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Want to be heard loud and clear? Use symbols

SHARE Want to be heard loud and clear? Use symbols

If you really follow politics, the John Deere tractor of the 1992 gubernatorial election might mean something to you. It means something to me, because in 1992 I was running Mike Leavitt's campaign, and I learned a few things from some very smart communicators.

We put together a very simple 30-second television spot that featured Leavitt sitting on a park bench in soft light telling a story about working as a boy on his grandfather's farm, observing a neighbor with a brand new tractor, and learning a lesson about living within one's means and doing what's "real and right."The ambiance was just right. The delivery was perfect.

The "tractor spot," as it came to be affectionately known, was tested before focus groups and was a grand-slam home run. One woman told the group facilitator, "It made me just want to give him a hug."

So the campaign bought every advertising slot on every TV station we could get our hands on and ran the spot until we swore we'd throw up if we had to see it one more time. Then we watched the poll numbers climb and Leavitt never looked back.

The interesting thing is, never in those 30 seconds did the advertisement say Leavitt was an honest, frugal, hardworking, caring person, a regular kind of guy with a typical Utah background who would uphold Utah values and address Utahns' concerns.

But that was the message of the spot, communicated clearly and convincingly through symbols. Communications magic had oc-curred.

If you want to replicate that magic in your business communications and image-building, keep in mind three simple concepts: SIMPLIFY, SYMBOLIZE and PERSONALIZE.

Most communicators use these concepts naturally, at least to a limited degree, as they launch initiatives, make announcements, develop PR or advertising campaigns or give speeches.

But master communicators, deliberately or instinctively, do it better. Using symbols and personalization, they communicate on an emotional level, and their message comes through clearly and effectively. Our brains respond to symbols. Symbols simplify complex issues. Ronald Reagan was a master communicator, in part, because he knew how to simplify, personalize and symbolize. And if you're smart and careful, you can do it, too.

In communications, these concepts can be used for you or against you. That's why smart politicians and business people choose their own symbols and communicate them well rather than let an opponent, a competitor or the news media impose an unwanted symbol.

For example, what do you remember most about the Norm Bangerter administration? Most people would immediately answer, "The pumps." Rightly or wrongly, those pumps have been personalized, and the Great Salt Lake flooding issue greatly simplified. They're "Norm's pumps." They became the symbol of his administration.

If a social services agency decides to close a child-care facility because an inspection turns up safety violations, symbols become very important in communicating the message. The 40-second report on the news might be very different, depending on whether a TV reporter accompanies the inspector and films the safety violations, or interviews a distraught mother who shows up at the closed facility and now has no place to put her child and is angry at the dictatorial state for closing a safe facility. Is the agency hero or villain? Depends on the symbols.

In the news business, we always ask reporters to simplify and personalize their stories, to find symbols that communicate the message. In writing about welfare reform, we don't just cite facts and figures, we interview a real, live, welfare recipient. To communicate all that is wrong in sports, all you have to do is mention Dennis Rodman.

TV news, especially, deals mostly in symbols and simplification because almost no time exists for a dry recitation of facts and figures or a long explanation of a complex issue.

Thus, a smart businessperson or politician thinks carefully about symbols, personalization and simplification before giving a speech, launching an advertising campaign, issuing a press release or dealing with a crisis. What is the headline here? If you can't express your message in a headline, you haven't sharpened it enough.

A communications researcher compared how Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan dealt with big national tragedies: Reagan's handling of the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in the Lebanon bombing; and Carter's handling of the botched attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran by helicopter.

The contrast was remarkable, the researcher found. Reagan, speaking simply but eloquently, standing under an umbrella on a rainy airport tarmac as the bodies came home, symbolically communicated his anguish and empathy. He spoke for all Americans and touched their hearts.

Carter made a brave attempt but just didn't connect. He explained in much more clinical terms what happened. He was roundly criticized and the event sealed his political fate.

So if you have a message you want to communicate, find yourself a John Deere tractor.