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LIVE from Minneapolis: Drew Westen, Tate Linden discuss keys to effective messaging

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.


  1. Celinda Caro
    Posted June 16th, 2011 at 5:32 PM | Permalink

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  2. Andrew
    Posted June 16th, 2011 at 9:07 PM | Permalink

    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.