Good morn­ing from Min­neapo­lis! Today is the first day of Net­roots Nation, and the NPI team’s first full day in the Twin Cities. I’m at a break­out ses­sion called Get the Mes­sage?, orga­nized by Dar­cy Burn­er and fea­tur­ing Drew West­en and Tate Lin­den. The ses­sion was adver­tised as a pan­el, but it’s real­ly been more like a pair of pre­sen­ta­tions (by Drew and Tate), emceed by Darcy.

The premise of the pre­sen­ta­tions is that Democ­rats and pro­gres­sives don’t do a good job telling their sto­ry, and that as a con­se­quence, Democ­rats do not enjoy the pop­u­lar sup­port that they should. To be more spe­cif­ic, the qual­i­ty and con­sis­ten­cy of our mes­sag­ing is poor, and if we want to reach vot­ers, we need to change the way we communciate.

One of the high­lights of Drew West­en’s talk was his slide on nar­ra­tives. Accord­ing to Drew, there are three nar­ra­tives that the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion should have pre­sent­ed to the Amer­i­can peo­ple after tak­ing office, but did­n’t. These are:

  • Why the econ­o­my is a dis­as­ter and how the Repub­li­cans caused it.
  • Why deficit spend­ing is nec­es­sary when the econ­o­my is spi­ral­ing downward
  • An alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive on gov­ern­ment to Ronald Reagan’s, “gov­ern­ment is the prob­lem, not the solution”

Drew con­tends that if these nar­ra­tives had been pre­sent­ed, Demo­c­ra­t­ic loss­es in the 2010 midterms would not have been so great, because Repub­li­cans would not have been able to get away with por­tray­ing Democ­rats as out of touch and irre­spon­si­ble — which they did, even though their destruc­tive agen­da caused the Great Recession.

Drew believes, as we at NPI do, at pro­gres­sives need to work on mak­ing their ideas sticky, or mem­o­rable. Sticky ideas, as explained by Chip and Dan Heath, have sev­er­al com­mon traits that give them stay­ing pow­er. They are sim­ple, unex­pect­ed, con­crete, cred­i­ble, emo­tion­al, and expressed in the form of sto­ries (as opposed to facts and figures).

Many, if not most, pro­gres­sive ideas are nat­u­ral­ly sticky, because they are based on the log­ic of pro­gres­sive val­ues. But our ideas can’t stick when we don’t com­mu­ni­cate them prop­er­ly. Drew says it’s time for us to rethink the way we con­nect with peo­ple. That includes rethink­ing how we talk about our own ideas. For instance, Drew says that instead of talk­ing about uni­ver­al health­care (which is a more abstract con­cept that invokes neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions for some), pro­gres­sives should talk about favor­ing “a fam­i­ly doc­tor for every family.”

Drew’s pre­sen­ta­tion was fol­lowed by Tate Lin­den’s. Tate focused his remarks on align­ment — not elec­toral align­ment, but align­ment between speech, actions, and thought. “When our moti­va­tions are aligned with our words and deeds, we feel a def­i­nite sense of hap­pi­ness, and a sense of being com­fort­able with our own skin. This Gand­hi­an align­ment [Hap­pi­ness is when what you think, what you say, and what you are in har­mo­ny] is a crit­i­cal first step toward devel­op­ing a pow­er­ful iden­ti­ty with the poten­tial to cre­ate change.”

Up-and-com­ing pro­gres­sive lead­ers may be known only by what they say or do, Tate said. That makes them vul­ner­a­ble to right wing attacks. “Since their moti­va­tions haven’t been devel­oped or shared, it’s easy for the oppo­si­tion to slip in a sub­sti­tute moti­va­tion that serves their own purposes.”

And indeed, we have seen that hap­pen over and over again.

Per­cep­tion of intent mat­ters. We need to make our val­ues, prin­ci­ples, and moti­va­tion for being involved trans­par­ent, so that it’s dif­fi­cult to impos­si­ble for the right wing to ques­tion our inten­tions. If we can bet­ter estab­lish our own cred­i­bil­i­ty, we can add to the cred­i­bil­i­ty of our ideas, strength­en­ing how peo­ple per­ceive our vision for Amer­i­ca and allow­ing us to be much more effec­tive at imple­ment­ing pol­i­cy direc­tions that will make a real dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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2 replies on “LIVE from Minneapolis: Drew Westen, Tate Linden discuss keys to effective messaging”

  1. Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I pro­vide cred­it and sources back to your blog? My web­site cov­ers pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and my vis­i­tors would gen­uine­ly ben­e­fit from some of the infor­ma­tion you’re pro­vid­ing here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Cheers!

    1. The Advo­cate is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons license — and what you want to do def­i­nite­ly respects the terms of the license — so yes, go ahead. Hope you’re enjoy­ing the Net­roots Nation coverage.

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