18th Century wisdom for 21st Century candidates

They say what’s old eventually becomes new again. So we were struck when we recently ran across a short quote from, of all people, the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire that just nails why so many of today’s campaigns communicate terribly:

“The secret to being a bore is to tell everything.

This 18th Century French guy knows how to keep your 21st Century campaign from boring voters to tears

This 18th Century French guy knows how to keep your 21st Century campaign from boring voters to tears

Voltaire nails two very different problems we see time and again.

Telling everything in your ads (or mail pieces) makes them, and you, boring.

A good ad or mailer makes a single point clearly and does so in a way that interests the person on the receiving end. It may offer a lot of detail about the point being made, especially in mail, but ultimately, the best ads make a single point.

A lot of candidates and campaigns have a tough time with this. They want to crowbar five issues into a mailer or hit multiple themes in a radio spot.

They want to tell everything in one piece of communication because they’re afraid if they don’t, they’ll miss telling someone something that would’ve made a difference in winning their vote.

What happens when you try to jam multiple points into an ad or mailer is exactly the opposite. You generally end up with a communication that doesn’t generate interest from any voters.

When you throw the kitchen sink into an ad or mailer, that communication becomes tougher to follow, is less narratively coherent and is less likely to have a “hook” to initially grab the attention of the voter.

Look at it like this. If you make one point clearly, you may miss some voters who don’t care about that point, but you’re winning the hearts and minds of those that do care.  If you try to make multiple points in one ad, you risk not winning over ANY of the voters you sought to appeal to because you probably have an ad that doesn’t engage any of them.

Better to make one point coherently to win over the people who care about that point and catch the others with a separate ad.

We know what you’re going to say. “What if I don’t have the money to do another ad or mailer to make the second (or fifth) point? I have to get this information out to the voters!

No. You don’t.

If you don’t have the money to make an additional ad or mailer to make the second point, then choose the best point you can afford to make and run with it. Better yet, go raise the money for the additional ad.

It’s a choice worth making if you want a campaign that isn’t a bore. Bores don’t win over voters very often.

Social media that only tells people about you without engaging or listening to them makes you boring.

We see a lot of candidate social media feeds. Most of them are dreadful.

The typical campaign social media stream is filled with stuff like this:

    • Pictures of candidates at events (“Had a great time talking to the Hooterville Republicans last night.”)
    • Updates on how hard the candidate is working (“We drove 300 miles and hit 5 fairs today to meet lots of voters.”)
    • Fundraising pitches (“The next campaign filing deadline is in 18 minutes and we are still $7,416 from our goal.)
    • Slice of life stuff to “humanize” the candidate (“I took some time off the campaign trail to take the kids for ice cream to prove I’m a good dad and not just a robo-politician.”)

It’s just you talking about yourself. All “telling.” No listening or engagement. BO-RING.

When campaigns do this, followers start to ignore your messages—they just scroll past your posts. That’s not much payoff for the effort you’re making.

If you’re going to use social media in your campaign, then attempt to actually be social. That means engaging followers so they can “tell” you some things too.

So in between asking for money and posting pictures of you campaigning at the local bacon festival, use your feed to ask your followers questions. Offer a poll. Post an opinion and ask for feedback. Ask your followers to do something. Get them involved.

When you do that, your feed becomes a place where your campaign deepens relationships, generates interest and creates enthusiasm. And no one will call you a bore.

Metrics without message is meaningless

Voter contact metrics are one way campaigns, issue groups and caucuses use to show how much progress is being made toward victory.

“We have 7 field offices up and running!”

“We knocked on 10,000 doors this week!”

“Our volunteers completed 2,000 calls tonight!”

Those are wonderful metrics. It shows the campaign is working hard. What it doesn’t show is whether anyone has been persuaded to actually vote for your candidate.

All the door knocking, phone calls, and other voter contact metrics are meaningless unless those metrics relate to actually delivering a persuasive message that helps convert those being contacted into committed supporters for your effort.

You might think this is simple common sense. But look at what most campaigns are doing in their door-knocking/precinct walking/canvassing programs.

Most campaigns are either basically knocking on a door to hand the resident a piece of literature, while

offering to answer any questions the resident might have. Or they’re trying to collect data from the voter. Some try to do both.

Some might mention a sentence or two of “policy” like “Orrin Boehner is running to cut taxes” with no specifics or localization to make it more than an empty platitude. Then, most also ask for the support of the resident who may, even after this contact, still have no clue who the candidate is nor have a compelling reason to vote for the candidate.

