Commentary: Effective leaders simplify, personalize & use symbols

Want some good advice about effective communications? Listen to famous actor Matthew McConaughey: 

“Though I love ‘em, facts only go from the neck up. Storytelling is the best way to communicate. We’re raised on stories and folklore. I can tell my children, ‘You should do that because of this,’ but I have a better chance if I tell a story about the boy who touched fire or tried to put his fork in an electrical socket. If you dramatize the facts, we listen and remember more. And if you weave facts into a personal story, a parable, and make associations, they become like music.”

Too many leaders in politics don’t follow McConaughey’s advice. They use dry facts without making them come alive by storytelling, by using symbols or personalizing and simplifying issues they’re concerned about.

The classic campaign use of storytelling and symbolization came when Mike Leavitt ran for governor. He didn’t need to use a lot of statistics and promises to convince voters that he would be a fiscal conservative and a good steward of public funds. Instead, he told a simple story in heavily trafficked TV and radio ads about learning as a boy from his grandfather down on the farm in Loa that if you do what’s “real and right” you’ll still be farming long after the neighbor down the lane, who always seemed to be buying a brand new John Deere tractor, has gone broke.

To effectively communicate key messages, we need to answer three questions: What symbols communicate our message? How can we personalize our message? How can we simplify our message. We will need to answer those questions as we develop messaging for our audiences and delivery channels.

Symbolize. What communicates the message without a detailed explanation? What symbols will people immediately recognize and understand what we’re trying to communicate? Don’t just say there is wasteful government spending. Tell the story about an expensive, boondoggle program and make it your symbol.

Personalize. Who are the real people impacted by this issue? How can they be used to clearly illustrate the issue or message? Don’t just talk about crime statistics. Tell the story of real people victimized by crime.

Simplify. What is the headline? What is the sound bite? If you can’t communicate your message in a headline, you’re not prepared to discuss the issue. What is the quickest, simplest way to make your point?

This is crucial, because if we don’t symbolize, personalize and simplify, the opposition or the news media will do it for us. And we may not like how they do it. We may say abortion is bad, but they will talk about a woman’s right to choose.

Every political fight is a battle over symbols. If we don’t explain the issue using our symbols, the media or the opposition will do it using their symbols. In the immigration debate, one side wants to use the sympathetic symbol of a DACA young person. They other side wants to use the symbol of an illegal immigrant committing a crime.

When I was a newspaper editor and a reporter would tell me she wanted to do a story about a proposed law being debated in the Legislature, I would always tell her to go find some real people impacted by the law and tell their story. Legislators and others working to get legislation passed must do the same thing.

We must also be able to reduce the message to a headline, a sound bite, because that’s exactly what the news media will do.          Using symbols, personalization and simplification we can frame the issue on our terms. Or, we can allow the opposition or news media to frame it on their terms.

This applies to press releases, white papers, speeches, talk shows, advertisements, etc. To communicate effectively, our positions must be driven home through symbols, personalization and simple sound bites.

Here’s a true story: In another state, the government shut down a day care center because of unsafe conditions. One TV crew arrived as an inspector was going through the center and pointed out the safety problems. The story that night focused on the unsafe conditions and the government was the hero.

Another channel’s TV crew arrived on the scene just as a young mother was attempting to drop off her child, only to find the center shut down. The woman was in tears because she had to get to work and had no alternative for her child and she believed the center was safe. In that story, the government was a tyrant.

Same story. Much different symbols. Opposite messages. Here’s the lesson: If you don’t pick the symbols, your opponent or the news media will.

It is far more effective to persuade people on an emotional, visceral level, instead of with facts, figures and logic alone. 

Whenever a controversy or issue arises, whenever there is an opportunity to communicate, a smart politician asks: “What are the symbols here? How do I personalize it? How do I simplify it?”