relate to them on multiple levels.

In contrast, in Round 1, Tulsi Gabbard and Michael Bennett were consistently flat in their delivery. Some may have seen it as positive and unflappable, which is good, but too many other viewers could have interpreted their demeanor as lacking the internal “fire” necessary for the job, much less to beat Donald Trump. Showing a “spark” here and there would have gone a long way. Note that neither of them made it to Round 3.

So on Friday morning after the debate ask yourself: Who stands out most in your memory? And how much of it is what they made you THINK about, vs. how you FELT about them? Why? The answer is where you’ll find the powers of persuasion and influence… and a good sense of who will make it to Round 4.

The Two-Letter Word That Destroys Productive Discussion

One thing I’ve learned over the years is how to take critical comments with a grain (or sometimes a pound) of salt.

Recently, I have been commenting on the Democratic primary debates (such as here and here). Although my lens is always an apolitical analysis of the candidates’ communication effectiveness, I knew that anything related to national politics would open me up to possible criticism, given how personal it is to so many people.

Naturally, there are those who have agreed and supported my efforts and those who have not. Unsurprisingly, on some platforms the feedback I have gotten is far more “colorful” than others. However, I was struck by an important pattern in some of the comments, and how it changed my willingness to engage with the contributors.

In particular, there were fans of candidates whose performance weaknesses I critiqued who were unhappy with the fact that I had voiced any sort of criticism of “their” candidate at all. But it was HOW they expressed this displeasure that made all the difference. It all came down to two letters: BE vs. DO.

Some objectively referenced points I had made and why they thought my analysis was off. In contrast, others preferred to attack me personally for having said anything negative about their favorite candidate in the first place. Those people used the very simple but powerful verb, “to be.” Some of the most unfiltered contributions ranged from telling me “you are weird” to calling me a “lunatic” and even a “psychopath.” By using this language, they chose to attack my essence, who I am (“be”) as a person.

On the other hand, people who told me why they disagreed with the assessment itself implicitly used an equally simple and powerful verb: “to do.” They disagreed with what I did: Specifically, I made assertions they didn’t like.

Discrepancy between these two approaches had profound effects on my treatment of those comments, and have equally profound implications for constructive conversation and conflict resolution on the whole.

People who attack who I am with “be” language are showing me that they are neither open to discussion nor interested in respectful dialogue. It also shows that they missed the underlying purpose of all of my posts in the first place! When I receive those comments, my decision has become simply to ignore them, since I see no value in trying to engage rationally with someone who preferred emotional, vitriolic, and personal attacks.

In contrast, when people used “do” language, I am much more interested in exploring their line of thought, finding common ground, or at least achieving mutual understanding.

When I read comments like, “I disagree with your assertion that candidate X should have…”, I genuinely want to understand the reasons why. They didn’t assume the worst in me as a person, lob insults or otherwise attack me personally. I love a good debate, and someone who could present their counter argument to me in an intelligent, respectful and objective way piques my interest and inspires me to continue the exchange. In one exchange, I went back and forth several times with a contributor and in the end his comment was, “Vocal Impact Productions, we are in agreement then…”

What’s the moral to the story? In looking to make connections and more, two little letters – to be versus to do – can be the turning point between building the bridge and blowing it up.

I sincerely thank all of those who have commented on any of my posts, and invite you all to continue to discuss and debate with me on any subject, especially as I continue to analyze the communication effectiveness of the candidates in the upcoming rounds of debates. I equally welcome your disagreement as your praise. What matters most to me is that we get to engage in civil and productive discourse.

I hope that these strategies help you to promote such dialogs in your work and home conversations as well. Just remember the key: when in disagreement, disagree with the person’s statement or behavior (what they DO) without judging the person (who you see them to BE). Therein lies the power to bring people together AND affect meaningful, positive change.