This is a blog about business writing—not politics. But Elizabeth Warren’s recent fall in poll numbers and weak results in primaries are directly tied to the message she is communicating. And that IS a writing issue. Senator Warren doesn’t need to change her ideas and well-planned programs. She needs to change her message.
If Senator Warren passed out at a debate or during an interview, most of her followers could take over for her, making her points and presenting her positions just as she would have. But that’s not a good thing. The message has gotten stale. I have heard it so often that I could stand in and tell you about her youth on “the ragged edge of the middle class” and her time at a commuter college when tuition was $50. I could tell you about her two Republican brothers. I could tell you about how she will fight for you. And hearing it, you would probably walk out of the room because, if you have been paying attention, you will have heard it all before.
This walkout took place for Senator Warren herself. Notice how writer Matt Flegenheimer began his piece “Elizabeth Warren Is Running Her Race. The Real One May Be Passing Her By” in yesterday’s New York Times:
Two days before a once-mission-critical primary in a state she neighbors, Senator Elizabeth Warren — typically exceptional at holding a room — had not finished speaking when something unusual happened: Dozens of voters began filtering out of the middle school gym she had reserved.
I could imagine it. Why should the New Hampshire voters stay if they already knew what Senator Warren would say?
Yes, the message is stale. Not just consistent—stale.
Let’s think about Senator Warren’s problem from a business writing perspective. How could she refresh her message? And how can you, as someone who communicates regularly on the job, keep your message fresh?
Here are three suggestions:
1. Become known for your fresh, memorable lines.
I'm thinking of lines like "I have a plan for that," "Nevertheless, she persisted," and "Billionaire tears." Use them repeatedly, but write new ones so that your message is fresh. If you can't think of fresh, new content, consult websites of famous quotations that you can apply and riff on. At work, use these quotations in presentations and speeches, but also work them into blog posts, newsletter articles, and even proposals. Take a meaty quote and make it memorable in your message.
2. Differentiate yourself--with specifics.
The other night CNN journalist Chris Cuomo repeatedly asked Senator Warren why people should vote for her and not other candidates, in particular Bernie Sanders. The best she could say was the bland “I’ve got the best chance to beat Donald Trump” and the vague "deliver results." She didn't mention that she has a greater number of solid, well-researched plans than her competitors, that she has deep experience and understanding of bankruptcy and the needs of consumers, or that she's a supporter of capitalism, unlike Senator Sanders. She offered no specifics and made no news.
Like Senator Warren, you have to stand out. Maybe you have serious competitors. Or maybe you just need to get the attention of senior management, recruiters, or customers wanting to buy. To do that, be sure to answer the reader's question "Why you?" specifically, uniquely, and with fresh data.
3. Communicate as I--not we.
Senator Warren is trying out for a new job, and it's a job for one person. She has to be comfortable telling her story using I--not just using we, as in "We need to beat. . . ." Interestingly, even though Elizabeth Warren won her Senate seat in 2012, I can't recall her communicating a thing about what she herself has accomplished there. That's a missed opportunity.
If you are looking for a job or a new opportunity, you have the same challenge. Even if most of your work has been with teams, you alone--not your teammates--need to convince the hiring manager. Get comfortable telling fresh, specific stories that begin with I: "I led the team," "I co-sponsored an initiative," "I accomplished," and "I am proud of. . . ."
This morning I met with Dana Van Nest, a Seattle area writer and communications strategist. Although we were meeting about a different topic, I asked Dana for her views on Elizabeth Warren's communications. She shared this expertise:
Elizabeth Warren is stuck in her story. Her message has been strong, specific, and unwavering – which served her very well until now. The ante has been raised. We’re a society of “what’s new, what’s next.” Warren needs fresh stories to keep her supporters’ interest and enthusiasm, and to sway a new cohort to her. She can stay true to her values and, at the same time, evolve her messaging to fit the political climate right now.
We know her history. If I were on Warren’s team, I’d be looking for small moments in this last year to amplify her message in the present. To be excited enough to vote for her, she needs to tell us a new story; one where we can see a clear thread from her words to her sitting in the Oval Office.
I love Dana's image of a clear thread from Senator Warren's words to the Oval Office. Contact Dana to work on your message.
Have you grown tired of hearing the same stories again and again from political candidates? Who do you think does a good job of communicating in fresh ways? Please, no partisan politics--just ideas on effective communication.
How do you keep your message fresh?