Sunday, September 13, 2009

At the heart of effective communication

I'm going to venture out onto the ice. I have a general rule of avoiding political issues on this blog. But the current fracas over the U.S. health care system is such a rich case study in communication and marketing, I just can't hold back any longer.

A friend recently pointed out an article by George Lakoff. In it, the author makes a strongly convincing point about how the Obama administration has missed the boat on the health care debate. They've relied on policy wonks to carry forward the progressive perspective by focusing on the long list of needed reforms, but they've missed on opportunity to convey a unifying idea. They've operated from the assumption that "if you just tell people the policy facts, they will reason to the right conclusion and support the policy wholeheartedly."

Of course, it hasn't worked very well, certainly not like it did in Obama's campaign when it was more about a unifying idea and less about facts.

This brings me to something most marketers know: Effective marketing communication has to reach people at a heart-felt level. All too often, the facts just aren't enough. Communication has to touch at an emotional plane. That's the basis of brand building: Brands are felt more that they are arrived at through facts. Good communication is most frequently a heart thing rather then a head thing.

Lakoff concludes his argument: "Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason."

Bam! This is stuff professional communicators have known for years. And frankly it's why the radical conservative fringe has the upper hand in the health care debate at the moment. They're not focused on facts; instead, they're reaching their base at a highly charged, emotional level.

I'm not suggesting here that their arguments are sound. I find the distortions, name-calling, false claims, and other bullying tactics of the right-wing to be downright childish and harmful to the political process for this and other important issues. But they're effective, because they go right to people's emotions.

Progressives and conservatives alike shouldn't follow the radical right-wing playbook, but they ought to rely on proven brand communication principles in reshaping their respective sides of the debate. Marketers often seek to answer the question, "What's in it for me?" when framing communication designed to reach people at an emotional level. That would be a good starting point for progressives if they want health care reform to be decided somewhere other than AM talk radio.