It’s a ton of work for next to no reward.

We believe that’s why even extensive voter contact programs often don’t register in initial polling. The numbers come back and name ID/image often remains weak even though the campaign has knocked on thousands of doors and made thousands of calls.

Campaigns are often surprised by this, but what else can be expected when voters receive these almost messageless contacts that give them no reason to remember the candidate or their campaign or the cause. The contact said nothing meaningful to the voter to demonstrate that the candidate or campaign understood them or their concerns.*

To get full value from voter contact efforts, a campaign must deliver a strong, specific message at the door or on the phone that is relevant to the person being contacted.

In today’s campaigns, where so much data on individual voters is available, there’s no excuse not to walk or phone with specific, targeted messages. Most campaigns should be able to walk up to a door and talk about their campaign to the voter in somewhat specific and personalized terms.

Even if your campaign is working from a raw voter file with limited additional data, you can at least use geography to localize your message for a call or a door knock.

For example, if your campaign is talking about property tax reductions, you can look up average assessments for a neighborhood you’re about to walk to figure out a rough amount your plan could save homeowners. If you’re talking about education, you should be able to mention the local school and possibly how your education plan affects it.

This takes added preparation by–and training for–staff and volunteers. Someone has to do the research and prep the talking points or script each time. But this is the work that turns the metrics into votes. It lets the person being contacted feel like the candidate knows and understands people like them and has a real plan that will benefit them. At the end of the contact, the voter knows what is in it for them if they vote for the candidate.

That’s real persuasion. And it results in a voter contact program that wins votes, not just meets metrics. After all, if you’re going to make the monumental effort to rack up these massive metrics, you might as well get some votes out of it too.

In an upcoming blog post, we’ll talk more about how to shape the message to turn metrics into votes.


In all fairness, even these lame contacts pay some dividends when paid advertising starts. At that point the voter can connect the message they are receiving through the paid media back to the previous contact they had. But that initial contact could have been so much more effective if done with a strong messaging plan rather than to simply meet a metric.

Bio Hazard

Imagine you’re at a reception or at a conference–or even a dreaded “networking” event. Someone you’ve never met strikes up a conversation with you and immediately proceeds to tell you their life story. It goes something like this:

“Growing up I learned some important values and life lessons. Then I went on to college and law school, and then started a career. Today, I’m reasonably successful and I have a nice family. I’m active in the community. I also help coach youth soccer and I’m a regular at my church. Oh, and by the way, I’m running for State Senate because I want to give something back to the community, which has given me so much.”

During this he reaches into his wallet. He’s got pictures too, so you can see he has done all of this great stuff.

At what point would you walk away from this self-absorbed guy to find someone who wanted to talk about something more interesting to you than their own mundane life story?

Campaigns do this all the time.

Campaigns spend large amounts of money trying to communicate about the candidate’s bio as if it had a special persuasive potential. It is almost always a waste of money.

How many campaigns have you seen that “open” with some sort of bio ad or bio mailer that tell the life story of a candidate in order to introduce themselves to voters? There’s generally nothing in it for (or about) the voter. How can this possibly have persuasive value to win votes weeks or months later.

The reality is that most candidates for office just don’t have life stories that are all that compelling. And if the story isn’t compelling, no one is going to stop

what they were doing to watch

a bio ad or read a bio mailer. Time and money wasted.

There are only two reasons that a voter cares about the bio of a candidate:

    • The candidate’s life story is so compelling (think John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton) or so different that it creates enough interest in the subject matter for the voter to put aside what they were otherwise doing.


    • A portion of the bio shows experience or otherwise validates a promise or policy point the campaign is making. Think “Newt Santorum has the experience to create new jobs because he successfully built a company that grew from 2 employees 10 years ago to 500 employees today.” Even then this would be used within an ad or mailer about job creation, not one focused on the candidate’s bio.


Unless your bio spot/mailer can meet one of those two standards, the best you can hope for is some additional raw name ID. But there are cheaper, more efficient ways to build raw name ID. Besides, raw name ID should never be a primary goal–positive image should be.

So now let’s go back to our hypothetical party or bar. Another stranger wanders up looking to chat. This time, instead of talking about himself, he talks about stuff he’s pretty sure you care about. Better yet, he has some ideas that might benefit you. Like saving money on taxes. Or ways to bring new and better jobs to your community. Or specific things your kids’ school could be doing. You’re probably all ears for this guy.

Make sure your campaign is one that has voters wanting to hear more, not one that makes them want to walk away.

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