Be the engineer, not the conductor, of your messaging train

If you have ever taken a passenger train, you know that there’s an engineer up front driving the train to its ultimate final destination, and a conductor in the back punching passenger tickets.*

Some campaigns and marketing efforts take a train engineer’s approach to planning their messaging. They’re plotting a message (the route, so to speak) to their final destination–winning an election.

Others think like the conductor. They get so wrapped up in the tickets they feel they need to punch communications-wise, they lose sight of the overall route.

You can’t drive the message train by punching tickets

The train conductor method is often the weaker choice when you do your communications planning.

Unsure what the conductor approach looks like? Here’s a typical way it shows up in political campaigns:

Make sure you have an engineer driving your campaign or marketing message train

Make sure you have an engineer driving your campaign or marketing message train

“OK, we’re going to do seven ads (can be mailers, TV spots or anything else). We know from our survey that the top three issues are jobs, education and taxes, so we’ll do a jobs ad, an education ad and a tax ad. We’ll then do a couple of ads hitting the opponent on stuff our polling tells us voters don’t like. We’ll have a final positive close. relevant domains . And we’ll hold one ad out to see of we need to respond to any of the attacks from the other side.”

The campaign is building a plan based on punching holes in a ticket.  They punched the education ticket with an ad. They punched the jobs ticket with an ad.

This is a terrible way to plan out a messaging/communications effort for a couple of reasons.

  • Planning this way isn’t conducive to creating a coherent overarching narrative for your campaign that voters can retain and recall. The campaign needs the voters to retain bits of information on a number of different subjects rather than latch onto an overarching theme or two. That’s a tough sell when most voters really don’t want to spend much time learning about your campaign.


  • The information in your early ads will not be retained by Election Day. If you do one ad on education and it is running four weeks before the election, few people are going to recall it or factor it into their vote decision later on if your campaign has moved on to another issue or shifted to negative ads.


By worrying about punching the individual holes, you’re ignoring the bigger picture of what overarching theme you need voters to retain and recall when they go to vote.

A good engineer can get your messaging train to its final destination

The train engineer approach is generally the better way to get your messaging train to its final destination.

In the train engineer approach you come up with 1-2 persuasive and straight-forward arguments for your campaign that you want voters to remember when they go to vote that also provides meaningful contrast with your opponent.

Every ad or mailer is woven into that overarching message and is written to provide information and evidence that substantiates the credibility of that message. Any attacks you make illustrate how the opponent unfavorably contrasts with your campaign on the basic messages and themes you’re pushing.

For example, let’s say you have a campaign where your message is “Christie Walker is going to the state capitol to fight taxes and cut the size of government.” That’s what you have determined is the most important thing you want voters to remember when they go to vote. That means everything you talk about in your ads needs to connect back to this theme.

If you have a subject/issue that polls well and you want to include it in your messaging, then you HAVE to make sure you can weave it into your overall theme because that theme is ultimately what you can expect the voter to remember.  You’re now talking about that subject to substantiate your larger theme, not to punch a ticket.

If you can’t weave it in, you have to give strong consideration to not advertising on that subject at all or adjusting your overarching theme in such a way that you can weave it in.**

By thinking about your message planning as an engineer rather than simply punching tickets with your ads like a conductor, you’re getting very strong repetition of the key persuasive theme you need voters to retain when they go to vote. That’s how elections are won and target audiences are persuaded.


* Yes, some trains also have a bar car with a bartender. Unlike the engineer and the conductor, the bartender doesn’t have a messaging metaphor other than many campaign staffers and marketers frequent the service of bartenders

in real life and may share their own story with him/her.

** We recognize there are some single-issue voters you have to message on their issue outside of a theme-gun rights advocates, pro-gun advocates, etc.-when appropriate. We will talk about how to effectively message to them in a future column. We also recognize there are times when a subject just HAS to be addressed outside of the scope of the overall theme. While this does come up, we find it is more rare than most campaigns think it is.

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