Harvey Milk was here to recruit us. Bill Clinton believed in a place called Hope.
Ronald Reagan suggested it was a time for choosing, and Donald Trump promised to Make America Great Again.
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, had a 59-point jobs plan.
A record number of candidates have already stepped forward to run for office in 2018. I’m sure more will still throw their hats into the ring. These candidates are driven by passion, full of big ideas, and motivated to change the world.
But mission-driven leaders often face a common frustration. No matter how many times they try to explain their Big Idea Solution to the problem that keeps them up at night, they struggle to connect with the audience. Discouraged by their failure to have their ideas catch on, many give up.
It happens in non-profits and in corporate America, but perhaps most often in campaigns.
My 2018 mantra for candidates—and really all of us who communicate for a living—is this: You can’t convince people to feel your passion. You have to make them feel it.
Pioneering media consultant Tony Schwartz was among the first to say that the meaning of any communication is not present in the communication itself, but in how our communications relate, both factually and emotionally with the audience.
So how do we strike this “responsive chord” with our communications? How do we find that resonance in our messaging that turns a skeptical public into a movement of dedicated followers?
It’s a little bit art, and a little bit science.
Emotional connections are formed in the limbic system — the part of our brains with no capacity for language. Some call it the lizard brain because it’s the home of our primal survival instincts. It’s where our fight or flight responses come from, but also where we generate feelings of safety and affection.
Think about the famous “Daisy” ad that Schwartz produced for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. It starts with an innocent girl pulling petals off a flower, and ends with annihilation and a mushroom cloud, with Johnson laying out the choice. “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other, or we must die.”
The ad is a rope-a-dope for the lizard brain. It lulls us in with feelings of warmth, love and safety. Birds are chirping. There’s a cute kid. Awww, she’s learning how to count.
And then, all those feelings are shattered into a million pieces as the president of the United States tells us we’re all going to die in a nuclear holocaust.
Was it over the top? Maybe. But half a century later, we’re still talking about an ad that aired exactly one time. And no matter how many times I see it, I react to it every time. My lizard brain believes the narrator when he tells me I have to vote for Johnson, because “the stakes are too high for [me] to stay home.”
At the other end of the “must see TV” spectrum, recall Ross Perot’s famous 1992 “Balancing the Budget & Reforming Government” infomercial.
This ad also ran just once. And it’s possible we’ll still be talking about it in 2046, but I don’t think it’s going to hold up in quite the same way. Why? Because Perot was speaking only to our rational brains — the part with a capacity for language. This was a huge mistake.
When the rational brain is engaged, the audience gains the capacity to disagree, to dissect an argument and see if the candidate’s vision aligns with their own.
Alignment is important.
It’s why you don’t get to test drive a car until you tell the dealer what color you want to buy —the dealer knows that you have a story that you tell yourself about who you are. If you tell yourself you’re the kind of person who drives a red car with tan leather seats, a white car with grey cloth interior is going to set your brain in motion, trying to figure out what’s wrong.
Are the seats too hard? Is the cup holder too big? Is that a funny noise coming from the air conditioning? Being out of alignment with that story of self makes your brain look for the flaws.
The same thing happens when we’re communicating our own vision. Voters all have a story about themselves that begins with the phrase, “I’m the kind of person who …”
Your job is to articulate a consistent and authentic vision that aligns with that story. Remember, messaging is more than a slogan. It’s the values framework that connects voters to your candidate, your campaign or your organization.
If you communicate your values, stay consistent, and speak to the voters’ desire to be in alignment with the stories they tell about themselves, you’ll not only see more success in your own campaign, you’ll notice how uncomfortable your opponent’s values make your supporters. They’ll become even more attached to you and your organization.
Oh, and leave the charts and 59-point plans at home.
Josh Nanberg is the president and founder of Ampersand Strategies.