What’s a Message?

Campaigns are always talking about their messages.

They’re refining them, testing them, communicating them. But politically speaking, what is a message? Or more importantly — what makes an effective message? Surprisingly, there’s no one definition of what a political message is although every consultant will tell you can’t survive without one.

First and foremost, campaign messages mustn’t be confused with campaign slogans or taglines. Your message defines your core argument and drives persuasion while a slogan just neatly encapsulates it in a more memorable fashion. It is not the message. A message can be more than one sentence, but shouldn’t be more than two to three.

I’ll offer this as my definition of a political message:

A message is a persuasive body of information that communicates a clear comparison or contrast, compelling an audience to support your campaign or take action on your behalf. Effective messages are emotional, targeted, values-based and contrasting.

How did I come to this? My definition has four key parts — effective messages are emotional, values-based, targeted, and contrasting. Let’s look at each part.

“The emotional quotient is key to helping ideas propagate and survive” says idea expert Chip Heath. That’s the most empirical explanation you’ll ever find. Everyone is fighting for voters attention. Voters will listen to and repeat only the messages they share an emotional connection with. People often forget the specifics of what you say but, they remember how you make them feel.

Many campaign make a critical mistake — attempting to communicate their message by listing ideas, and not by sharing values that create common ground. A laundry list of issues and plans is not a message. A message is rooted in universal truths and ideas that people can use as tools to understand and relate to you. Values transcend confusion created by insufficient knowledge of issues, to evaluate plans or understand jargon. Value statements assign importance without explaining facts.

Targeting has dual meaning. First, every message needs an audience. Know who you’re trying to persuade, instead of trying (in vain) to be everything to everyone. The second meaning is emphasis. Include just what is needed and omit the rest. For example, in just forty-five words, the founding fathers were able to articulate the bedrock principles of democracy in the First Amendment. It doesn’t take a whole jumble of words and flowery language to create something that’s effective. Sometimes the most important decision you’ll make is what you chose to leave out.

The principle job of every campaign is to define a clear choice. For a campaign to be successful it’s message must demonstrate its distinctiveness from competitors or there’s no reason to select it over others. To achieve this, your message must first actually be different from your opponent’s; and second demonstrate the difference clearly, and memorably. Decide ahead of time on what ideas you want your voters to choose.

Whenever examining effective messages, I continuously revisit the challenge of clarity. A message that offers too many choices, too many contrasts, is just as ineffectual as one that offers no choice at all. Studies have proven that when people are over exposed to choices, paralysis prevails and choice demotivates. So be selective and win people on the terms most favorable to your campaign.

Does your campaign have a message or is it sneaking by with only a slogan? Can you define your message in 2-3 short sentences and know who it’s targeting? Is it values-based or just laundry-listing? Does it offer a clear, compelling, emotional choice?

If not, you should be asking yourself, “What is my message?”