Why Have a Message? by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

By at June 24, 2013 | 5:06 pm | Print

Why Have a Message? by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

Mark Pack


“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”  Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy

New York Governor Mario Cuomo uttered the famous line that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. We are idealistic enough to believe that there is room for a little poetry in government, too, but the magic of a well-run campaign can have the same uplifting and enlightening impact as the best of poetry.

Just as the best poets have a powerful and emotional message they want to give the reader, so the best campaigners want to appeal to voters’ minds and to move their emotions. Democracy is about explaining to people why you and your ideas are the best choice.

Voters lead busy lives, disconnected from government and politics. As a candidate and a campaigner you will only have brief moments to make your point to them and to make an impact. Your message – why someone should vote for you – should be a simple answer to a simple question. It is surprising how often it catches out aspiring politicians.

Shortly before the 2010 general election in Britain, we were involved in running a training event for incumbents facing a tough battle for re-election.

One session was about ‘the message’ and each Member of Parliament was asked (without any advance warning) that simple question: why should someone vote for you? Some of the answers were rather rough round the edges. One, however, stood out. This MP – even though they were not the first to answer and so had a little longer to think about it than some colleagues – was utterly floored. The only answers they could provide were about themselves: because they wanted to be an MP, because they liked doing it and so on. They lost at the election.

The lesson is a simple one: you need to give voters a reason to vote for you that will be relevant to them. Your answer needs to be about you but appeal to them. ‘I want to win’ does not work. ‘You want me to win’ does.

Another example: in 2010, the American actor Kelsey Grammer announced he was launching a political career. Asked why, he talked about the need to complete his life and of actors and politicians having the same narcissistic drive. We do not share this rather cynical view of politicians (we cannot comment on actors) but more importantly we cannot help feeling he needed a better message. One that says why anyone else should want him to run rather than one that focuses on himself.

Nevertheless, beware bland platitudes, too. It is no good telling voters that you will simply do the job they expect you to do. Your message needs to capture why you will do a better job than the others will. It needs to be brief, credible and real. Brief because voters have better things to do than listen to you. Credible because voters are smart enough to figure out when they are being sold snake oil. Real because you need to believe it too – only then will you be able make your case convincingly.

Voters are not memory magicians. They do not remember everything everyone says, especially on a topic such as politics that most of them spend most of their time paying little attention to. A clear message, regularly repeated is a must. You will know it is working when people start repeating your own lines back to you without realising they are doing so. Much of that is about repetition but it starts with a message that is clear, powerful and succinct.

It is the bargain at the heart of democracy. Candidates have a duty to persuade and explain. If they are successful at that, they get power.

Once in office candidates must govern and represent well but they will always have to come back to the same basic truth: you need a good answer to that simple question, ‘Why should someone vote for you?’

This lesson was taken from our book, 101 Ways To Win An Election which in addition to the 10 in this series has another 91 for you to learn from! Buy the book

Dr Mark Pack is the co-author of 101 Ways To Win an Election and former Head of Innovations for the UK’s Liberal Democrat party, where he ran the party’s 2001 and 2005 online general election campaigns. His internet campaigning firsts include arranging the first British political party leader on Facebook and the first British election candidate website to take online donations.

@markpack on Twitter

Dr Edward Maxfield has worked as a campaigns and communications professional for over a decade. He currently runs the constituency office of Norman Lamb, UK Member of Parliament and Health Minister in the Coalition Government. Ed was a member of the Liberal Democrats’ national campaigns team from 2001 to 2006 and has also worked as a lecturer, a lobbyist and for some of the world’s biggest business consultancy firms.


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