Messaging Pitfalls to Avoid: Lessons From the Dropouts

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Einstein purportedly said, “The only rational way to educate is to be an example — a warning example, if not the other kind.”


Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, and as of this afternoon, three more candidates dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination: Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer, and they all offer a crystal-clear warning example of what inspiring leadership does NOT sound like.


Now, I've given Senator Klobuchar the acid test on a number of occasions, so as far as I'm concerned, it was only a matter of time before she dropped out because the alignment between what she said and how she said it was so horrifically off that it perpetually undermined her authority with virtually every appearance she made.


But Mayor Pete and Mr. Steyer joined her on the exit ramp today because they all failed in the single most important test: Nobody knew what they would DO if elected president.


You can tell stories of your upbringing, your community, and your values, but ultimately, when you have a vision, you have to be able to distill it down to where people can easily (a) understand it, (b) remember it, and (b) repeat it to others, or you might as well not have it at all.


It's what I've been referring to as “tweetable and repeatable” sound bites. Yes, you should be able to explain the details at some point, but you need core campaign promises that paint a picture of how life would be different in your vision, and why people want to see that vision become a reality.


Then-candidate Donald Trump did this masterfully in 2016: “Build a Wall,” “Make America Great Again,” “Drain the Swamp” and others were crystal-clear outcome messages that both proponents and opponents alike instantly understood. It's the answer to the prompt, “If you forget everything else I say, remember THIS...”


Notice that he didn't have these messages for every single platform issue like education and gun control. They were signature issues that defined his campaign, and he worked them into every answer possible, so when you heard his name, you automatically thought of those outcomes. You believed that his election would result in those changes, period, like it or not.


To date, no Democratic candidate has done this in their campaign, so why are the other candidates still in the race, but these three dropped out? Simple: the others started with more name recognition, money and clout. It was up to the newcomers and lesser-knowns to close the gap when starting from behind, and “tweetable-and-repeatable” campaign messaging would have done that, especially if the frontrunners still did NOT have any such strategy. It was their race to lose. But they ALL failed this particular test, so they cancelled out the variable, and the people who started ahead, stayed ahead by default.


How does this apply to us?


Whether you're giving a presentation to an internal/external client, speaking to the board, pitching an idea to your boss or otherwise trying to persuade, you can give all the details you need, but ultimately, distill it down to a few key “tweetable-and-repeatable” take-aways that crystalize the “so what” of your pitch.


Think of it this way: If your audience needs to go back and discuss your pitch among themselves, or share it with their higher-ups or decision-making body, you can't expect them to remember every detail you said, especially if you spoke for an hour but they only have five minutes to relay your big take-aways in their next meeting (in which you will NOT be present). So if you think you CAN'T summarize your main take-aways in a few concrete bullet phrases, how can you expect them to accurately and compellingly do so? You need to effectively spoon-feed them the framing that you want them to convey to others, to keep the message accurate and the brand consistent.


So with that three-way warning example, I challenge the remaining candidates (and their campaign strategy teams) to get their acts together, get clear on their messages, and prove that they aren't going to hand President Trump another four years by default.

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