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Writing Tips from the Democratic Primary

For those who follow politics, primary season is stressful, to say the least. But there is at least one bright spot, especially if you’re interested in language: some of America’s best speechwriters and speakers are using the campaign trail to teach a masterclass in effective communication.

Over the past century, the division between a more flowery written English and the more direct spoken English has diminished dramatically. That means that now, more than ever, we write like we speak, and vice versa.

So tuning in to the mechanics of political stump speeches, or my personal favorites, the rally pump-up speech, is actually a great way to pick up tips for how to cut through the noise and communicate effectively in your written materials too. Let’s take a look at some of the best practices I’ve seen recently.

Oh, and before we begin, a little disclaimer: these clips do not represent an endorsement of any candidate, either by me or by the Additive Agency.

  1. Use clear, simple language

It’s a time-honored rule of writing: never use a long word where a short one will do. And with good reason: short words are generally simpler and easier for more people to understand, and they give your communications a sense of energy.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg shows a particular mastery of this first rule in the below clip:

“In the dust of a war zone, I learned to trust my life to people that I had nothing in common with…the people who got in my vehicle did not care whether I was a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent…they just wanted to get home safe. Just like I did.”

 

  1. Aid recall with rhetorical devices

From Julius Caesar (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) to Abraham Lincoln (“Government of the people, by the people and for the people”), rhetorical devices like the tricolon crescens help your communications stick in your audiences’ mind. Groups of three are inherently “sticky”—the human brain remembers them better than lists of 5 or 10 or more.

Variations in sentence length can also have a powerful effect. A long sentence followed up with a short one creates an attention-grabbing rhythm that will keep listeners and readers engaged.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes’ recent warm-up speech at a Bernie Sanders rally in New Hampshire uses both rhetorical techniques to great effect as she finishes her speech:

“We’re not going back to the days where people had to hide; we’re not going back to the days where people had to worry. We’re not going back.”

 

 

  1. Repeat your key message to drive it home

If you want your readers to remember something, say it more. No need to get the thesaurus out — use the same words, over and over again. Eventually, it will stick. This is exactly why advertisers come up with taglines, or write jingles that get stuck in your head. Out of the three tips here, though, this is the one you have to be most careful with. Especially for nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations, relying too much on a tagline or slogan can make you seem too sales-y or one dimensional. When used sparingly and with a clear goal in mind, however, it can be very effective.

Who better to illustrate it than Senator Elizabeth Warren?

“I’ve got a plan for that.”

If you’re looking for ways to sharpen your communications, whether written or spoken, print or digital, start with these tips—if they can work for some of the most high-profile people and organizations in politics right now, they can work for yours, too.

 

Image courtesy of Unsplash user Miguel Henriques

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