We’re often told that our messages should appeal to middle-of-the-road voter, that we should try to be palatable to the widest possible audience.
But according to strategic communications researcher and consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio, when we run to the so-called “middle” we actually wind up holding back, distorting, or watering down the very values we hold most dear. In her 5 minute talk for Netroots Nation, 2013, Shenker-Osorio laments, it “means our values aren’t coming through.”
This is a lost opportunity. When we declare our values boldly and with conviction, those values have enormous potential to resonate with more than just our base. In other words, we might actually reach independents, moderates, undecideds, and even the uninterested and disengaged if we just said what we believed in with confidence, conviction, and consistency.
This isn’t just a hunch. These are Shenker-Osorios’s empirically based conclusions about what makes a winning message.
Dial testing—one method used by political opinion researchers—provides an illustration. It’s used to measure reactions to specific messages and typically we look for the places where everyone dials highest—the places where everyone likes what they see. But, Shenker-Osorio cautions, “It’s the recipe for milquetoast, messages that don’t inspire anyone.”
Conservative communications experts figured this out a long time ago. GOP message guru Frank Luntz “dials for the red meat,” Shenker-Osorio says. In other words, he looks for messages that his base loves, that the middle also finds appealing, and that utterly repel his opposition.
The effect? A fired up base, a powerful, clear and distinctive values-based message that rings true to undecideds, and words that work to discredit the messages coming from the other side (and bait the opposition to repeat your messages).
Short of dial testing every message (that’s expensive), here’s a checklist for winning over those on the fence by sticking to your guns.
Your True Colors
Does your message say what you believe and why it matters? Wishy-washy is suspicious. But most of us respect conviction. Saying boldly what you stand for is more likely to bring folks along.
Are you inspiring the choir (your base) to sing? Unlikely if it’s lackluster and watered down. If your words don’t spread, your words don’t work. Give them lyrics that they want to belt out.
Did you alienate your opposition? Good. Put the other side on the defensive. Set yourself apart. You’ll be more likely to persuade the uncommitted.
Shenker-Osorio reminds us that we should recall a lesson we learned in elementary school: Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.