Messaging Principles – Connect, Lead, and Distinguish

November 22, 2013

We’re taking a break from issues today to offer some insights about how and why we structure our messaging guidance the way we do.


Our messaging is designed to help progressive communicators reach persuadable people, who are open to hearing our side of an issue, but are not firmly committed one way or the other. The purpose is not to change the minds of staunch conservatives or to energize the progressive base, though they will appreciate it when you are persuasive.

The method we use can be summarized in three steps: Connect, Lead, Distinguish. These should sound familiar based on the key we use for our toplines:

KEY: Connect with your audience | Make your case | Show how your opponents differ


Since as progressive communicators we are trying to reach people who don’t already know or agree with us, the first goal is to make it clear that we:

  1. share concerns with the audience, and
  2. share a common-sense understanding of how the world works.

We call this the connect. This emotional connection is critical to persuasion.

If communicators don’t convey a sense of shared interests and values, the persuadable audience will not see them as worth listening to and will mentally tune them out. This challenge is not specific to progressive messengers—it applies in any communications situation where the messenger has yet to establish credibility (strength) and trustworthiness (warmth) with his or her audience.

Why do we signify the connect with a circle? We imagine the persuadable audience as a person living in a circle of people who share a common sense of the way things are in life, or at least on the issue at hand. People who don’t share the same understanding of the world as the audience belong outside the circle. They are out of touch, and not worth listening to, on television or elsewhere. So a progressive messenger’s first job is to get in the circle with the audience.


This is a statement where you make your case, which will often include your core progressive policy prescription. This is a point you want people to know or think about that they have not yet. It can include some clear-headed, jargon-free analysis, and it should be stated in a way that you could explain it to a friend or relative who doesn’t live 24/7 in the world of politics and policy.

Why do we use a square for this? This is the package you are there to deliver. And/or because policy is for squares! Consider it a badge of honor.


Since progressive communicators are competing with conservatives for the attention of the persuadable audience, it’s important to make clear that the other side’s argument is out of touch with the audience’s concerns, interests, and values.

The difference worth underlining is not between the progressive and the conservative positions—everyone knows progressive and conservatives disagree. The goal here is to show that there’s a difference between the persuadable audience and conservatives.

Think back to the circle, and now imagine it as a sumo wrestling ring: the goal is to push the conservative out of the audience’s circle.

Why a triangle? In mathematics, the triangle is the delta sign, which signifies the difference. This is where you point out the difference between your audience and your opposition. This represents our opportunity to characterize the conservative position on our terms, not theirs.


This is a general formula that works well to develop a complete argument, but these are guidelines and some situations won’t require all parts.

If you are interested in a more in-depth exploration of these principles, check out Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, co-authored by Franklin Forum president John Neffinger and Franklin Forum contributor Matthew Kohut.

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