How to build an effective messaging device

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Some tips for building a message that will rally people around your cause


At some point in nearly any campaign, you’ll need to explain a complex policy in a few words. Maybe you’ll need a clever name or tag line for a project or an upcoming event. In each of these cases, what you need is a messaging device.

A messaging device is a figure of speech that favors a point of view and triggers a desired reaction. Messaging devices – like “death panels,” the “New Deal,” and “Yes We Can” – are shorter than sound bites, but convey far more than mere buzzwords.

Here are some tips to help you build effective messaging devices of your own.

Start with your goal. The best messaging devices trigger a visceral reaction. No one wants to go over a “fiscal cliff” or lose an “arms race.” What emotions do you want people to feel? What actions do you want them to take? Figuring this out first will help you stay on track.

Find the right frame. If you lack public opinion research of your own, studies published online can help you find the best themes to emphasize when discussing a topic. Just don’t forget that the pen is ultimately mightier than the poll. An English major is as likely to develop a good messaging device as a pollster.

Mine the thesaurus. The thesaurus is a virtual gold mine, but don’t give up digging too quickly. The most precious messaging gems are usually found in the places you least expect them. Simple, familiar, tangible words generally work better than long, abstract, technical ones.

There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. As poet Wallace Stevens would point out, sometimes what you need is a different perspective. After all, figures of speech are rarely objective. What looks like a “tax break” from the recipient’s point of view looks like a “tax handout” when the recipient isn’t you.

A picture’s worth a thousand words. Visual metaphors like “political horse race” and “domino effect” work so well because they paint vivid pictures. To find the right image or metaphor, focus on your goals rather than the literal meanings you want to convey. If you want to suggest a policy is too risky, imagine other contexts where people take risks – like extreme sports, gambling, or romance – and use them to build metaphors.

Unleash your inner poet. We all know the power of rhyme, but alliteration can be just as effective. “Pravda on the Potomac” and “Big Bad Wolf” stick in your head because the initial consonant repeats. Also try word repetition, as in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Test it out. Test your messaging device in a poll or focus group if you can. But friends, family, and co-workers will generally know if your messaging device sounds genuine and triggers the right response. Remember, it’s not what you say that counts – it’s what they hear.

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, where he brings clients in politics, advocacy, and consulting the most cutting edge ideas and tools from political psychology. 


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