The Persuasive Power Tool of Debate Eight

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Whereas President Trump’s state of the union address relied on hyperbole and superlatives as I described here, Friday’s Democratic primary debate round eight demonstrated the impact of the use – or absence – of REFRAINS in the art of persuasion and influence. Let’s look at a few examples of both.

Joe Biden

Biden was the most effective in using repeated refrains. His greatest strength as a candidate is his quantity and quality of experience, and refrains help to highlight that. For example, in talking about abortion rights and supreme court justices, he began each of his achievements with “I’m part of the reason why (Justice name) is on the court,” repeating it for each appointment referenced. In talking about the drug crisis, he started multiple statements with “I’m the guy” (e.g. “that set up drug courts.”)

Refrains like that helped the listener’s brain register the fact that he’s listing accomplishments, and that this is someone who has done a lot in his career, and can ostensibly get even more done if elected.

If he had been more consistent, using the SAME refrain for each list, and used it in answers to more questions, it would have been much more powerful. For example, if he had started dozens of statements with “I’m the guy,” it would have translated into an easy refrain for others to repeat and apply, a-la “Joe’s the guy” or “Joe’s our guy.” That’s very tweetable-and-repeatable.

His messaging team has the right idea, they just don’t know that they have it!

Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar was on fire Friday night, compared to her usual performance. Among other strengths, she also used a great sequence of refrains, but unfortunately, she waited until her closing statement to employ them. Hers were two-parters: “If you have trouble” (with X,) “I know you and I will fight for you.” She also coupled this with a very poignant story about a man who attended FDR’s funeral, and this combination spoke directly to most of America. It was compelling, relatable, compassionate, authoritative and memorable. If she had worked into any other answers over the course of the two hours, it would have been even more powerful.

Bernie Sanders

Ironically, Sanders is the perfect warning tale of what happens when NO refrains are used. People on both sides of the aisle fear the “democratic socialist” label, which holds many back from supporting him. It is absolutely his (and his team’s) fault for not finding a way to dispel the fear. The well-honed refrain could be the perfect antidote.

Sanders would do well to pick a few key goals and frame them in tweetable-and-repeatable refrains to paint a simple, concrete picture of what people would get if they supported him.

For example,

  • “Raise the minimum wage to $15”
  • “Ensure world-class education for all children”
  • “Make Amazon pay its fair share (of taxes)”
  • “Make prescription drugs affordable”
  • “Rebuild coast-to-coast infrastructure”

are messages that are easy to understand, in a way that would allow Team Sanders to say, “That’s not so scary, is it?” They illustrate outcomes that virtually every voter would support – on principle, who wouldn’t? The details about how it would happen and what would be entailed are topics for later discussions. But people would “get it,” and be able to remember and discuss them with others.

“But wait,” you say, “most candidates on the stage could use these same refrains.”

YES! You're right… but the problem is that NO ONE HAS DONE SO. Whichever candidate is smart enough to pick on this detail can have them. THAT will start to make things interesting.

Andrew Yang and the rest

Of all people, Andrew Yang should have this down to a science (or for him, perhaps an algorithm.) His whole candidacy is centered around his “Freedom Dividend” (a phrase he didn’t use even once this time around, surprisingly) of giving all adult citizens $1000 per month. While he worked the idea into many answers on various topics, he hasn’t chiseled it down to a key refrain that he can work in verbatim each time, mantra-like. It’s clear, but not “sticky” (in the marketing sense) just yet. Close, but no cigar.

Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer all failed miserably on this assignment. They talk a lot, about a lot of issues, but little that they say stands out from their competitors, making performances that were, effectively, forgettable.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The first candidate who figures this out is the one who will stand out from the herd in a way that speaks to voters and secures the nomination.

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